Nohon, Altai Maktal (Face Music, 2000)  

As I write this, the first snow of fall has drifting down. The chill of the coming six months is in the winds, and every face I see wears a frown, dreading what winter will bring this year. Yet I'm safe and warm, incense burning, and a fantastic disc surrounding me in music from the other side of the globe, where the weather is turning cool as well.

I had previously reviewed the disc Üch Sümer featuring Nohon in a duet setting with another artist from the Altai region of Mongolia. In this solo setting, occasionally accompanied by another local musician, Shanajdar, his skills are much better represented, especially his wonderful singing, presented much more powerfully and dynamically.

The voice is the real instrument of Mongolian peoples. While they scratch out a backing on simple lutes, bowed instruments, and flutes, the vocal chords are the measure of true musicianship. Nohon is a master of several different styles of throat singing, able to hit multiple octaves and sing chords. He spends much of the disc singing in a guttural baritone, but suddenly shifts up several octaves when the needs arises. Given that songs like "Bööl, Bööl" use backing instruments more as a percussive devise, this allows Nohon to effectively be giving an a capella performance. It's utterly fascinating how many differing styles of singing he can cram into a single song: I counted 6 in "Saniskannin sygydy" alone.

The premise behind the disc is that Nohon revisits the music of his village Ogosh-Jalaman, thus giving a permanent record of songs that may be unknown outside of this small area. The songs presented could be grouped into three types: traditional; influenced; and instrumental. The traditional songs are fairly straightforward Mongolian tunes, featuring vocal gymnastics, and plaintive backings. The songs I would call "influenced" have more limited vocals, with stronger instrumentation. These songs, such as "Keler Uiege," sound rather Russian to me, rather like music from around the Black Sea. It is quite arguable, however, that the Russian tradition was influenced by the Mongolian one, since Mongolian culture is the more ancient of the two.

The instrumentals on Altai Maktal are largely centered around Nohon playing the Komus, or what we would call a Jew's Harp. Part of the skill of playing this family of instruments is the players ability to control breathing and mouth shape to affect the outcome of the notes. In Nohon's capable mouth, songs like "Kamdash" go from simple twanging into something approaching an old analogue synthesizer. It's a really neat sound, and more evidence of his musical talent.

This disc, recorded in Switzerland, is fairly well recorded, and is certainly more pleasing that the almost "audio verité" that Face Music has released in the past. The liner notes are brief, but very descriptive. I especially enjoyed the photos of Nohon posing at various local landmarks in this village, giving the listener a sense of place to match with these songs. (And, thankfully, no cliché shots of Nohon in his garish performing clothes to be seen!)

I really enjoyed this disc. As I've stated before, I love the music of Central Asia, and discs like Altai Maktal confirm all I love about the songs of these people. Simple, yet demanding to perform, Mongolian music is a sadly overlooked branch of the musical world: artists like Nohon help to entice more than a passing glance.

Big Earl Sellar