When I first encountered Enrique Ugalde, a solidly built, ethnically Aztecan cab driver in Portland, he was softly singing overtones into my ex-girlfriend’s ear outside a music festival afterparty. Not for nothing, apparently, does the high shaman of Tuva shout “Dren! Dren!” (a Tuvan dirty word meaning major-league wood) whenever Ugalde comes near. Or maybe it is for no reason—he never explained the habit. In any case, Enrique is officially the third-best Tuvan throat singer in the world, the first and only non-Tuvan to ever receive the distinction of even placing.
It is likely that you don’t even know what that means (don’t be embarrassed). Let’s go over the vocab words one at a time.
Tuva is a little steppe-and-river region located at the direct geographic center of the Asian continent, where most of the people still live in yurts. In both topography and culture it’s a little bit like Mongolia—Genghis Khan was born just nearby—except it got conquered by the Russians instead of the Chinese. (Also, some of the Tuvans left and became Eskimos—stories are still told.) One of the side effects of being part of the Soviet Union was that every festival, every celebration of anything, became a competition.[caption id="attachment_8438" align="alignnone" width="385" caption="This monument marks the exact site of Asia’s belly button."][/caption]
This could include tug of war, rope jumping, and horseback riding. When Soviet control loosened up and the Tuvans were again allowed to express their ethnic identity more openly, the Tuvans still kept up some of the Soviet spirit and instated a national competition for mastery of their signature art form: Khoomei, or Tuvan throat singing.[caption id="attachment_8362" align="alignnone" width="550" caption="This is what country living looks like"][/caption]
Imagine making your mouth, nose, and throat into a kind of didgeridoo, and then singing through it from somewhere back near your lungs, and you get some of the idea of Khoomei. Along with the fundamental note, Khoomei singers emit deep, swirling, prismatic resonant overtone frequencies that they can manipulate by changing the shape of their mouth and throat. Sometimes this manifests sonically as a horrowshow basso profundo from the esophagus, sometimes as a nest of baby birds crying somewhere inside your tonsils, sometimes as ghostly wind through the hollows. It doesn’t sound human. The first time I heard it I wanted to jump through the radio.
Actually, it’s best if you just listen to it.
Ugalde was only the second American I had ever seen credibly perform Khoomei—the first had been bat-blind bluesman Paul Pena (who should be known for something better than writing Steve Miller’s hit “Jet Airliner”), in the excellent 1999 documentary Genghis Blues. But for all Pena’s pathos and likeability and chops and “audience favorite” awards in that film, Ugalde had done something Pena didn’t: he had become the only foreigner ever to place in the overall competition at the International Khoomei Symposium, and I wanted to know how it happened.
“I think I did so well in the throat singing competition because a lot of the really good people got drunk,” he said when I sat down with him, later. Just as whisky did among North American tribes, Russian vodka hit the Tuvans pretty hard. “When they get nervous, they drink…. They lose people in the winter.”
Ugalde is largely self-taught, as it turns out. “When I first heard it,” he said, “I thought it was unattainable, like you can wiggle your ears or not, or roll your tongue or not.” But Ugalde—who had already trained in classical music and dabbled in goth—just sat down with Tuvan recordings, including a bootleg tape he’d made himself with a creaking tape recorder at a rare Huun-huur-tu throat-singing show in Portland, and tried to mimic what he heard. He’s now been at it for ten years, and currently melds Tuvan and Aztecan influences in a musical project called Soriah. The first time he succeeded “it was like a breakthrough,” he said. “I was thinking I’d been wasting my life this whole time trying to be in a rock band. This was my pure expression.”
Somewhere along the way he picked up Tuvan mentors and saved up enough money while driving cabs to visit the Republic of Tuva, which is small enough that, while there, he met not only Tuva’s high shaman but also its President, its Minister of Culture, and its most prominent ethnomusicologist. He was also, he’s pretty sure, the first person to ever introduce Tuva to the music of Johnny Cash. Figuring that even Asian cowboys would like cowboy music, he throat-sang “Ghost Riders in the Sky” at a folk festival, along with “Cape Cod Girls” by Baby Gramps.
“They have this funny notion of America,” Ugalde said, “because only the worst things filter in. Chuck Norris is a big hero there. Plus, everywhere you go, they say ‘You can do it!’ if they find out you’re American, because they think that guy’s really funny.”
“Yeah. He’s really famous there.”[caption id="attachment_8361" align="alignnone" width="550" caption="Ugalde with two of his teachers in Tuva"][/caption]
Also, he had to hide his vodka. Otherwise his teachers—members of the revered Khoomei group Chirgilchin—would drink it. His teachers, of course, didn’t really speak English. “You sit down and try to do what he does. He just points at his lips and says, ‘Like this! Like this!’ and then you try to do it. Some teachers don’t even have to say anything; you learn by osmosis.” Other parts of the teaching included “running around shouting across valleys and off cliffs to get echoes. We were trying to find the perfect sound.”
When he got his historic prize last year at the end of the International Khoomei Symposium in Kyzyl, after an elaborate red-carpet ceremony involving Buddhist bells and sacred milk from a nine-eyed spoon (read his full account here), Ugalde didn’t even know what he’d won because they’d announced the prize in Russian. He didn’t know, in fact, until quite a bit later, when he was able to sneak offstage and talk to his mentor and translator, Khoomeigie Aldar Tamdyn. In the meantime, in front of the Tuvan crowds, he simply accepted his Cyrillic-scripted plaque from the lovely Miss Kyzyl and smiled, and smiled, and smiled, with all the reflexive affability of the truly far from home.