Alash ensemble: Music in the name of the river

Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayanas-ool Sam, and Ayanas Shirizhik have been performing together since 1999 with the Alash ensemble from Tuva (a region on the southern outskirts of Siberia bordering Mongolia). In their performances, which demonstrate the peculiarities of throat singing, they also use traditional ancient instruments igil, murgu, limpi, shoor, etc., thus conveying the unique Tuva sound and mood. Alash members agreed to share their thoughts on the unique musical tradition, the modern listener, and the name of the river – Alash.

Is this your first time performing in Lithuania? What are your impressions?

We have played in Lithuania a couple of times, once with the Tuvan National Orchestra and once at the Menuo Juodaragis festival in 2018. We found the concert attendees and people we interacted with in general to be quite welcoming and friendly.

You have toured and performed in different countries. Did you notice any major differences in different cultures on how they organize concerts, rehearse?

Actually from our point of view, because producing a music concert involves the same tasks regardless of location/culture, once you are on the level of professional productions there’s enough similarity that you can work with fellow crew members and musicians without necessarily having a common tongue. Certainly, cultures differ somewhat in their punctuality and how much they want to feed you, but when it comes down to putting on a good professional concert people are usually on the same page globally.

How is it different to present your traditional music in another culture? Do you think that listeners raised in another culture can fully understand the music that you perform?

That’s a pretty complex question. In general, you could say that it depends first of all on the interest of the person who is listening – if someone isn’t curious about it, they won’t learn about it. But if they’re actively curious about it, we really think that other people can get a good understanding of the music if they’re dedicated to it. We’ve seen people become very familiar with Tuvan music, people understanding its particular sound and learning Tuvan songs, and actively engaging with the culture holistically as a result of interest in the music.

You have a distinctive singing technique xöömei. How did you decide to turn it into your profession?

For everyone in the band, we all began singing when we were young. We had people in our families who sand and we so performances of ensembles like “Ertinelig Tyva” and “Tyva Ensemble” which inspired us to continue the tradition. Ayan-ool and Bady-Dorzhu were students of Kongar-ool Ondar and Ayan was the first student of Andrey Mongush. They formed Alash in 1999. We quickly jelled as a group and began playing concerts and going to festivals. So the decision just sort of happened gradually as we realized that our music is something that is valued by a lot of listeners in the world.

How would you describe your style of playing murgu, limpi, and shoor?

These days Ayan mostly plays the shoor, the murgu was featured on Achai and the limpi on Alash’s first album. Ayan’s style is very sensitive, at times lyrical and full of vibrato and at times percussive, mixing ancient technique with a broadly influenced musical sensibility.

The ensemble was formed in 1999 at Kyzyl Arts College. How would you say the ensemble had grown and changed since that?

It started out of mutual interest in folk music and had 12 members in the first semester. That narrowed down to  6 core members by our last year of school. After graduation in 2004, some went their own ways and we continued as a quartet until 2011, and since then Alash have been a trio – almost 9 years. The arrangements have become much more original, complex, and subtle, the vocal sensitivity and prowess of each member has deepened, and we’ve gained a lot of experience in working with other musicians and genres.

How do you balance traditional Tuvan music with classical music elements? What is the common ground between these two traditions of music-making and performing?

The common ground is that the idea is always to make good music. Since we got a western classical education at the Kyzyl arts college we were easily able to balance western harmonies and the like with a Tuvan-anchored sensibility, gently layering within the tradition in an organic manner.

You have collaborated with musicians from different music traditions (jazz, bluegrass, fusion, beatbox, classical chamber music). How do you make collaborations with different style performers? What are the compromises?

Every once in a while you work with people who have a hard time getting out of ‘their own thing’ and can’t find musical common ground but that’s fairly rare. Usually, being musicians, people start with their musical ideas or sketches that quickly turn to a jam session.

You also conduct workshops at schools and colleges. What kind of message are you trying to spread while educating your people?

We want people to understand that the music of Tuva is a unique treasure that is intrinsically entwined with the cultural identity of the Tuvan people, we hope people enjoy it, learn about it, perform it, and continue to have interest in Tuvan culture. We want people to understand that Tuvan music is a really fascinating reflection of an entire complex of sound perception that is somewhat different than the traditional western classical sound perception. And that it’s really fun and moving music at all that!

The ensemble is named after the Alash River. How do you think it influences the identity of the ensemble?

The river symbolizes the passage of the tradition from the source, the ancestors, through the current generation, the musicians of Alash, and on into the future. We seems to have lots of songs about rivers in the ensemble as well as passing and interactions of generations, perhaps as a result of the name.

How would you describe the unique musical identity of the Alash ensemble?

Alash is an ensemble that has developed a high degree of musical polish in their arrangements, compositions, and in their mastery of Tuvan instruments and multiphonic vocal techniques. They are really firmly rooted in the fertile traditions that gave birth to and bore Tuvan musical traditions through many generations, but also subtle gardeners of the living art, pruning here and there, grafting in places to organically create new flowerings of music as an organic extension of the tradition.

You have performed in many world-known halls. Was there a concert that meant the most for you?

Playing for HH the 14th Dalai Lama was very humbling and beautiful. He tugged Ayan-ool’s beard. Carnegie Hall in New York was meaningful as it is a well-known benchmark of success for a band. But the concerts that perhaps mean the most are our concerts at home, for instance, we just celebrated our 20th anniversary as a band this December back home in Kyzyl, with guests Shodekeh and Wendel Patrick coming from America to visit us.

You have made five different recordings. Do you see the development of the ensemble while comparing the earliest records with the latest?

Just wait till you hear the new album! They’re all reflections of where the band is at musically at the time, and while there isn’t any necessarily coherent process of picking a theme for the album, the songs we introduce into the repertoire do seem to arrange them in a way.

Your singing imitates singing of birds, blowing of the wind, flowing of the water, and other natural occurrences. What foes sounds of nature mean and symbolize in your culture?

The music comes from an imitative reflection of nature, but sometimes this isn’t a direct reflection but rather an emulation, as the sounds of babbling water in “borbangnadyr.”

Thank you for the conversation!

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