Otherworldly Central Asian Ensemble Alash Bring Their Throat-Singing Alchemy to Midtown

by delarue

In the perennially popular demimonde of Tuvan throat-singing ensembles, Alash are akin to what Huun-Huur-Tu were doing in the early days before they were discovered by the ambient and techno crowds. At this point, Alash’s music is both more rustic and upbeat than their grey-sky brethren’s recent work. The trio of multi-instrumentalist/singers Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-Ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik also distinguish themselves with a puckish sense of humor that really comes across in their live show. Their latest album Achai is streaming at Spotify; the World Music Institute is bringing them to Merkin Concert Hall on Oct 1 at 7:30 PM for $25.

For newcomers to the genre, or those who haven’t tried throat-singing themselves (it’s not that difficult), music from the central Asian steppes is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Flute melodies sail over clanky, trebly acoustic doshpuluur and chanzy lutes, and frequently, clicking percussion instruments made from animal bones while the singers create strange, high harmonics oscillating from the back of their throats. Some of the melodies utilize the Asian pentatonic scale, but more often than not they don’t. Alash like methodically crescendoing one-chord jams, but also tend to keep their songs on the short side. This album makes a good introduction.

The first track, For My Son, sets a super-low bass vocal melody beneath what’s essentially a brisk boogie blues guitar tune – it’s amazing how low these guys can sing. The flute-and-guitar tune Let’s Fatten the Livestock starts out with a whisper and builds to a mighty, bullish anthem, then rises and falls with a spring breeze of a flute solo.

Stark, bluegrass-ish igil two-string fiddle wafts over delicate guitar fingerpicking on the next track, Don’t Let Me Freeze, which never slides into the terror it alludes to. The briskly strolling Karachal is a launching pad for some pretty spectacular low-register vocals: unlike other groups, Alash sing actual lyrics, not just vocalese, from the stygian depths of their registers!

Mezheegei has a grimly cinematic, windswept feel punctuated by delicate guitar and flute over resonant fiddle. Only You is a spare, brooding accordion waltz. The long, slow, moody ballad Kosh-Oi and Torgalyg is the catchiest, most anthemic number here.

The Black Bird has a hypnotically galloping bounce, while My Throat the Cuckoo  is a droll, catchy exercise in birdsong riffs. The album’s title track is its darkest and most atmospheric, while the final cut, Let’s Relax, is its gentlest yet most epic. There’s also a perambulating flute-and-percussion solo and a pensive, overtone-spiced atmospheric fiddle-and-vocal piece. Count this as one of the most strangely beguiling albums of recent months.

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