Huun Huur Tu and DakhaBrakha

Last Friday, I went to a concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall featuring the Tuvan throat singing ensemble Huun Huur Tu and the Ukrainian “ethno chaos” quartet DakhaBrakha. I went with several current and former UCLA linguistics professors, most of whom sing in Datvebis Gundi, and we started out the evening at the pre-concert Ukrainian block party on Royce Terrace. The Firebird Balalaika Ensemble was playing, occasionally accompanying Ukrainian dancers, and there were free potato piroshki. The Firebird Ensemble included balalaika, alto balalaika, domra (a sort of mandolin), kontrabass balalaika (giant! with endpin!), and bayan (a type of accordion with buttons on both sides and no keyboard). They played, among other things, Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás. While listening to the balalaikas, I spotted in the audience my former roommate, an economics Ph.D. student, and a local contra dance caller and her husband, who plays in a local contra dance band.

After the block party, we moved into the Royce concert hall, which I’d never seen before. It has a beautiful coffered ceiling. This is the hall where I will graduate in 2018. Despite having bought my ticket separately, I ended up directly in front of the other linguists, in the second row. Huun Huur Tu was on first.

The first time I heard Tuvan throat singing, I was a freshman in college. One of my professors, K. David Harrison, had done fieldwork on Tuvan and arranged for the ensemble Alash to perform on campus. I remember going primarily because I wanted to hear a person sing two notes at once. In this I was disappointed because it turns out the second note in overtone singing has a very different quality and almost doesn’t even sound like it’s coming from the person singing. Still, I enjoyed the songs and the traditional instruments and the unusual singing timbres, and when I heard Huun Huur Tu would be performing at UCLA, I was eager to see them.

Like Alash, Huun Huur Tu has four members, all men. They played a variety of drums, percussion instruments, strummed and bowed stringed instruments, and a long end-blown flute. I’d love to have a horse-headed, two-stringed igil! They are not a purely traditional ensemble but incorporate modern and global influences into their music (though I don’t know enough to be able to tease these out). Different singers demonstrated different styles of throat singing. I don’t know if I’m misremembering, but the overtones Huun Huur Tu produced struck me as much more audible than Alash’s. Maybe I was just better prepared to appreciate throat singing this time around. It was really impressive. And I actually recognized one of the songs they performed, Kongurei, I think because Alash played it and I later listened to recordings of it on Youtube. It has a beautiful melody. Another song Huun Huur Tu performed, which they told us was about the forest, featured a lot of bird calls and whistles and the like. When Sayan Bapa rubbed the ends of his guitar strings near the bridge to make a squeaking sound, it reminded me of learning to make animal sounds (woodpecker, cow, rooster, mouse) on my cello at Suzuki Camp when I was a kid. In another song about a horse, Chiraa-Khoor, there were a lot of horse sound effects (clopping, neighs, whuffles).

At intermission, we talked a bit about the mechanics of overtone singing (because linguists love talking about harmonics, formants, and the vocal tract). I think a couple of department members have already tried teaching themselves to do it. Then we settled in for the second half of the concert.

DakhaBrakha consists of three women and one man. The women wear white wedding dresses, tall hats of black fur (they kind of look like Buckingham Palace guard hats, but I guess they’re a little different), and abundant bead necklaces. They had even more instruments than Huun Huur Tu: drums, rattles, thunder tube (I think?), accordions, piano, cello, and something they called a zgaleyka, which I think is the same thing as a zhaleika, which is a small reed instrument with a bell made of horn. The cellist is self-taught. She definitely didn’t play her instrument like a classically trained cellist would, but she was adept at her own technique. The top face of her cello is painted or something; it’s covered with woven rug-like patterns in reds and oranges.

When they took the stage, the man announced, “We are DakhaBrakha from free Ukraine.” Their music involved a lot of intense percussion and the three women singing close harmonies. It alternated between gentle and energetic and wild. Some of the singing reminded me of Balkan singing. A couple of their songs were in English, though for the first one it took me a long time to figure that out. They played two encores, and at the end of their performance, I’m pretty sure I heard the man say, “Stop Putin.” Then he unfurled a Ukrainian flag.

It was a good evening. I’d see both groups again.

In other news, today is the one year anniversary of the publication of Sparkers!

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