Ensemble Tumbash
Höömij: Vol. II
(Face Music Switzerland, 2000)

Comparison is a reviewer's fallback, especially when writing about music. Unfortunately, it doesn't work when the reader hasn't heard the music used as the basis of comparison. And sometimes it doesn't work, period. Some music sounds only like itself, defying easy classification. Ensemble Tumbash and their work in Höömij: Vol II is a perfect example.

Ensemble Tumbash performs traditional music from Mongolia, and those not familiar with traditional Mongolian music will have almost no frame of reference. Hoomij, in particular, is Mongolian throat singing, and sounds like no other instrument on earth. Throat singing could perhaps claim some distant kinship with the unearthly sound of the didgeridoo or the percussive winds of the various mouth harps. Linked with traditional instruments, it has been used to tell of love and war, remember treaties and explain the universe. Ensemble Tumbash offers a hint of that long history in the 10 tracks on this album.

Hoomij is capable of great variety on its own, sinking bone-rattlingly low or rising high as a mosquito drone. It possesses a primal, sometimes eerie quality, summoning up the spirit of landscapes and wild creatures while holding onto the empathy and intelligence of the human voice. To those of us who don't know how to translate it, the throat singing carries its message through feel and by dialogue with the instruments that back it. Traditional Mongolian instruments are somewhat similar to Chinese instruments, but with a rougher sound and often sparser arrangements. Stringed instruments like the yoochin and shudraga are used percussively more than in Western music, with wind instruments often carrying the melodies. The arrangements and rhythms of the pieces featured on Hoomij are even and settled, sometimes to the point of a trance-causing monotony. The growling, sometimes eerie throat singing combines with the supporting instruments to create a surprisingly beautiful sound. This production of it is unusually sharp and clear, allowing the fine shadings of pitch and tone in the singing to come through.

Ensemble Tumbash may defy musical comparison, but the work is so evocative it finds echoes in the other senses. There is a comforting warmth to throat singing, a bright and colorful sense of pattern in the music. It creates landscapes and conversations, fills the room with clear wild air or the drum of horse's hooves. In epics like "Dorvon nast kholog naatar" or tales of daily pleasure like "Sahrgyin sahrgyin joroo," the ensemble shares an experience that goes beyond words.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 17 July 2004