Saturday, August 19, 2006

Still Recovering from Yat-Kha

These days, often the easiest way to figure out a person is to grab a quick look at their playlists on their iPod. Usually, if you’re in London, this will include some fairly vanilla music, including Blur, Coldplay & Oasis. If you’re lucky enough to find someone a bit more unusual, this might also include Morcheeba (though they’re becoming mainstream far too quickly). Rock & punk remain so mainstream it’s boring, so let’s not even talk about Led Zeppelin, Van Halen & Scorpions.

But sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find that one totally out there person with the rarest music – this could include gospel singers from Haiti, Chinese pop (only cool if you’re not Chinese), Afro Celt Sound System, or even Yat-Kha.

Yat-Kha is fronted by Tuvan deep-throat singer Albert Kuvezin. Recently sent a CD of theirs to review for Desicritics, I had a chance to read up more about Tuva, deep-throat singing, and Siberian shamanic rituals in general, before the CD arrived. That way, I’d be better able to contextualise the music in the history and cultural moorings of this tiny country between Russia & Mongolia.

Guess my surprise, then, on loading the CD, titled Re-covers, to discover that “When the Levee Breaks”, a Led Zep classic, was the opening track. But what a difference this version is from the way you last heard Led Zep singing it. Re-covers is a tribute to some of the greatest songs mainstream American/European music has produced, but it is equally unapologetic in its uniqueness. Re-covers is not world music, it is not a set of simply re-covered tracks, its not groupies paying tribute to classics – try as hard as you will, you will struggle to classify this album as any of these, or as anything else. Perhaps "world punk underground"?

The striking quality of the album has to be Kuvezin’s throaty, resonant singing. Deep-throat singing, as practiced in the Mongolian highlands, is incredibly powerful. The reverberations within the singer’s throat can become hypnotic when heard for long enough, and its not unsurprising that the style is part of shamanic incantation in the region. You can detect a similarity to Tibetan Buddhist chanting in the depth of the notes the singers use and the way the notes will reverberate within the singer’s skull. Unlike Tibetan chanting, though, Tuvan shamanic singing simultaneously provides additional harmony through nasal breathing.

This makes Re-covers a unique, but challenging, album to listen to. The song arrangements are fantastic. Instrumentally, Yat-Kha have a clear, plangent quality to their instrumentation. The background sounds are clear, pure and cleanly drawn through aural space. The surprise, and sometimes challenge, comes when Kuvezin starts singing. His style is dissonant, multi-tonal, haunting, but bizarrely magical. It is probably one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had to sit in London, listening to some punk classics recovered in the sounds of the Siberian wilderness (I’ll confess that when I started listening I was also trying to read The Financial Times, so trying to make sense of why copper prices had gone up with “In a Gadda da Vida” being sung to world music accompaniments in Tuvan deep throat singing style was decidedly warped. I put my paper down soon enough and started concentrating on the album)

Not all the songs are in English – the track “Pesnya O Giraffe”, is in Russian, and perhaps is the most unusual when heard. But the short breather you get listening to that song doesn’t last long before you’re plunged back into the thick of it with “Black Magic Woman”, “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?” “Orgasmatron” & “Play With Fire” (If nothing else, here’s someone who can take a Rolling Stones classic and beat Jagger in shock value) Kuvezin has incredible power in his voice. You can feel that clearly when he sings, with his voice rumbling in his head before he releases it, and the length he holds each note for is impressive.

On their website, Kuvezin explains that Re-covers is a collection of favourite songs that he grew up listening to, and cutting this album was a personal mission to refresh his memory of those songs, many of which had to be smuggled into the country and the house, away from the eyes of the Soviet authorities.

Re-covers is a drastic change to a lot of music that is out there in the market today. It is exhausting to listen to – the music leaves you feeling quite drained. I had to put on a Chris Isaak album afterwards just to get that rumbling out of my head. Don’t go out to buy Re-covers and expect it to be an easy album to listen to. It is difficult, and you’ll often have to persevere if you want to get through all 14 tracks. But do listen to it – your musical education will be incomplete without it.

Re-covers, by Albert Kuvezin & Yat-Kha, is produced by World Village Music.


ray of light said...

ok! This cd sounds tres bizarre - but I will admit that I am intrigued by the technique. Will def. look it up - though perhaps try to find another album by the same artist at the same time for comparison. Thanks for the tip.

Zehra Rizvi said...

Oh man, I was going to get it and review for Desicritics. Sounds good though. So, this is odd but, I am moving to London soon and have no friends. Want to meet up when you are not banking and catch a drink or something? I have one friend there. I think. He might be leaving soon. I am not a weirdo stalker.

The Buddha Smiled said...

Thank you both - it was a totally weird album, but also very cool!

Zehra - feel free to drop me an email. Even if you are a weirdo stalker (in which case I'd first be flattered and then potentially scared) I'm sure I can take enough precautions to survive! :) Moving cities can be tough, but London is a great place to live in. I'm sure you'll have a great time here.