My flute teacher, a veteran jazz player and educator, sent me this video today. I was floored. I know a thing or two about Tuvan singing, having followed it for over twenty years with music from Sainkho, Huun-Huur Tu, Yat-Kha, and others. I even have an album of cover songs of bands like Led Zeppelin, Motorhead, Santana, Captain Beefheart, Joy Division and other rock classics rendered by Albert Kuvezin, lead singer of Yat-Kha. I know about Paul Peña, a blind San Francisco blues singer of Cape Verdean ancestry, who heard Tuvan singing on the radio, was smitten, learned the craft and went all the way to Tuva to perform in a contest and won! The film Genghis Blues chronicles all this. It is a must-see.
Tuva is in Russia, situated between Siberia on the north and Mongolia on the south. It is a land of endless grasslands, teepee-like yurts and koumiss (fermented mare’s milk is the libation of choice). A fast horse is the Tuvan equivalent of a fast car, recalling blues legend Robert Johnson’s remark that “A man with a fine car has no need to justify his self”. A fast horse is the Tuvan version. It’s about status, speed and liberation.
The first time non-Tuvans learned about this very special form of singing, it was in Moscow in the mid-1950s, in an all-Soviet contest where musicians from the various Soviet republics: Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Baltic states, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, et al performed. A Tuvan singer performed and at first the judges thought there was some sort of device hidden in the artist’s clothes. When they found out there wasn’t, they brought in an ENT doctor to x-ray just what was going on.
I know nothing about this young man, Alexander Glenfield, except that he has mastered a difficult and obscure musical artform with grace and aplomb. His voice is commanding and authoritative. He was a jazz trumpet player before severely injuring his jaw at a day gig in a lumber yard. He gave up trumpet and then turned to composition. Glenfield heard field recordings of Tuvan and Mongolian overtone singing in 2000, then started practicing the art. His trumpet playing helped him master the difficult art. He followed up with study of Indian music, then completed doctoral studies at York University in Toronto. What followed was several visits to Tuva, where he further refined his art.
I love the fact that Glenfield introduces the different styles of Tuvan throat singing styles—I didn’t know about all the different styles, not at all. He is extraordinary to say the least. Who would have thought that this fresh-faced kid from Phelps, New York, could produce such amazing music? Currently Glenfield’s day gig is doing music therapy at an agency for the disabled in Western New York. At the moment, there is not an album available, which hopefully will change soon. His is a singular and unusual talent deserving of wider recognition.
Check out a video of Alexander demonstrating styles of Tuvan singing.
Plus, please see this video of him with The Buffalo Chamber Players. If you try to do this, please make sure you have plenty of Hall’s Lozenges on hand!
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