McIntire Department of Music

On Wednesday, October 11th, the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar will be host to a truly unique international exchange. A group of 8 musicians and "throat singers" from the remote mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia will perform their remarkable singing style that has literally baffled music scholars across the globe.

The visitors are members of a well known performing group, Altai Kai, consisting of the finest musicians in their region performing the traditional "throat singing" of Central Asia. They also perform on handmade string musical instruments and native flutes.

The troupe has won numerous competitions and is famous in Asia and Eastern Europe. In 2005 they won a UNESCO international competition for world music. Their nation, the Altai Republic, has established a site devoted to their music on the World Wide Web, and a Czech site allows the downloading of their music (Google Altai Kai for a sampling of these sites and a dozen others created by fans of these musicians).

Throat singing has become a favorite world music style in recent years; knowledge of it has been spread by the cult movie "Genghis Blues," the touring of the Silk Road ensembles of Yo-Yo Ma, by troupes of Tibetan Monks, and by singers from Tuva, a region that borders Altai. The style is also found in Mongolia, but many of the finest singers have always been from the Altai Mountains.

Throat singing differs from other singing in that a single singer produces two or three distinct tones at the same time. This is accomplished by creating audible overtones. All tones produce overtones, resonate notes far up the sonic ladder from the fundamental tone. These usually cannot be heard, as the fundamental tone is louder. But the Altai learned to make the overtone as loud as the fundamental tone that produces it by altering the shape of resonate cavities in the mouth, larynx, and pharynx. It is an eerily beautiful effect, one of the greatest virtuosic skills in the music of the world.

The members of Altai Kai are devoted to the preservation of their ancient arts and have organized and conducted festivals. Their primary string instrument, the topshur, has been known for a thousand years. Their singing style and musical poems are handed down in families and clans.

There are some 200,000 people in Altai, living in villages scattered among mountains, lakes, and taiga. Their language is Altianan, an ancient Turkic tongue, and their closest neighbors are the Tuvans and Uigurs of middle Asia. Altai is one of the cradles of ancient civilization, and the Scythians left many monuments there. Other ancient people passed by, among them the Huns and the White Horde that galloped out of Asia to challenge the Romans.

It is a place of stunning beauty, with snowy mountains peaks that reach 13,500 feet, and crystal lakes and glaciers. It is far north, and has challenging weather; summer temperatures may reach 100 degrees, but may dive to 80 below zero in winter. It is bordered by Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China, and Tibet. The Altai are herders of sheep, and yaks, and are much devoted to horsemanship. Once part the Soviet empire, Altai is now a member of the Russian Federation.

Culture there has been influenced by missionary Buddhist monks who came from Tibet (and learned throat singing) and by missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church who came in Czarist times.

In addition to their performance in Charlottesville, Altai Kai are a headlining act at the 68th National Folk Festival, to be held in Richmond on the weekend of October 13-15.

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Last Modified: Monday, 28-Jul-2008 23:27:16 EDT
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