Alash - Selection from Liner Notes

I'd encourage any listener to this album to listen to it a few or several times before being tempted to delve into the liner notes. While there is something nice about knowing what people are singing about in a language you don't understand, you'll also often be surprised what connections your mind can make when you are not as focused on the words. When I first encountered Tuvan music in 1999, it was a dubbed copy of a Huun-Huur-Tu album with no liner notes. I made up a story in my head for every song on that album. Eight years later, having become intimately familiar with the language and the music and the place, I am both amused and amazed by the particular accuracies and inaccuracies of my flights of imagination. Of course, understanding the words brings a whole new layer of appreciation of the musician's art, and for that reason I have translated almost all the songs on the album and included them in the liner notes.

Tuvan music gets the listener into an almost visual mode of listening, or if not that, there is very often the experience of being touched somewhere deeply. The particular nature of course, of the multiphonic singing styles known collectively as xöömei or (throat singing), immediately separates the music from other music more familiar to western ears. This is only the beginning, however. Throat-singing is considered by Tuvan musicians simultaneously as a vocal and an instrumental performance. For example, singing in the style of xöömei is considered to ascribe to the same aesthetic as performance on the igil. Tuvan music possesses a sonic perception or aesthetic that is entirely its own, and this aesthetic is simultaneously unusual and appealing to our unfamiliar ears.

While the final judgment must be left to each individual listener, Alash stands out among the many bright individual talents I have heard in three and a half years living and working in Tuva alongside Tuvan musicians. Alash represents the best and brightest ensemble of their generation. Treading in the footsteps of Marzhymal Ondar, Xunashtar-ool Oorzhak, Kaigal-ool Xovalyg, Sayan Bapa, Kongar-ool Ondar, and most importantly, of their own grandparents, they are poised to bring Tuvan music to a new level. They are firmly rooted in the foundations of Tuvan musical thought, and yet are eagerly and rapidly processing the information they are receiving through exposure to musicians of all kinds.

— Sean Quirk

Song Translations

A Note on the translations:
The Tuvan language is written in Cyrillic characters at this time in history, and so the Tuvan words presented below are transliterated. The letter 'x' is at all times taken to mean a sound from a slightly more breathy 'h' to the 'ch' in Scottish loch. Certain other letters have been transliterated not according to a fixed letter-for-letter scheme but rather so that the English-speaking reader might comfortably pronounce the word. The letter 'y' represents in most cases an unrounded back vowel similar to the 'e' in Midwestern her. The translations are for the most part an attempt to convey the sense and meaning of the song, at the expense of internal consonance, assonance, alliteration and other features present in the original.

1.  Alash
The river Alash is located in the west of Tuva, forming one of the main tributaries of the Xemchik. The name comes from the Tuvan word alazhylannyr, 'whispering' in the non-verbal sense. The text illustrates a common Tuvan motive of alliteration.

If only I could sow some barley
By the flowing Alash,
If only I could make it to the aal
Of that sweet little darlin'!

If only I could sow some wheat
By the rapids of Alash,
If only I could caress the black tresses
Of that laughing little darlin'!

If only I could sow some chinge taraa
By the smooth-flowing waters of Alash,
If only I could plant a kiss
On the cheek of that pretty darlin!

If only I could plant some sula
By the lazy flowing Alash,
If only I could get to the village
Of that flirtatious little darling!

I've planted my grains
By the side of the rising Alash.
How did I ever end up
With this terribly attractive lass?

2.  Bashtak
This humorous song features at its beginning and end a sample of Dürgen Chugaa or fast-talking, a staple of Tuvan oral literature. As it should be acquired by purely oral means, I have neglected to transcribe or translate the words here. Suffice to say that they use alliteration and the verb forms of the Tuvan language in a clever way. As to what it means, it would be like saying, "I know I know a little cliff, let a cliff cliff if a horsefly flies"— You get the picture. Go ahead, smack me in the head.

What are you going do with me for joking—
Hit me over the head?
Even if you hit me over the head,
It's not like I'm going to stop joking!

What are you going to do with me for goofing off—
Smack me in the forehead?
Even if you smack me in the forehead,
It's not like I'm going to stop goofing off!

What are you going to do with me for falling in love—
Hit me with a crooked stick?
Even if you hit me with a crooked stick,
It's not like I am going to stop falling in love!

What are you going to do with me for laughing—
Hit me with a willow stick?
Even if you hit me with a willow stick,
It's not like I am going to stop laughing!

What are you going to do with us for singing—
Hit us with a crooked stick?
Even if you hit us with a crooked stick,
It's not like we'll stop singing!

