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Nature's Song

Nomadic vocalist perform in Memphis.

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When Huun-Huur-Tu appear at the Buckman Performing and Fine Arts Center this week, there will be four men on stage. Despite that fact, there will be between eight and 10 voices singing at once.

Huun-Huur-Tu are practitioners of throat singing, a vocalization that allows a single performer to produce multiple, distinct notes simultaneously. Throat singing -- a constant low pitch with a series of articulated harmonics above it -- sounds like a difficult skill, but as Huun-Huur-Tu founding member Sayan Bapa explains, it is a part of everyday life for the native Tuvan: "When you are a nomad, you hear your father and your grandfather sing like this, so you do it too."

The nomadic lifestyle of Tuvan sheep and reindeer herders influenced both the sonic and representational qualities of throat singing. Traditionally, the Tuvan singer performed alone, each soloist specializing in a particular style of throat singing. "It was something you would do to keep yourself company when working or riding a horse," says Bapa. In addition, the Tuvans' surroundings dictated the sound.

Ted Levin, an American who explored the Soviet Autonomous Republic of Tuva located north of Mongolia and made the first modern field recordings of throat singing, explains it this way: "By imitating the sounds of nature, the human music-makers seek to link themselves to the beings and forces that concern them."

The throat singing of the Tuvans is thus a kind of onomatopoeia. The warbling of birds, rushing of winds, and grumbling of animals are all transformed and transfigured as song. According to Levin, the Tuvans not only imitate nature, they also use the songs as a form of oral topography, a way to pass on information to people governed by large-scale movement and perilous geography.

The group playing at the Buckman is unique in that it performs as a quartet. It was formed in 1992 by Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, Alexander Bapa, his brother Sayan Bapa, and Albert Kuvezin. Since then Kuvezin and Alexander Bapa have left the group and have been replaced by Anatoli Kuular and Alexei Saryglar, respectively. The group joined forces as a means of concentrating on the presentation of traditional songs from their homeland. Originally, they were dubbed Kungurtuk but have since changed their name to Huun-Huur-Tu, which in English translates to the enigmatic phenomenon "sun propeller."

The idea of a "sun propeller" is helpful in understanding the depth of the Tuvan connection to nature. It describes a particular moment, when the sky is clear enough and the sun, either ascending or dropping away for the evening, is briefly perched on the horizon. The rays of the sun divide and fan out like the blades of a propeller.

Since their arrival in America in the early 1990s, Huun-Huur-Tu has attracted a legion of fans and collaborated with many notable musicians, including Frank Zappa, Ry Cooder, and the Kronos Quartet.

Tickets to the group's Sunday-night performance in Memphis sold out quickly, so a Monday-night performance was added. "The tickets are going like crazy," says Cindi Younker of the Buckman. "We've just had an incredible response to this group."

In addition to the concerts, Huun-Huur-Tu will visit Rhodes College on Monday afternoon to give a demonstration and lead a master class. Donna Kwan is a professor of ethnomusicology at Rhodes where she teaches a course titled "Global Pop: Asia and Beyond." "I'm a big fan of Huun-Huur-Tu," Kwan says. "They are not only amazing singers, they also have an incredible connection to nature."

Memphians who want to learn how difficult it is to sing more than one note at a time can go to Rhodes' McCoy Theater Monday, January 30th, at 4 p.m. There will be a 45-minute demonstration by Huun-Huur-Tu, followed by a 45-minute master class, both of which are free and open to the public.

Huun-Huur-Tu

7 p.m. Sunday-Monday, January 29th-30th

Buckman Performing and Fine Arts Center

$18-$20

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