By Ellie O’Byrne
Spring may be busily springing in Ireland, but in the remote Russian state of Tuva, which borders Mongolia, temperatures are still struggling to top minus 20 in the daytime as the largely nomadic population awaits the sun’s return.
So perhaps it’s fitting that Huun Huur Tu, the band whose name translates as something similar to “Sunbeam” are, like the sun, still dormant, but preparing for action.
“Minus 20 isn’t so bad,” Sayan Bapa, multi-instrumentalist, singer and founding member of the band that has been bringing Tuvan music to world stages for the past 25 years, asserts over the phone. “It’s getting warmer at the moment.”
Bapa, and his band-mates Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, Alexey Saryglar and Radik Tyulyush are preparing to leave home, on a European tour with five nights in Ireland.
A distinctive element of Huun Huur Tu’s unique sound, and no doubt the feature that led to invitations to collaborate with everyone from Frank Zappa to Ry Cooder to The Chieftains, is their astonishing polytonal throat-singing.
In Tuvan throat-singing, a guttural undertone, or drone, is produced at the same time as a range of overtones, some shrill and high-pitched, some deeper. Many singers can several notes at once. It’s an astonishing feat of vocal acrobatics, with a mesmerising and unearthly effect.
There are countless sub-divisions of styles; the two that Huun Huur Tu are best known for are probably the impressively baritone boom of the Kargyraa style, a bassier form of singing where the overtone is close in pitch to the drone; and the Sygyt, where a shrill higher melody can be picked out by the singer even as they continue their drone.
The secret, Bapa explains, is early beginnings. “It’s normal for Tuvans; it’s like a lullaby for the babies,” he says.
“Then, children at three or four years old start to make these sounds. It’s not really a special learning, you just make sounds: you try to make the noise of a goat or a dog. You learn by peers. You hear, and you learn to do it: one time, million time, billion time, whatever.”
All four members of Huun Huur Tu sing. They mostly use native Tuvan instruments, like the two-string igil, played with a bow; and the khomus, a type of mouth harp.
The result is music infused a sense of place: horses galloping and wind whistling through grasses are presented so strongly that they’re almost visual in songs like Chyraa-Khoor, which translates as Yellow Pacer, an ode to a favourite horse.
Bapa also introduced guitar and banjo into the band’s sound over time. “The mix of our instruments with electronic sounds is very good,” Bapa says.
“I try to know how to deepen all music. I want to keep and preserve our music, and remind people how the old music sounds. But I am a musician; for me, not only the sounds are interesting, but also the instruments.”
They reserve a special place in their heart for Ireland. “We were playing in one Irish village and I said, ‘That’s the end of our concert, good luck and thank you,’ and they started to push me: ‘We don’t have such thing as time in Ireland, come on, play more!’ It’s funny because we have this is Tuva as well. It’s like two ways, one with a schedule of time and one without, where music, friends and family are important, and there is no time.”
Huun Huur Tu play Irish venues from March 11, including Cork’s Triskel Arts Centre on the 15th and 16th