3.  Manchürek
This song is based on the singing of the famous Xunashtar-ool Oorzhak of Süt-xöl, who passed away in the early 90s. His singing was known for its resonance, complexity, and originality. While the manner in which each member of the ensemble is singing is purely traditional, their unification of the quatrains into a round with harmonic accompaniment pushes it into the realm of "modern classic."

I am a fish-son, a little minnow
In the flowing waters of Manchurek.
I am the betrothed friend
Of a dark laughing sweetheart.

I am a bead in the chavaga
In beautiful girls' hair.
I am the one that warms the heart
Of playful and dark girls.

4.  Karachal
A karachal is what you might call in English these days a regular old dude. Related in part to the word kara or 'black,' he's your regular guy who does his job and gets by on what he's got, which isn't much. His antagonist is the xörengeti düzhümet. A düzhümet is a feudal bureaucrat, and the word xörengeti, while related to the word for 'wealthy,' implies that the wealth was gotten by means other than one's own hard work.

O the poor karachal,
He doesn't have any wheat or barley.
The ones who've got the grains
Are those xörengeti düzhümets!

If only I were like the feathered eagle,
I could wheel about in the sky.
If I could just get close enough
Even just to shake hands with this guy!

I found ten fat kopecks
And thought it was a treasure.
Then among the Russians,
Boy, did I curse up a storm!

A bird that flies needs wings–
It's important for the flying.
A girl friend needs advice–
It's important for living.

5.  Ezengileer
The name for this sub-style of Tuvan vocal music comes from the Tuvan word for stirrup, ezengi. This style can be used while singing xöömei or sygyt, and the reason it is called the stirrup sound is that it imitates their silvery clank (Tuvan stirrups have a high silver content) as a horse and rider run through their paces. Solo by Ayan-ool Sam.

6.  Oitulaash Xeveri
This is a portrait of on old tradition in Tuva, that grandparents here still remember and participated in, called the Oitulaash. It was a way for young people to get together and socialize without the elders around, consisting of singing, gaming, and other non-alcoholic amusements. One part of it was almost always a competition of verse, reflected here by the boys taking each other on, two on two, in trading couplets. While the translations are not included here, some of them are of a very common Tuvan type that devotes two lines of a quatrain to good horses, and the other two to beautiful girls. Some of the others are in praise of the instruments or the music, or in sympathy with poor mom who ended up with a xöömei-singing son.

7.  Daam Dözü
Mai-ool learned this song from his grandmother on his mother's side. Both of his grandparents were singers among the Saryglar people, one of the traditional clans of Tuva. Other clans include Ondar, Mongush, Xomushku, Xovalyg, Irgit, Kyrgys, Tülüsh, Tumat, and Choodu. Each of the geographic locations mentioned in the song is close to the traditional herding area of Mai-ool's people, along the Alash river in the Baryyn-Xemchik district. A düzhümet is a low-ranking feudal nobleman/bureaucrat, and dünggür is the name of the shamanic frame drum common in Tuva and throughout shamanic culture.

The düzhümetter pass by
The dünggür sounding Daam Dözu.
People who stop for a while are delayed
By the tough girls of the Saryglar.

Travelers pass by
The gullies of Shanggyr.
People who've been sent get delayed
By the beautiful girls of the Saryglar.

Adventurous folks pass by in wonder
At the amazing Xovuzhyktyg.
People who enter are delayed
By the brave and bold Saryglar girls.

8.  Sygyt Yrym
A song by the great Tuvan songwriter Möngün-ool Dambashtai. There are many Tuvan songs of this strain—the idea of the song in praise of music, as an offering to one's own people.

My white-maned sorrel horses whinny.
They're missing the summer camp.
I'm gonna sing my sygyt
And make the hem of the mountains echo!

Crossing the broad broad steppes,
It's my traveling companion.
I'm gonna sing my sygyt
To drive away fatigue and sadness.

From the depths of my spirit
That my mother fated to me,
I'm gonna sing my sygyt
As a gift to my gathered people.

9.  Bady-Dorzhu's Bayan
Here Bady solos on the Russian accordion known as the 'bayan.' In an excellent example of cultural fusion, the bayan has been accepted by Tuvans as almost like one of their own. Since the first entrance of Russian musicians and pedagogues in the 20s and 30s, Tuvan musicians have been attracted by the timbre of the bayan and intrigued by how it fits so well with their music and singing. Bady here sings in a style inspired by Oidupaa, whose high-pitched kargyraa and bayan mastery are unrivaled. This particular tune is a children's song about herding sheep.

10.  Ene-sai
A song popularized by the great Nadezhda Kuular, and part of every modern Tuvan folk musician's repertoire. 'Ene-sai' is Old Tuvan for "Mother River," the name for the river which is now called in Russian Yenisey and forms the heart of Tuvan territory.

