Echo of the Past

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Ayarkhaan is a long-established female vocal group from Sakha, a republic within the Russian Federation that the Russians call Yakutia. This Yakutsk disc is Ayarkhaan's first internationally available release. From the outset, it should be said that this is one of the strangest, most exotic specimens of music Western ears could expect to behold; Ayarkhaan is a group of specialists in the art of the playing the khomus, a metal instrument that fits in the mouth and functions like a Jew's harp; it is regarded as the national instrument of the Sakha. However, the khomus is different in several respects; while a conventional Jew's harp is quiet, limited in range, and in the amount of control even a good player can muster over the pitch, the khomus is loud, strikingly expansive in range, and Ayarkhaan can get sounds out of it ranging over about three octaves. The group is also able to harmonize it in a sense that's chorally conceived yet almost electronic sounding in effect. There are passages of this disc that sound as though they could have come out of the electronic music studio, such as animal imitations and other carefully contrived textures, but none of it is electronic and all comes from these three women: Albina Degtyareva, Yuliana Krivoshapkina, and Olga Podluzhnaya. Despite the Russian-sounding names, all three are Asiatic in appearance and this speaks for the great diversity of people among the Sakha; their ancestors are Turkic and emigrated to Siberia centuries ago. Ayarkhaan has likewise mastered the glottal ensemble singing style one might associate with Russian or Bulgarian female choruses. The 14 tracks included couldn't be sequenced more carefully for effect, as it moves from the khomus to natural sounds to choral selections with effortless ease and completes the impression of being transported to the icy wastes of the region in which they live.

Most Westerners are unlikely to vacation to Sakha/Yakutia, given its generally cold climate and the difficulty of arriving there under any means of transportation. Yet this disc is probably the best substitute one could want for taking such a trip, and may even motivate one to go. The level of musicianship of Ayarkhaan is extremely high, and the recording is phenomenally responsive and three-dimensional; it may be a specialist kind of taste, but anyone who already likes the Bulgarian Women's Choir or Tuvan throat singing will go absolutely nuts over this wonderful release.

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