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Ondar Daryma (left) and Khunashtaar-ool Oorzhak (right). Moscow, 1971

Khunashtaar-ool Oorzhak
Alazhymny - My Alash
The Tuva Recordings of Vyacheslav M. Shchurov 1967-1977

PAN Records (
Review by Andrew Cronshaw

Listen Sygyt - Khunashtaar-ool

Khunashtaar-ool Oorzhak was the first Tuvan throat-singer I ever heard, sometime around 1980 I think. It was an astonishing sound, and I couldn’t have started with a better practitioner.

It was a track recorded for Moscow radio back when Tuvan khöömei, known as throat-singing but really made with the vocal cords and mouth, was only just beginning to be heard outside the southern Siberian republic of Tuva. He was doing a sygyt, one of the particularly striking and iconic split-voice forms of khöömei that have a whistling melody made with harmonics over a deep growling drone. The track was the solo category winner on an LP on the Opus label of prize winners in the 1974 edition of what was then the Prix de Musique Folklorique de Radio Bratislava. The LP was an assortment of wonderful music created from traditional roots, mostly from Slovakia and Czechia but in those Soviet days also with tracks from radio studios in Berlin, Krakow and Moscow, and for me it was a fortuitous second-hand buy that remains one of my most influential and treasured albums.

Vyacheslav Shchurov (left) and Khunashtaar-ool Oorzhak (right) - Moscow, 1971

Well, now here’s pretty much a whole album of recordings of Khunashtaar-ool, made by Vyacheslav M. Shchurov. It’s a great display of the sounds and forms of one of the world’s most remarkable vocal traditions, recorded before the present array of bands, from Tuva, Mongolia and elsewhere, using it. The 16-page booklet gives plenty of information, by three writers including Shchurov, about the singers, styles and material.

There are three sets; the first is of twenty field recordings made of several throat-singers on the high mountain pastures of Aldan-Maadyr in the Chöön-Khemchik region, in 1967 (which was also the year Khunashtaar-ool, aged 34, had first performed in public, for his fellow-villagers). They include eleven tracks in which Khunashtaar-ool, as requested by Shchurov, runs through a range of khöömei styles, named as sygyt, ezengileer, kargyraa, borbangnadyr and khöömei. (The word khöömei is a generic term used for all Tuvan throat-singing but also refers to a popular style). And the very first one is that same sygyt as on my beloved LP, though a different recording.

Listen "Sygyt with balalaika (excerpt)
Listen "Borbangnadyr (excerpt)

Not all have the high whistling harmonics; kargyraa and the rhythmically-pulsed borbangnadyr focus more on the low guttural tones, kargyraa in particular having parallels in the bass voice of Sardinian tenores singing. In two of the sygyt in the first set, Khunashtaar-ool accompanies himself on Russian balalaika in the style of the Tuvan instrument doshpuluur; the latter would traditionally have been used but local Soviet authorities discouraged the use of Tuvan instruments in favor of mainstream instruments such as balalaika.

Listen "Kargyraa - Kish-Chalaa Chipchineevich Ondar (excerpt)

The rest of that first set, made on the same 1967 trip, are of other fine throat-singers in the region. Kish-Chalaa Chipchineevich Ondar, who was Khunashtaar-ool’s mentor, delivers the first performances of the chylandyk style ever recorded, and there’s Shaktar-ool Saryglar (audio-bombed by his dog), Amzhgyr Mongush, a brief burst of kargyraa from Khunashtaar-ool’s six-year-old son Bayyr-ool, and a solo on the tugged-thread bamboo type of khomus (Jew’s harp) by Kilcheng Khuna.

Listen Khöömei - Khunashtaar-ool (excerpt)

The second set, recorded in Moscow by Shchurov for Moscow Radio in 1977, consists of eight tracks of Khunashtaar-ool, two of them solos on metal khomus, and is a fine showing of his performances ten years after the first recordings, having gained a good deal of experience in performing outside Tuva.

Listen Khöömei - Khunashtaar-ool and female singers (excerpt)

The third set is of three recordings, made in 1980 for Tuva radio, from a private archive. They comprise a solo by Khunashtaar-ool, self-accompanying on what sounds like balalaika, followed by two tracks with a version of the ensemble Sygyrga that he formed for performances outside Tuva, which featured a second throat-singer, an igil player and three young female singers from the Sayany Ensemble who join in, in rather jolly manner, with the outline of the song melody but not the throat-singing aspect, though khöömei, once a male preserve, is now done by women too. (Khunashtaar-ool was very much supportive of that development and indeed talked about starting a women’s ensemble, though he died five years before the appearance of the first such, Tyva Kyzy - Daughters of Tuva).

Khunashtaar-ool, whose name means ‘young man-deer’, died in 1993, after being laid low with a cold caught while out hunting in bad weather.

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