Concert Review: Alash @ Caffe Lena, 1/29/2023

SARATOGA SPRINGS – Alash is a trio of musicians that are known for their throat singing. They hail from Tuva, a small republic that is part of the Russian Federation. It is located in Central Asia, bordered on the south by Mongolia, and surrounded by other parts of the Russian Federation. In its history, it has been claimed by Mongolia, Russia, and China, so their indigenous culture has been influenced by all of these larger countries but is distinctly their own. Throat singing is a distinctly Tuvan art form, a remarkable technique whereby a singer vocalizes multiple pitches at the same time.

Alash (photo by Rudy Lu)

The ensemble has played together for 24 years, conducted worldwide tours, and has visited the Caffe numerous times. They have absorbed influences of other music in their travels, but are proud advocates of their own culture. Alash have collaborated with various beatbox and hip-hop artists, as well as the Sun Ra Orchestra and Bela Fleck.

Among the traditional instruments they played in their performances were:

  • 2-stringed horsehead fiddle igil
  • 3-stringed doshpuluur (rectangular and played by plucking)
  • kengirge (a resonant bass drum)
  • xomus (jaw harp)
  • shoor (Open-ended flute made of lurch or willow. Played by placing the instrument against the teeth, blowing on the top, and using the tongue as an embouchure with holes in the body to vary the pitch.)
  • duyuglar (horse hooves used to simulate the sound of running horses)
  • A traveler’s electric guitar decorated with a red tassel was played on much of the music
  • An accordion was played for part of the second set.
Alash (photo by Rudy Lu)

The music of this ensemble is hard to fully comprehend unless one sees it in person. The band took to the stage in traditional costume and began to sing a capella in growling voices. Then the odd electronic-like harmonics started emanating from the stage; the overtones that are characteristic of throat singing. Some of the instruments had intonations that were not expected by looking at them.

The igil has only two strings, but the tone and textures were rich and deep.

The doshpuluur had three strings and sounded like a banjo.

The kengirge was played by hand and brushes. This had a deep resonant tone that could be felt in your body, despite the low volume at which the instrument was played.

The xomus, a jaw harp. So many tones and textures were emanating from this simple instrument that it was hard to comprehend. In the middle of this, throat singing was introduced, and the sound of both together was hard to describe.

The playing of the shoor was truly hard to comprehend; using the tongue as an embouchure against the side of the mouth without a mouthpiece was unique.

Alash (photo by Rudy Lu)

The music played related closely to their land of origin, yet many had universal meaning. Tuva is a rural country, and many of the people are nomadic and shepherds. There were songs about gratitude for motherhood, homesickness, and the beauty of the country. The accordion brought visualizations of gypsies performing together at a campfire. The traveler’s guitar lines resembled those found in African electric guitar playing.  The doshpuluur truly sounded like a banjo played Appalachian style. The encore was a singalong about riding a horse.

Alash has been together for 24 years, spreading the appreciation of the culture and music of their small ethnic group to the world. They have appeared at Caffe Lena numerous times. It was one of the stops on their initial US tour back in the early 2000s. This was my first opportunity to catch them. Don’t miss them, spreading the uniqueness of their culture yet the universality of the human experience through music.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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