Since forming their group in 1992, the members of Huun Huur Tu have been the primary musical ambassadors of Tuva, a small Russian republic in Central Asia known for a uniquely beautiful singing style. Khoomei, also known as throat-singing or overtone singing, allows vocalists to produce two, three, and sometimes four notes simultaneously. The effect can be haunting and unearthly, somewhere between Howlin' Wolf's guttural blues growl and the eerie sound of a theremin. A single throat-singer can be awe-inspiring, and as a quartet, Huun Huur Tu's power is jaw-droppingly intense, especially live. Collectively, Huun Huur Tu's four singers are masters of the several different styles of khoomei, including the ghostly, whistling sygyt and the earthquake rumble of kargyraa. Huun Huur Tu's latest, Altai Sayan Tandy-Uula, adds Western touches like keyboards and clarinet, but mostly continues the group's penchant for traditional Tuvan sounds. Earlier discs worth exploring include 60 Horses In My Herd, The Orphan's Lament, and a pair of concert CDs, Live 1 and Live 2. (For a different approach to blending Tuvan and Western music, check out ex-HHT singer Albert Kuvezin's Yat-Kha, or the collaboration between San Francisco bluesman Paul Pena and Kongar-ol Ondar in the Oscar-nominated documentary Genghis Blues.) Huun Huur Tu's current North American tour runs through February. The A.V. Club talked with founding member Sayan Bapa.
The A.V. Club: How long has throat-singing been a part of Tuva's culture?
Sayan Bapa: I don't know, I have not seriously checked this. I think it was thousands and thousands of years ago. It is an ancient form.
AVC: Is there a religious significance to it?
SB: It's not a religious kind of music culture. There is some shamanic [significance], especially for healing or for shamanic ritual.
AVC: Do singers train from childhood?
SB: Mostly people will start at a very young age, at six or five years old.
AVC: Before you formed Huun Huur Tu, you trained as a bass player in a jazz-rock band in western Russia. How you did you go from that to Huun Huur Tu?
SB: I became a musician at a very young age. I started playing different kinds of music. And also, I met another founder of our band, Khaigal-ool Khovalyg, 20 or 25 years ago. We played together not rock, but our traditional songs. We traveled around Russia, and I went to [Kislovodsk] to learn to play other kinds of music, classical or jazz or rock. When I went back home, I started the band with my brother and my friend Khaigal-ool, to try to play our ancient instrumental music.
AVC: Was there any particular reason you wanted to focus on the ancient styles?
SB: Not seriously. It was just my interest in our music, and wish to do it best.
AVC: Huun Huur Tu means "sun propeller" in Tuvinian. What is a sun propeller?
SB: It is a beautiful effect of the sunrise in the morning. It just happens that it is also very similar with our throat-singing style, music that is like a spectrum or a reflection. We take [the name] from the sun. It's just a beautiful name, and very important.
AVC: What drew you to specialize in the kargyraa style?
SB: I just enjoy this kind of music. It's [not unusual] for Tuvinian singers to know each of the styles of khoomei. If you like kargyraa, you just like kargyraa. You just do the sound, it's where you're comfortable. It's not such a big deal for Tuvinian musicians. Each of us specialize in sygyt or khoomei or a different type of kargyraa, just like if you like guitar you just play guitar. If you like it, you play it.
AVC: Most of Huun Huur Tu's songs are based in traditional forms, though you've done occasional collaborations, including a DJ remix album that came out in 2003, and Fly, Fly My Sadness with the Bulgarian choir Angelite. How do you feel about the approach of Albert Kuvezin's group Yat-Kha, whose music is much more of a synthesis between American hard rock and khoomei?
SB: If you have taste, you have taste. If you don't have taste, you don't have taste, right? For me, some of the collaborations have been interesting. Especially in Bulgaria, we were trying to find where we all have [common ground] in the music. We don't just try to mix for the sake of a mix. We are trying to find where all the rules have a synergic feel. What do I think about Yat-Kha? I don't so much listen to this music. I don't much like this way. That's all.
AVC: Could you explain the close relationship of khoomei music with the landscape of Tuva?
SB: In our lyrics, in our poetry, our songs are like maps. If you know Tuva, if you listen to a song, [it tells you] how the steppe varies, how the place looks. People who have never seen Tuva, they understand also from the words and melodies, from this essence of the landscape, of our part of Tuva. It's very geographical. And also this music is formed from our traditional instruments–very soft, very simple, and the sound is close to nature, if you listen carefully. For me, [music] is a real transportation to my country, to my place. For Tuvinian people, it is very important.
AVC: What can people expect to see when they go to your concerts on this tour?
SB: I don't know. [Laughs.] Our concerts, it's not so much about the look. We are just four, with our instruments, and we sit in our chairs. And mostly we are thinking about the beauty and the perfect sound.