Bolot & Nohon,
Üch Sümer
(Face Music Switzerland, 1996)

Some Rambles.NET readers may remember an art exhibition called From the Lands of the Scythians. The collection of art on display came from central Asia and eastern Europe, with the highlights being beautifully worked gold pieces, some highly realistic, others very stylized. Many of those exotic artifacts came from the same place that this music does, the remote central Asian area today known as the Republic of Altai.

For many years, this area was under the control of the Soviet Union, but with the breakup of the USSR, it became an independent republic within the Russian Federation. Altai's near neighbors include Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Tuva, the latter probably being most famous among world music aficionados for its throat-singing.

Uch Sumer is an album of songs from Altai, and throat-singing is front and center here. The liner notes define no fewer than four different styles of throat-singing, from the deep growl of karkiraa to the high whistling tone of sikit. When not throat-singing, the vocalists sing in a declamatory style.

The singers are Bolot Bayrishev and Nohon Shumarov, who accompany themselves on a variety of traditional instruments. These instruments include two lute-like instruments, a mouth-harp and a variety of wind instruments, some intended to lure wild deer. Full details on the instruments, a history of the region, a thumbnail sketch of Altai culture and translations of the song lyrics are all in the extensive liner notes, which are an excellent introduction to Altai and its music.

Uch Sumer is a lot of Altai music for the casual listener; it lasts over an hour and some individual tracks are almost 10 minutes long. For someone interested in the music of central Asia, however, this is a feast. The variety of sounds the singers produce is staggering, and what is perhaps more impressive is that a vocal technique that seems like a novelty to many westerners can produce such listenable songs. Subject matter runs from laments for the Altai people ("When Will Baatyrs Rise?") to the landscape ("Altin Kel") to songs with shamanic overtones ("World Axis"). If you have an interest in the region's music or are just looking for something different, give Uch Sumer a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 17 October 2004