I first heard Huun Huur Tu way back in 1996 when my flatmate, an ex-gamekeeper, swordmaster, buddhist, eater of seaweed and political activist, parked himself in a corner of my room, threw a CD at me and proceeded to smoke de nice ‘erb. Said CD was Huun Huur Tu’s debut album and, while the, erm, atmosphere was most conducive to having an out-of-body experience the music was simply out of this world.
During subsequent playings of this CD, during which swordmasters armed with burning plants were nowhere near, it had the same effect on me. At gigs I perhaps once during a whole set feel a shiver down my spine and then I know something has profoundly moved me, but every time Kaigal-ool Khovalyg opened his mouth that shiver was there again. This was surely one of the world’s most uniquely moving voices, right up there with Luciano Pavarotti and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was like being exposed to an electrical force.
Since 1996 then I’d wanted to see Huun Huur Tu live yet managed somehow to miss their first London appearance earlier this year at The Purcell Room. Lo, miracles do happen, and they returned to the South Bank Centre, this time the Royal Festival Hall, a couple of months later. Neither hell nor high water could have kept me away and while the venue, nestled deep inside the most ugly building on the banks of the Thames, was not at all intimite, Kaigal-ool, Anatoly, new member Alexei and Sayan simply spellbound their audience.
With one song heart-rending and with another comical, the range of emotions engendered by a bewildering mixture of musical instruments – including bulls’ testicles, igils (antecendents of the cello, we were told), horses’ hooves and one western-style guitar – and their legendary throat-singing talents was nothing if not extraordinary. And to finally hear Kaigal-ool sing live was an experience I shall never forget. Sayan, the man credited with much of the musical arrangement, was the only band member not to showcase the art of throat-singing but it was clear to all that his talent was no less extraordinary.
Kaigal-ool, it should be noted, has been lauded as “the Pavarotti of throat singing”, but the little man could not look more different than the celebrated tenor. Nor was he particularly uppity about his recently-found celebrity status. A clue to his – and the other band members’ – modesty was perhaps in the signature; “Kaigal-ool” written around a horse’s head. Were they not musicians of world standing these guys would have lived rural lives in the Steppes, herding. The enormity of the crossover they have achieved is clearly not lost on their Moscovite manager who was simply boiling with talk of web sites, American gigs and Frank Zappa, with whom they’ve collaborated.
While the current album, Where Young Grass Grows, recorded in Scotland, failed to mesmerise me in the way its predecessors did, their live show was utterly sensational and lived up to my every expectation. My only minor quibble was the rigid ‘cultural ethos’ of the gig, with their manager explaining the songs and the audience all seated. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if these guys, all the way from Tuva, headlined Glastonbury or Reading. My feeling is that the UK music scene would change forever, for there is nothing as remotely captivating like Huun Huur Tu in the pop world today.