Voices From The Distant Steppe


Released 07 February 1994

  1. Sygyt, Khoomei, Kargyraa (Styles Of Throat-singing)
  2. Aian Dudal (Songs Of Devotion And Praise)
  3. Beezhinden (Coming Back From Beijing)
  4. Buura
  5. Durgen Chugaa (Tongue Twisters)
  6. Throat-singing And Igil (Untitled)
  7. Yraazhy Kys (The Singing Girl)
  8. Shyngyr-Shyngyr
  9. Baian-Dudai
  10. Khomus Solo (Jaw's Harp Solo)
  11. Meen Khemchim (My Khemchik River)
  12. Opei Yry (A Lullaby)
  13. Tyva-Uriankhai
  14. Chashpy-Khem (The River Chashpy)
  15. Kadarchynyng Yry (The Nomad Song)
  16. Kham (Shaman Ritual)


Liner notes

The Tuvan people are a little- known and distinct ethnic group said to be descendants of Gengis Khan. Tuva lies just north of the Mongolian border, in what was recently the southernmost state of the USSR. Geographically, it is situated precisely at the centre of Asia. In 1910 Douglas Carruthers, an eccentric English traveller, marked the spot with a stone. Today, a carved monument stands on the banks of the great Yenisey River, inscribed with the words “Centre of Asia”, written in Tuvan, Russian and English.

Tuva is surrounded by a ring of impregnable mountains that have kept it isolated for centuries. Even today, no railway has penetrated the mountains to link the country with the rest of world. The landscape of Tuva has remained virtually virgin; it is like an unspoilt microcosm of many of the world’s natural environments. Desert, steppe, taiga and tundra are all enclosed by the staggering mountain peaks. Reindeer herders live in ‘tee-pee’s’ in the north, making their living by fishing and hunting for sables, foxes, and other pelts; in the south, Tuvans, who used to head for China in caravan trains many years ago to trade in tobacco and silk, today raise camels; in the western mountains people keep sturdy yaks for milk, meat and fur; while sheep, the predominant livestock in Tuva, are found in all these landscapes.

Like neighbouring Mongolia, Tuva was an independent state up until 1944 when it joined the USSR and became a Republic. In 1990, Tuva acquired its sovereignty once again, independence being solemnly declared during one of the sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Tuva. The population numbers some 300,000 people, with 80,000 living in the capital, Kyzyl, on the Yenisey River. Thanks to their geographical isolation they have managed to resist the attempts of the Soviet authorities to erode their unique cultural identity.

Tuva is traditionally a nomadic culture of horse-riding shepards, moving across the immense spaces of the steppe and living in round felt houses known as “yurts” or “gers”. Surrounded by the great natural beauty of the land, the nomadic Tuvans have never wanted to dominate their environment. Their culture is deeply in touch with the dramatic, sometimes harsh, landscape. These nomads would set up camp at dusk, as the sun was setting across the steppe and turning the rough grasses gold to blood red. As the silhouettes of the craggy mountains loomed closer with the approaching night, they would watch the sky and the stars through the open chimney-vent of their yurt.

Tuvan people see themselves as an integral part of nature, as its offspring, speaking and understanding its language. Three days after a child is born the placenta is buried under the earth floor of the yurt, beneath the parents’ bed, connecting the child’s life and soul forever with the Earth. When a group leaves a camp-site, it is vital that the area is left clean and tidy.

Oh, my blessed and beloved star.
You are always giving light to my aal,
All good things
And all bad things are noticed by your sharp-sighted eyes.
You save us, residents of the Earth planet from every evil force.

excerpt from an algysh (shaman poem) to the Chedy-Khaan (Great Bear) constellation

Nature has always provided Tuvans with their livelihood. A good breeder of livestock needs to keep a close eye on his animals, their growth and reproduction; a good hunter needs to know the habits and habitat of the animals he tracks. Through intimate contact with their environment Tuvans have attuned themselves to nature’s way, he rules and secrets, and have accumulated a vast and profound knowledge of their environment, and of themselves. Their skills in observing animals enable them to forecast the weather and the wild crops. The low tones of the woodpecker are the first sign of spring, the whirring of locusts signals that the fruits of the taiga and grains of the fields are ripe; a particular cry of the crow means that frost is coming.

This close union with nature is also reflected in shamanism, one of the ancient belief systems of Tuva. The Shamen, both men and women, call the spirits of nature with a drum and speak to all living things. The energies accumulated by the shamen through a state of trance, and fusion with the world of natural spirits, are than redirected into healing forces for the benfit of the community.

