Chirgilchin creates music from the depths of the soul

Todd MacLean
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It is unbelievable the things we can do with our human bodies to make music.

Our regular singing voices, really, are just the tip of the iceberg. Humming, whistling, clapping, tapping, oral beat-boxing, snapping, scatting, stomping . . . I'm sure I'm missing some here. Respond to this article online, and let me know what I forgot to mention. (But, please, I actually just had a bowl of beans for lunch. So you don't have to bother mentioning that kind of music.)
Last weekend, though, I witnessed a kind of human-body-made music I've never taken in before - throat singing.
Now, at first, if one knows little about this art, one might be inclined to think, "Throat singing? Does that just mean singing from your throat in a high-pitched voice like Axyl Rose?"
No, in fact, it means something very different from that wailing Guns n' Roses man. We are talking here about singing so much from the pit of your throat, digging in to such a degree, and being so precise with any movement there that you actually produce two different tones from your mouth.
Now, you must realize that I really did not know at all what throat singing was about until I heard it. I didn't think it was going to be Axyl Rose or anything, but I was just anticipating an impressive and entertaining display of soulful chants, evoking the spirit and culture of a faraway land.
However, all of a sudden, just after the show begins as I'm sitting there enjoying a solo a cappella performance by one of the performers, I hear two different melodies coming out of the man's mouth: a lower drone, sounding quite similar to what you'd hear from a bagpipe, and then a cascading high piccolo-esque melody over top of it.
Yes. Your reaction of "what the?" is quite appropriate.
It is unbelievable! The higher notes are simply harmonic tones produced by a certain kind of positioning of the mouth and throat as the air flows through them and resonates.
I think I almost gasped in some harmonic tones myself when I realized this and I was continually astounded by this technique through the entire performance.
The show I'm discussing is Chirgilchin, a four-piece group of folk performers from Tuva, a small Russian province north of Western Mongolia, who sang and played at Confederation Centre's Studio 1 Theatre last Friday evening.
Chirgilchin is made up of grand prix winners in the most renowned international throat singing competitions.
But the four of them each play various traditional Mongolian instruments as well, are adorned in traditional robes and overall put on a show that transports one into the ancient feel of a culture on the other side of the world.
And for the 50 or so privileged folks who got to be a part of the crowd to see them last weekend, they put on an absolutely mesmerizing musical display.
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen," said the one member of the group who spoke English to the crowd (whom I referred to as "the tall man on the left"), after they'd just finished their first piece.
He was translating the Tuva words of another gentleman who spoke.
"Our first song was a song about our people, called For My People. This next song is a song about cowboys."
After some laughs from the crowd, in that unexpected description, they proceeded into the song, which prominently featured the main traditional stringed instruments in use: a four-string wooden bowed instrument, which was about the height of a cello, and a two-stringed plucked instrument, similar to a banjo, but wooden, which traditionally uses horsehair for strings. However, it is fitted with nylon ones during touring, as these are "good for travelling," as the tall man on the left said.
Three of the performers were men, and it was interesting to observe how their throat singing voices varied. Each specialized in a different kind of throat singing, distinct in its own style and timbre. From low vibrational sounds, to motorboat-esque tones, to even phasing and flanging spaceship-esque effects, it was all an auditory smorgasbord.
The lone woman in the group used her high-pitched skills to their full extent, expressing a range of passionate tones beneath her colourful pointed hat - at one point even baaing like a lamb in a song about sheep.
Animals are an intricately interlaced part of their culture - sheep, cows, reindeer, horses - they are all very important to their way of life. And as each stringed instrument was even capped with a beautiful carving of a horse-head, it was plain to see in their presentation as well.
As you can tell, this show was overall one that I absolutely adored. To be treated with this window into the fascinating Tuvan culture, amid such impressive throat singing, was a true delight, and I hope Chirgilchin makes its return here someday so many more can be mesmerized as we were.
Next week: Don Ross and Brooke Miller sing at a benefit at the Carrefour Theatre tomorrow night.
At a glance
Fast facts
u What: Chirgilchin.
u Who: They are four throat singers from Tuva.
u When: Friday, March 12.
u Where: Confederation Centre of the Arts, Studio 1.
u Why: Music can be made in the most interesting ways.
Todd MacLean is a local freelance writer and musician. If you have a comment or suggestion for a review, you can get in touch with him at or at 626-1242. But he won't be offended if you don't.

Organizations: Confederation Centre, Carrefour Theatre

Geographic location: Western Mongolia

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