Ted Levin, an American ethnomusicologist who has been working in partnership with the musicians, talks about his introduction to Tuvan overtone singing in the early 80's:
"I first found out about the Tuvans when the physicist Richard Feynman sent us a tape from an old record he had, from Russia, (with a note) that said, 'Thought you guys might be interested in this.' When I heard it, I was blown away. I decided then and there I had to meet the people who were making those sounds."
Richard Feynman, once a participant in the Los Alamos project, was fighting cancer, and his lifetime dream was to visit the mysterious land of Tannu Tuva, the origin of the exotic stamp collection he had acquired as a youth, and to get acquainted with its musical tradition of throat singing.
His heroic attempt to overcome the seemingly unending obstacles in obtaining a visa to Tuva is chronicled by his friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton in the book 'Tuva or Bust!'. Feynman passed away early 1988, just a few weeks before the Soviet authorities agreed to issue the visa. Leighton and friends undertook the journey in honor of Richard. In the meantime, in 1987, Ted Levin became the first American to do ethnographic fieldwork in what was then the Soviet Autonomous Republic of Tuva, a sparsely settled region of grasslands, boreal forests, and mountain ridges that lies some 2,500 miles east of Moscow, and is situated at the geographical centre of Asia, north of Mongolia. Sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the USSR Union of Composers, Levin's American-Russian-Tuvan expedition surveyed the traditional expressive culture of Tuva's sheep and reindeer herders, focusing on the musical technique of "xöömei" or throat-singing, in which a single vocalist simultaneously produces two distinct pitches: a fundamental note and, high above it, a series of articulated harmonics that are sequenced into melodies and manipulated with extreme virtuosity in several canonical styles. These field recordings became a CD released in 1990 by Smithsonian Folkways called Tuva: Voices from the Center of Asia.
Traditionally, Tuvan overtone singing had been performed by soloists, each specializing in a particular style of xöömei. In 1992 Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, Alexander Bapa, his brother Sayan Bapa, and Albert Kuvezin founded the quartet Kungurtuk, as a means of concentrating on the presentation of traditional songs of their homeland. While they devoted themselves to the preservation of these songs, their concerts have always demonstrated the significance of combining tradition and innovation. The musicians later decided to rename the ensemble "Huun-Huur-Tu".
Leighton and Levin played a central role in bringing Tuvan musicians to the US, and a visit of members of Huun-Huur-Tu and the Tuva Ensemble (Khovalyg, Kuular, Kongar-ool Ondar) in 1993 sparked a collaboration with musicians such as Frank Zappa, Ry Cooder, the Chieftains, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, the Kronos Quartet and L. Shankar.
In the course of the years two of the founding members took on different directions. Albert Kuvezin became more involved as a vocalist on the frontiers between folk, avant-garde and rock, and founded the group Yat-Kha. Anatoli Kuular took his place, and has added to the sound of the quartet with his unique 'borbangnadyr' singing style, and his instrumental expertise on the mouth harp (xomuz) and the byzaanchi. The ensemble percussionist Alexander Bapa left the group after his decision to focus on producing, and now he resides in Moscow, where he manages the Tuvan group Chirgilchin. Bapa was replaced by the young Alexei Saryglar, a talented percussionist, sygyt singer and string instrumentalist.
Huun-Huur-Tu has an extensive tour record in the States, Europe and Japan, and makes its debut in Australia in 1999. While intent on preserving the Tuvan musical heritage, they also recognize the need for vitality and "room to move" in the performance of traditional music. This has inspired a musical collaboration with Angelite, the Bulgarian Women's Choir, under the direction of Mikhail Alperin; also with Sergei Starostin who worked with the ensemble on "If I'd Been Born an Eagle" to emphasize the relationship between older Russian and Tuvan music; and finally the Scottish- Canadian collaboration with Niall MacAulay and guest artists on their latest album "Where Young Grass Grows".
(Program Notes Excerpts by Ted Levin)"Huun-Huur-Tu, having completed its fourth tour in North America, and a veteran of concert and festival performances in nearly every country of Europe, has emerged as the foremost international representative of Tuva's remarkable musical culture. Representing such a culture, however, is surely a delicate task. For how can one convey to outsiders the subtle sensibility of a music so intimately tied to a sense of place — a place whose landscapes and soundscapes are unknown to most listeners in the West? Must one experience the place to understand the music? Or do the sweeping melodic contours and poignant timbres of Tuvan music touch something in all of us — a vestigial collective memory of one of humankind's most ancient livelihoods: pastoralism?
It is indeed the Tuvan pastoralists' keen perception of natural landscapes and soundscapes that has most conspicuously shaped their music. The Tuvans, a South Siberian Turkic people who number some 150,000, preserve what are arguably some of the world's oldest forms of music-making. What binds these forms together is their use of mimesis, or imitation for aesthetic purposes. By imitating or aesthetically representing the sounds of nature, human music-makers seek to link themselves to the beings and forces that most concern them: in the case of the Tuvans, domestic animals, the physical environment of mountains and grasslands, and the elemental energies of wind, water, and light. The best known genre of Tuvan music, xöömei (throat-singing), comprises what one might call a lexicon of musical onomatopoeia in which natural sounds are mimetically transformed into musical representations. Tuvans not only transform the sounds of the natural world into music through imitation; they also make sonic "maps" of physical landscapes which may be expressed in texted songs, throat-singing, whistling, or other types of vocal production. For the Tuvans, one of the purposes of music seems to be to offer detailed and concrete descriptions of topography. In short, Tuvan music is not abstract, like most Western music, but radically representational, the product of a cult of imitation that ties it to an animistic understanding of the world.....
While the Tuvans' legacy of animism is at the core of their musical tradition, the tradition itself has broadened. How could it be otherwise, for in order to be "authentic," traditional music must maintain its relevance to the life of a community. Tuva has changed. Decades of Soviet rule brought influences from Russia and from the West as well as a cultural politics that strove to transform indigenous music and musical life into European-style practices. Now the Soviet Union is gone, but the transformations which it wrought still cast a long shadow over Tuva.... Tuvan music, like many indigenous musical traditions around the world, has become de-territorialized.
Huun-Huur-Tu's community of listeners is a worldwide community, and its tradition is a reimagined one. The tradition's authenticity stems from the group's effort to bring their own life experience into their music, and to build a rapport with their audiences, as any tradition must to remain alive. In serving their community, the members of Huun-Huur-Tu have of necessity reverted to their forebears' way of life: nomadism — but nomadism that takes place largely beyond the borders of Tuva. We can only wish the group well in their travels, and hope that the collage of landscapes and soundscapes they encounter can continue to nourish their music and help it remain vital and relevant — to their lives and ours."
— Theodore Levin © 1999