Throat-singing predominates in the open steppe in the south of Tuva towards Mongolia. It is used during the day while people work, and as meditation after the day’s efforts. Although the phenomenon can be explained it is still not fully understood. While prolonged use of the technique is said to be harmful to the physical health of the practitioner, it has been used to ease the pains of childbirth and healing, and in the treatment of radiation sickness. Throat-singing in Tuva is the prerogative of men who are said to be “born with the gift” and they start to practise in early infancy. Although women are physically able to produce the same sounds, they are discouraged from practising it by a taboo that says that throat-singing can cause infertility, although this belief is less strong today. Also frowned upon for women is the ugly bulging of the face and neck which occurs when the muscles are strained.

It is said that throat-singing is as old as nature itself, beginning when man made the first melodies imitating the murmur of streams or the echoes in the mountains. Tuvans often compare it to the language a child speaks to its mother. The natural rhythms of nomadic life are all infused in the texture of the songs: the ring of the horse’s bridle, the languages of animals and birds, and the resonance of the empty steppe. While this vocal style has been identified as early as the eighth century, no conclusion have been reached as to its historic emergence.

Hear me, hear me, my horse!
Hear me, hear me, my bear!
Come my bride!
O my raven, who flies with the black clouds,
Who flies under the nine heavens
Raven with the blood-eye,
Carrion eater!
You fly by day and night
You know the earth’s scent
You, my black one
You, my grey eagle!
O taige, wide taige always in bloom,
You my mother!..
Honor and greetings to you!
Help me!
You, my horse,
My black- mouthed, brown- mouthed horse,
Stand ready!

excerpt from a shaman’s ceremony

Throat-singing is practised by very few cultures- Mongolia and Tibet providing the only other strong examples- and Tuvans are arguably the finest exponents. Parallels in western culture might be found in the work of the English Lake Poets, landscape painting and pastoral symphonies, as well as numerous examples in the folk-music tradition. This biphonic voice technique is achieved by the simultaneous production of a drone and a melody, composed of overtones formed by changing the shape of the mouth cavity. The nose, throat, chest and abdomen are used as resonators to producing different octaves and textures. The result is an incredible and piercing, almost unreal, noise: a different sound dimension.

Five styles of throat-singing are widely recognised: Kargyraa which sounds like wheezing or croaking with its extremely low fundamental pitch; ezengileer (from the Tuvan word for stirrup) and borbannadyr (used metaphorically to mean “rolling”) which both feature a pulsating, asymmetrical rhythm; sygyt with a very high fundamental drone and clear, piercing harmonics, which sound like a whistle; and khoomei, sung in the same register as sygyt but with less laryngeal tension and more nasal resonance.

Throat- singing was not encouraged by the Soviet authorities, but it has survived as a markedly living tradition. Originally singers would specialize in a single style or two related styles but today it is common to perform several styles, arranged in short segments, in one piece, Young people now combine throat-singing with rock, pop and disco and professional composers use it in their compositions.

Shu-de! Is the word a rider shouts to their horse, like “gee-up!” It also means “good” or “excellent” in appreciation of a musical performance. The extraordinary music of Shu-de has emerged from these traditions. In performance throat-singers of the group are in a state of trance and a shaman spirit drum is used in some of their songs. Shu-de use throat-singing for both lead and backing vocals and combine the technique with the khomus (jaw harp) which is tuned to the voice of the singer. All songs are in the Tuvan language. On some tracks the vocals are accompanied by the doshpuluur- a two-stringed lute with a naviform soundbox- and the igil- a two- stringed fiddle with a trapezoidal soundbox. The soundboxes of both instruments are covered with goat or sheepskin. Also heard accompanying these songs are the limbi- a Tuvan flute- and the dambyra- a round rattle used by shamen.


Further Listening

  • Sezoni


    Released 16 May 1999

    Sydney based choir Martenitsa perform Stefan Kozuharov’s groundbreaking 1993 work ‘Sezoni’. Modelled on the magnificent Bulgarian state choirs, Martenitsa has become one of the most highly regarded and innovative choirs in Australia, touring with the legendary Trio Bulgarka and Balkana.
  • Table Songs of Georgia

    Tsinandali Choir

    Released 25 January 1993

    An album of spine-tingling a cappella harmony from one of Europe’s most ancient singing traditions. While table songs are still in their original context, they have also become part of a widely known and widely sung performance repertory common to scores of amateur and professional choirs in Georgia. The Tsinandali Ensemble is one such choir.

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