Ensemble Tumbash, Ayalguu - Volume I (Face Music, 2000)

Ensemble Tumbash, Höömij - Volume II (Face Music, 2000)

Ensemble Tumbash, Urtyn duu - Volume III (Face Music, 2000)

My fascination with the music of Central Asia has been ongoing for almost a decade now. In a world of World releases, the very divergent sounds of this section of the planet sound to me like a musical bridge between East and West, where Asian sounds meet those of Celtic and various Arabic forms. These discs by the Ensemble Tumbash present another facet of the myriad of musical idioms in the lands commonly referred to in the West as Mongolia.

Comprised of four musicians from the Academy of music in Ulaanbaatar, these young players were recorded on these three discs covering a variety of songs from throughout the country. The group, comprised of two men and two women, mixes their various instruments in differing arrangements on the songs, often as duets or trios. Ts. Batgerel plays the morin khuur, a two string upright fiddle with a fixed bow that is common throughout Mongolia. S. Sarangerel plays the shudraga or shanz, a three string bass lute that produces a sound somewhere between a mandocello and a yoto. Z. Selenge is a master of the hammered dulcimer or yoochin, playing in a manner that resembles the lightning virtuosity found in Northern India. The main melodic instrument is the limbe, a type of flute played most capably by Ch. Enkhjargal. Being master musicians on their respective instruments allows the players to play with a confidence that belies their years: unlike many other discs from the area, one is hard pressed to hear a misplaced note on these discs.

The discs are divided into three song styles, rather than by region, to give the listener a remarkably comprehensive overview of the tradition. The first disc, Ayalguu, features a short song form called the bogino duu, an informal style more closely related to everyday listening than formal occasions. Packing 38 songs in one disc means that there is an awful lot to digest here, as the songs not only differ in melody, but, depending on the region, different musical styles as well. The influences from China and India are evident (or is that the other way around?),  although even a cursory listen will reveal that this is a specific tradition with slight ornamentation from other cultures. "Tald unassan javar" has a touch of Chinese court music in some of its slurs; "Serevger khadny zereglee" nods towards the music of the Baal of India. But on the majority of tracks, such as the pretty "Khandarrnaa", the music is clearly that of the Mongolian people, with it's Western-sounding scales and unique harmony structure. Although the disc never veers between genres too rapidly, there are enough differing melodies here, with some under a minute in length to make it a daunting listen at times. While showing this song style admirably, perhaps cutting the disc length down a bit (to, say, 24 songs) would make it a bit more manageable.

The second disc in this batch, Höömij, doesn't require any editing whatsoever. Centered around höömij, or throat-singing, this disc shines as a perfect collection of what would be considered "traditional" Mongolian music. Although perhaps not as adept at the technique as some other artists recorded by Face Music, Batgerel and Enkhjargal are nonetheless great singers. They shine particularly well on "Dörvön tsagiin tal - Siilen böör"; it brings to mind both Chinese and French classical music, with a lovely melody sung over top. Normally, höömij is used as a drone. Here, the songs are longer (ten tracks ranging from two minutes to 28),  and as a consequence the disc flows better. That long track, "Dörvon nast khölög baatar", is an epic song, with a chanting vocal over a simple backing track; and yet the animated singing by Enkhjargal creates extra interest. This is the beauty of this music: even at its simplest, it's extremely engaging. Höömij is the best of the three discs, and stands alone nicely on its own: I found I spun it more often than the other two discs in this series.

The third disc, Urtyn duu, is comprised of songs in the long form. And I mean long: there are only four tracks on this disc. These songs are surprisingly not heroic epics, but rather long form stories, songs for long horse rides and the like. The tempos are slow, and the playing has an adventurous melodic slant that one doesn&Mac226;t find in the shorter numbers: ornamentation comes suddenly, and at unexpected points. "Tooroi bandi",  a duet between limbe and morin khuur, is particularly haunting, with its simple melody alternating between solo, duet, and call and response playing. Presented as instrumentals, stripped to a single instrument in two cases, the songs are very soothing. Unfortunately, I imagine that to a newcomer to this tradition, this disc may seem long in tooth: its strength is in its subtly.  I suppose, the same argument could be made for the appeal of the airs of Celtic music, and other such long forms. But for anyone who has heard music from this region before, Urtyn duu is an fascinating exploration of a not often recorded form in this tradition.

All three discs are beautifully recorded, as is the case with all of Face Music's recordings. However, a production decision has added some truly cheesy sound effects to some tracks (a breathy wind sample here, a Dopplered horse gallop there, especially on Urtyn duu). Why on earth these effects were added is beyond me: although they're easily tuned out, they bring an element of "relaxation" or bad New Age-ism to these otherwise spectacular discs. The liner notes are sparse and fairly general in nature: more translated lyrics, as opposed to overview snippets, would be welcomed. Otherwise the packaging is a little drab, with beautiful covers gracing and a few perfunctory photos inside (except on the third disc, which features some artwork and examples of Mongolian writing). And as usual, the covers feature the musicians in their bright coloured performance costumes, while the "everyday life" shots inside feature people in jeans and T-shirts. (I'm not entirely sure why this representation of the musicians always bugs me so much...)

My strongest criticism of these collected works of the Ensemble Tumbash is that this would have made a spectacular box set: since the three volumes play off each other so well, it seems a shame to break them up. I especially recommend Höömij, a wonderful selection of songs for both the newcomer and those who already listen to this tradition. As long as Face Music can keep putting out fascinating discs like these, I'll be here to marvel and heartily recommend them. Now, if I could only figure out how to get to the region and enjoy this great music in situ...

Big Earl Sellar