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Tuvan throat singers, beatboxer to mash up Eastern, Western traditions

Contributed • Oct 17, 2019 at 9:16 AM

Baltimore vocal percussionist Dominic “Shodekeh” Talifero was introduced to the unique style of throat singing soon after college and he thought, “There’s this whole other world I didn’t know anything about,” so he started learning, from a distance.

In 2011, that other world came to him when Alash Ensemble, masters of Tuvan throat singing, performed at a Baltimore art gallery. The rest is not only history, but it’s historic. Shodekeh jammed with Alash in Baltimore and visited Tuva twice, resulting in a film, “SHU-DE!” – “Let’s Go” – on their cultural, cross-continental collaborations. Since then, Shodekeh has learned from the masters and there have been almost-annual jam sessions during Alash U.S. tours, as well as a collaborative album, “Achai,” to honor Kongar-ool Ondar, the musical father of an entire generation of Tuvan musicians.

Alash and Shodekeh will comingle cultures again Thursday, Oct. 17, this time in East Tennessee, at 7:30 p.m. in St. John’s Episcopal Church, 500 N. Roan St., Johnson City. The event is sponsored by the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at East Tennessee State University.

Tuva, a Siberian republic of the Russian Federation bordering Mongolia, is home to practitioners of a near-mystic craft known as throat singing, or xöömei.

“This music, created by Central-Asian herdsmen, sounds almost unearthly, thanks to the overtones generated by the singers,” says Christopher Reed in a Hammer to Nail review. “Even to those for whom this art form is initially unfamiliar, the haunting beauty of its droning melodies holds forth the promise of ancient truths revealed.”

Ayan-ool Sam, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar and Ayan Shirizhik comprise the award-winning Alash Ensemble. All are graduates of the Kyzyl Arts College and students of Kongar-ool Ondar. Shodekeh calls Alash the “gatekeepers of traditional Tuvan throat singing” and himself their apprentice.

“With Tuvan music, not only does the presence or absence of overtones color the sound but (Alash musicians) are so good at manipulating which ones you can hear and which ones they are going to mute,” says Sean Quirk, ensemble manager and interpreter and musician, in a podcast. “All of a sudden, all of those notes that are already there separate from each other like light through a prism and you can hear three or four separate notes.

“That's one of the fascinating things about this music. You listen to it and at first you think, ‘Oh, that’s wacky,’ but then your ear gets into it and there’s this really great depth of music there, the way the musicians work with timbre and create melodies.”

Interweaving the Eastern and Western forms of music – throat singing and beatboxing – was surprisingly natural, says Shodekeh, a musical accompanist and composer in residence for Towson (Maryland) University’s Department of Dance, and dance accompanist at Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute.

“There are these similar styles and techniques from completely different sides of the planet, but yet there are these strong vocal methods that have enough in common with one another that they could possibly fuse with one another,” Shodekeh says. “People like the combination and it works really well for audiences. Actually I am in a really interesting space now, where I am trying to refine my relationship with Alash even more.”

New Music USA calls Shodekeh a chameleon that can blend his vocal rhythm and bass tracks into “a borderless range of performance situations.” He blends his vocal percussion with some throat singing – that, he says, is a mix of a styles from hip-hop artist DOA, a Japanese throat singer and Alash-Ondar techniques.

The Eastern-Western fusion has been “a strong and successful juxtaposition,” and Shodekeh says his next step in the collaboration process with Alash is to sing in Tuvan and keep exploring new vocal techniques that enhance the musical mix.

But something bigger than the music is occurring, Shodekeh and Quirk are quick to note. “All of us involved have been working on this cultural bridge between Kyzyl, Tuva and Baltimore, Maryland, bridging at large, nations and music cultures,” Quirk says in the podcast. “But it’s an easy match. Both things also share the use of the body used in a way that is natural but very extraordinary.”

The Martin School screened “SHU-DE!” as part of the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers series, and “found it to be absolutely fascinating,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Martin School of the Arts at ETSU. “To see music and the arts used as a way of exchanging ideas, exchanging cultures and exchanging humanity is such an important lesson for us.”

For more information on Alash Ensemble, visit www.alashensemble.com. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors 60+ and $5 for students.