Toward Russia With Love - Tuva

By Alexander Clark Campbell

The following is a brief excerpt from a longer post about Russian music at

Tuva, Tuva, Tuva' if Tuva is the Brady Bunch 'Marsha, Marsha, Marsha' of Central Asia, musically speaking, Altai is the Continental Jan: an oft-overlooked 'middle child,' sandwiched between two musical 'star' Regions on either side and therefore living in the cultural shadow of its most-recently-discovered-by-American-ears neighbor though really just as wonderful.

More specifically, throat-singing is native to Altai, just as it is to Tuva. But the throat-singing here is called 'Kai' and is recognizably different: if you listen to both Tuvan and Altaian throat-singing styles, they are distinct you can tell the difference between them pretty readily. Some of Kai throat-singing is similar to the whistling and deep sounds you hear in Tuvan music, but with Kai you get sounds that try to encompass more of the natives' natural world that seem even more expansive in their mimicry than what is indigenous to Tuva. For example, Kai treats you to sounds of bird whistles; laughter; people talking, cranes walking, recreated on a mouth harp; and raven or crow noises (caw! caw!). While Tuvan throat-singing comes in a variety of sub-styles, each of which can be found listed as its own category, with Altai throat-singing, there seem also to be various sub-styles but I cannot find any listing or account of it.

Altai makes a claim to being the home of the khomus also known as the mouth or Jew's harp an instrument that can in fact be found all over Asia, parts of Europe, and, of course, in Appalachia. Whereas a lot of other places regard the mouth harp as a pretty humble cultural fixture, the Altai Republic seems to have really taken the instrument to heart and to take a special pride in this simple instrument's being their own special invention. Whether the mouth harp did actually originate in the region is not all that clear, but the people of the Altai do make a good case for it.

As for the other instruments besides the mouth harp you might come across in the Region, the other main one is the two-stringed topshur: similar to a guitar or banjo, the topshur looks a lot like a lute and it makes an awful lot of music, given its limitation of only having two strings! The Altai have something called an 'ikili,' their version of a long-necked fiddle played on your lap. A shoor, which you also see in Tuvan culture, is a type of end flute (no holes along its length only one at the end) that is played pointed downward. The shatra is a type of rattle; a shagur, a woodwind instrument with holes on the side. Rhere is also a clay wind instrument called an 'ungrek' but I don't know that I can find examples of that.

There are examples detailed below of the wind instrument made of birch bark that is called an Adishi-marok (which may, or may not, help them out with their bird whistles), not to be confused with an Amirgi-marok, which is a wind instrument used to beguile deer.

The artists from the Altai are not really touring out here among the rest of us, with the exception of Altai Kai and a very few others, but that could change. In fact most of the musicians - male and female - in the region are not even known, in the sense of having been recorded/Youtubed, but I can list some of them for you: Alexi G. Kalkin; N. Ulagashev; P. Kutshiyak; Deley, while more modern vocalists include Aleksey Kalkin; S. Aetenov; Shunu Yalatov Tovar Tchetsiyakov; Tanishpai Shinshin plus female singers Raisa Modorova and Natalja Yenchinova

The group one group is familiar and tours in the West is Altai Kai. As their name might tend to suggest, they favor the use of traditional instruments, and their music comes across as almost 'tribal.' with a strong, rhythmic beat, and an synthesizer-like tone in the bass range a sophisticated effect they have evidently perfected from getting musically out and about, touring the world, and which leaves them sounding most pleasingly gothic and haunted. Galloping horses, rivers rushing sound through their music. They have a song not at all dissimilar from Queens' "We Will Rock You," but traditional, mind you.

They came very nearby and played somewhere in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, being joined in in improvisation by Appalachian musicians. Some of Altai Kai's throat-singers started in singing in the Appi Mountain rhythm the melded traditions both being deeply rich and at least semi-ancient mountain ones.

Before Altai Kai, the best-known representative of Altai music was Nogan Shumarov (who also went by the name Nohon) — a noted throat-singer, playwright, and kamus-player. The other main musical idol from the Region is the avant-garde Bolot Bayrishev, who goes into a trance when he sings his (rock) music.

This music is as rugged and as rough as the mountains that produced it. Both the Appalachians and the Andes are world-known for their musics; and that of the Altai ought to be classed with them.