Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 15, 2013

Tuvan throat singers' TC debut

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — The last time Alash toured in the U.S., customs officials at Boston's Logan Airport confiscated and burned their duyuglar and xapchyk, two traditional Tuvan percussion instruments made from animal parts.

Then the February 2013 blizzard hit the Northeast, and their first three concerts were canceled.

Nevertheless, the musicians made it to Carnegie Hall, where they received two standing ovations.

Now they’re back in the U.S. for a two-month tour that includes a stop at the Dennos Museum Center on Saturday. Their concert will include standard and throat singing (xöömei), an ancient tradition that involves singing two, three or even four pitches simultaneously to produce multiple layers and textures.

Many of the songs sung to traditional instruments have catchy tunes, said Sean Quirk, manager, producer and interpreter for the trio, based in the Russian republic of Tuva, just north of Mongolia.

“It’s very approachable,” Quirk said. “It’s not this completely exotic thing.”

Passed down from nomadic herdsmen of Central Asia, throat singing traditionally was done outdoors to mimic and interact with the sounds of nature, like whistling birds, growling camels, bubbling streams and blowing wind. Now Tuvan children hear it as they grow up, along with pop, rock, rap and other forms of international music spread by Internet, he said.

"It’s actually pretty common. People are pretty aware of it, treasure it,” said Quirk, who served as curator of the Tuvan delegation to the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

But learning the complex technique takes time.

“There’s no formal way of teaching it. They just go watch someone who knows how to do it,” said Quirk, a Milwaukee native who got a Fulbright fellowship to learn throat singing in Tuva and eventually married and settled there. “I learned the language and found a year was just enough to scratch the surface.”

Shortly after moving to Tuva in 2003, Quirk met members of Alash, a group of fellow 20-somethings who became his teachers and friends. He got the band on a cultural exchange tour of the U.S. in 2006, the first of several U.S. tours that have involved collaborations with everyone from banjoist Bela Fleck and bass guitarist Victor Wooten to bassist Garth Stevenson and beatboxer Shodekeh.

“We always find different ways things come together,” Quirk said.

Tickets for the 8 p.m. Dennos concert part of NMC Outreach Services’ International Week and Go Global Expo are $25 in advance or $28 at the door. They’re available at the Dennos box office at 995-1553 and online at

Two-for-one tickets are available by using the code ALASH to get special Go Global pricing.