Various Artists

Musiques Traditionelles D'Asie Centrale: Chants Harmoniques Touvas

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Virtually any collection of Tuvan throat singing is fascinating purely because the sound of those split-larynx harmonics is so otherworldly. Singers who emit jaw-dropper sounds like an organic synthesizer, human didjeridoo, or Howlin' Wolf communing with "Telstar" in the same throat at the same time are remarkable and impressive, to say the least. The only problem is many Tuvan compilations go overboard on the reverential ethnomusicology -- they're full of snippets so short that you're on track 13 when it sounds like the music has only changed four times. But Chants Harmoniques Touvas carves out a valuable niche because much of it sounds like the music Tuvans play for Tuvans when they're out for a good time. It's licensed from the Dutch label Pan -- serious ethnomusicologists but they've also put out a series on pretty whacked-out brass bands from around the world and have some knack for getting performances that don't suffer from too much formal presentation feel. Compiling this CD from three different Pan discs and a Moscow radio broadcast definitely helps on the variety front, too. If the singing weren't enough, you'll swear the opener drops melodic hints of "Amazing Grace" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and brief blasts from a horn (?) that sounds like John Cale's viola on the Velvet Underground's "Black Angel Death Song." On track two, the same trio works a clippity-clop horse rhythm, the singers changing off on top and going into throat synthesizer routines only when the music calls for it. Their harmonics on track four get wrapped up in a quite gripping duel with banjo and scratchy fiddle -- these standard instruments are technically lutes, but banjo and scratchy fiddle are what they sound like. For track 12, they break out bouzouki-like string trills and mournful lead vocals, and it sure sounds like the blues with a Velvets feel.

Track 15 by the Tuvan Ensemble starts off with that Cale viola horn tone again, and their performance on Track 11 is well arranged with harmony vocals and very similar overtone melodies with the instruments. Track 17 clippity-clop rocks out with some heads-down no-nonsense Siberian banjo boogie and then suddenly changes over into a jaunty ensemble (Celtic? Bagpipe? Asian?) with harmonized overtones backing the lead vocal in spots. One big virtue of Chants Harmoniques Touvas is that the music here oftentimes gets physical and rocks the body. Track six is galloping Siberian country blues with voice that gets a modified call and response working and number seven is seriously nagging with sorta sideways banjo and an unusual voice. Track nine boasts all sorts of interesting stops, harmonics tricks, and banjo licks that make you understand how bluesman Paul Pena could relate to this music. Even though the four- to five-minute pieces are the highlights here, the strong snippets quotient is filled with track three, featuring a deep and rough solo voice that is downright primal/primeval. And damn if the singer on number five doesn't get a third vocal part -- a pedal-point drone -- when he launches into his overtones. The long vocal phrases and nagging string sound on track 13 are effective, and track 18 starts with a vocalized Jew's-harp sound that could pass for the synth opening "Won't Get Fooled Again." Simply put, Chants Harmoniques Touvas is among the best and almost certainly the most enjoyable ways to sample one of the most amazing musical sounds on the planet.