Huun-Huur-Tu at The Grand Social, Dublin, Sunday 11 March 2018
It’s a wet and dreary night in Dublin city, but the loft of The Grand Social is packed for the final night of Improvised Music Company’s Spectrum Festival. Set to perform are Huun-Huur-Tu – a four-piece group from Tuva, a republic of Russia located on the Mongolian border, which is famed for its traditional style of throat singing.
The band emerges, with native dress and instruments, and an expectant hush falls over the sold-out crowd as they warm up. They explain that the opening song, Prayer, is about going to the mountains, singing to nature, and calling upon ancestors. It begins deep and low, dark and intense, then pounding drums come in, sending vibrations through the room. It’s a powerful but intimate performance, and provides the audience with the first hints of the unique vocal craft they’ve come to hear.
The throat singing, or khoomei, is an ear-twisting technique, where multiple notes are produced simultaneously by a single musician. As the performances continue the result is almost incomprehensible at times, with drones and overtones resembling foghorns and whistles. However, in the quieter moments of the show, when performers take a solo turn, your ears finally get a chance to decipher these vocal gymnastics, and explore the spectrum of sounds and emotions.
The group performs songs about war, love and travel, but nature is the recurring theme throughout the evening. The music itself is meant to be representational, evoking the sound of natural world while many of the instruments have horses carved into them. The room is filled with bird calls and trotting percussion sounds, but also more subtle allusions, with marching drums, galloping rhythms, and wild lyrical melodies. In essence, these are not just songs, but an aural journey that drags the listener straight into the Siberian valleys.
Although it is over 6,000 km away, the music of Tuva bears some striking similarities to traditional Irish music, with its springing rhythms, lilting melodies, use of drones, and fiddle and flute-like instruments. At times, these four men sound as though they wouldn’t be out of place in the back of a pub in Galway.
But, despite the intimate setting for this particular performance, Huun-Huur-Tu are global folk superstars. have toured extensively for over two decades, introducing their combination of tradition and innovation to the world, and have collaborated with likes of The Chieftains and Frank Zappa.
Although the atmosphere changes throughout the two-hour set, from lively and chaotic to haunting and introspective, it ends on a high with the upbeat Aa-shuu Dekei-oo, followed by the encore, Eki Attar. The final song is about summer celebrations, and the group drives swiftly through its spirited rhythms and catchy refrain, before ending the tune, and indeed the evening, with a shout of joy.