My Ene-Sai, My Sayan-Tangdy,
My ancient homeland,
The sweet and smooth Sygyt and Xöömei,
My song from the beginning of time.

Even if the ancestors of Kargyraa
Are transformed into the rocky cliffs,
We are their Kargyraa-singing children
Who can make souls weep.

Even if the ancestors Xöömei and Sygyt
Become the közhee stones,
We are their Xöömei-singing children
Who can set hearts afire.

11.  Borbangnadyr
The name for this sub-style of Tuvan vocal music comes from the Tuvan word borbak, meaning round. It is a verb formed on this stem, with the implication of 'making something cause itself to become round.' The visual association with this style is that of small stream rushing down a mountainside, over rocks and pebble. Solo by Ayan Shirizhik.

12.  Dynggyldai
A classic Tuvan humorous song. 'Dynggyldai' is a word, which, roughly translated, can be interpreted to mean 'dynggyldai.'

Riding on a grey horse the color of the sky,
Aren't you the prancing fool?
With your serrated stirrups, you're so annoying,
Clanking them into people, jeez!

Whatever am I going to do with you?
You can't be fixed or spruced up.
If only you were a nice goatskin blanket
Maybe some fixing or sprucing could happen!

Whatever am I going to do with him?
He can't be traded or exchanged.
Now if he were a knife and flint,
There might be some dealing to be done.

13.  Chaghatai
Chaghatai is the name of a lake in the Tangdy district in central Tuva named after Genghis-Khan's hot-headed second son. The song features the beautiful murgu flute, an overtone flute with no holes made from the angelica plant. The phrase sülde-le bo has no direct equivalent in English. The word sülde has religious, divine, holy, spiritual, and even political implications, and in Mongolian means 'spirit banner,' a banner of horse-tail meant to contain the spirit of its owner. The translation provided here is meant to be taken more as a paraphrase.

My Chaghatai waves and waves
As it settles into its hollow.
A beautiful girl, smiling and flirting,
Enters her cabin.

Brothers and sisters wait for me,
I'm hunting the animals of Chaghatai.
Brothers and sisters wait for me,
I'm digging the roots of Chaghatai.

My Chaghatai is the princess of the Tangdy peaks
Where the countless fishes splash and play.
O my bountiful Chaghatai.

14.  Chavydak
Chavydak was an actual tractor driver who lived in Elegest at the inception of Communism in Tuva—the 1930s. At that time, forcing the nomads to change their way of life from seasonal encampments to collective farms was a full-time occupation of the Communists, and propaganda through music played a part in that effort. This song, indeed, praises the strength of the technological tractor versus simple animal power. Chavydak, incidentally, also means 'riding a horse bareback.'

His bold sounding tractor
Hums along in Elegest.
He's an economic veteran.
Oh, heroic Chavydak!

How can you ever compare
A hitched-up bull with a tractor?
How can you ever compare
Lazy, shiftless people with Chavydak?

The turf and topsoil, so soft
On the cast-iron ChTZ.
The harvest quotas
Are no problem for its driver, Chavydak!

15.  Dekei-oo and Saiyzyral Medley
This a medley of two Tuvan songs. 'Dekei-oo' is a classic traditional song including the mandatory good horse-beautiful girl dichotomy, while 'Saiyzyral' is a song from communist times in praise of the development of Tuva under communism. Many Tuvan melodies were kept in the communist times, but were replaced with pro-communist words, and this is one of them. Perhaps the boys in the band figured that old-line Soviet rhetoric needed to be spiced up with some classic Tuvan good horsin' around, but whatever the case, this is a ditty that Dekeioos right along!

16.  Subudai
An original song by Alash. The lyrics are by Sergei Sotpa, and the melody is by Bady-Dorzhu. Subudai was Genghis Khan's famous Tuvan general who conquered Russia and pushed all the way into Europe with the great Khan's Grandson Baty. Subudai is still held cherished in popular memory, and is also the name of Mai-ool's son.

At the first light of Dawn
I sit and gaze from the heights of Tangdy-Sayan.
Above me I can feel
The shadow of Subudai–

With two hands stretched upward
To the divine sky,
Blessing my homeland,
Calling to his soldiers.

Thousands of years come and go,
Endlessly rolling forward.
Many generations come and go.
The legacy continues unbroken.

In the last rays of the setting sun,
It seems to me at that moment
That Subudai's shadow remains,
Playing and flickering like a mirage.


Executive Producer: Sean Quirk
Recorded, Edited, Mixed and Mastered by Noah Hirt-Manheimer at Enchanted Garden Studios
Design: Lucas McCann