Tunes of war as throat-singers go for the jugular

Andrew Higgins in Kyzyl found little harmony among some of Tuva's more arcane musicians

Never mind the guest appearances on television, the compact discs, the rave review in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the jam session in Hollywood with Frank Zappa (before he died), or the coast-to-coast US concert tour that Huun-Huur-Tuu has just completed

You can tell throat-singing has hit the big time: they now quarrel like other stars. A backstage tantrum over T-shirts held up a concert for nearly an hour and, after starting a 25-city tour with four members, the group, back in Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva, to prepare for their next trip abroad, is down to three.

"The bad side of all this," said Sayan Bapa, leather-jacketed guitarist, doshpulur player and mean improviser with the bull's testicles rattle , "is that after each tour, the band splits up."

No longer the preserve of herdsmen, chanting shamans and reclusive Buddhist monks, throat-singing - the fiendishly difficult practice of producing two and sometimes three distinct notes (a drone and eerie, melodic whistles) simultaneously - has become big business.

And the squabbling of Huun-Huur-Tuu is nothing next to the broader battle for control of what is now just another arcane commodity up for grabs.Here in Tuva, across the Sayan Mountains from southern Siberia and on down the Yenisei River towards Mongolia, the carve-up of assets has taken an eccentric turn: the throat-singers are at each others throats.

On one side loom bloated Soviet-era ensembles, masterful with the music but clumsy at playing the market; on the other, upstarts such as Huun-Huur-Tuu with managers in Moscow and recording contracts abroad.

Disdainful of both are purists such as Valentina Suzuki, local academic and author of a PhD thesis on throat singing, known in Tuva as khoomei and among Western musicologists as overtone, biophonic, triophonic or harmonic singing. Mrs Suzuki believes the craft, which turns the respiratory system into a human bagpipe, is best kept confined to solitary herders in the hills and family sing-songs in the yurt, the collapsible felt- covered homes of Tuva's nomadic population: "It was never meant to be performance art."

Throat-singing is no longer mere folk music. It is a potentially lucrative industry.While most folk music struggles to survive the onslaught of Western pop, throat-singing has not only held its own but won over some rock stars. As well as the late Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel is also said to be a fan. It is particularly big in California, home to the cult of Professor Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist, eccentric and obsessive enthusiast for all things Tuvan. It has a following in Britain too: "The interest," claims Jill Purce, a Hampstead teacher of throat- singing, meditation and ancillary arts, "is enormous".

So is the rivalry for control of what is perhaps Tuva's greatest treasure. Oorzhak Sherig-ool, President of the Tuvan autonomous republic, a region of Russia with the same status as Chechnya, calls it the "eighth wonder of the world''. The instinct of Tuvan officials is to try and keep a firm grip on the throat-singers. "They should be licensed," said President Oorzhak, who like countless other former apparatchiks, is now a born-again defender of pre-Bolshevik tradition. "They should be tested so that only high-quality groups, real professionals not weak performers, travel abroad."

Alexander Cheparukhin, Moscow-based manager and tour organiser for Huun- Huur-Tuu, suspects less lofty motives: "This is crazy. They just want to keep control of everything like before." Mrs Suzuki, the academic, is also sceptical: "This is about money, not tradition."

Along with ballet and other forms of culture judged worthy by the Communist Party, throat-singing enjoyed lavish state support during the Soviet era. What had been a mostly private affair became a mass activity. In 1934, the state recording company, Melodiya, issued the first set of throat- singing records; ethno graphers and musicologists collected lyrics and melodies and set up archives systematising a previously oral tradition.

The state groomed promising stars, held talent-spotting competitions, funded a throat-singing Philharmonic in Kyzyl and organised concerts at home abroad. In return, performers sprinkled paens to nature with praise for the party.

The competition of upstart commercial groups has come as huge shock. They are the ones getting the trips abroad. They have also poached promising stars. Huun-Huur-Tuu's lead singer, Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, hailed as a "super-star", used to perform for the Tuvan Philharmonic. Also shattered is the old recording business. Mel- odiya, no longer interested in what from Moscow's perspective is an obscure ethnic art, has dropped throat-music from its catalogue. Western companies have signed up the new bands. Huun-Huur-Tuu has two compact discs out in the US.

The throat-singers' celebrity may be limited to university towns, fringe cafes and an odd-ball California organisation called Friends of Tuva, but it has stirred deep unease in Kyzyl.

The President of Tuva, seems completely baffled by the mix of market forces and music. "America does not send low quality goods out to us. They don't supply the world with poor quality merchandise. The same holds for bad actors and singers. They do not let them out of the country. Why should we?" He has clearly not been watching much MTV.

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
Paul McCartney backs the
people
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone