Huun Huur Tu Small World Music Centre, Toronto ON, November 20

Huun Huur Tu Small World Music Centre, Toronto ON, November 20
Photo: Kevin Jones
Throat singers Huun Huur Tu are from Tuva, which lies between Mongolia and Russia, just east of Kazakhstan. Their music is at once rooted and ancient, and yet fresh and sparkling as sun on a lake.

Their concert in Toronto last night (November 20) spoke to many things musical, but it was all about the songs: songs about speaking to mountains, about the majesty and sacred space of the land, abut the necessity of completing tasks with resolve and integrity; songs of adoration, mystical horses and songs asking leaders about what their country/land is and means. In essence, it was songs about their lives and their history.

This is folk music from as far back as the 12th century and, like the blues, an incredibly rich and deep well from which the music draws its strength and inspiration. And also, like the blues, this music seemed to sound vaguely like a lot of contemporary music. It was something that evoked the music of James Hetfield (Metallica), Steve Reich, Meredith Monk and acoustic Led Zeppelin in one's head.

While Huun Huur Tu are definitely rooted in the traditions of Tuva, their music is incredibly layered and sophisticated all the same. The seamlessness with which the vocals ebbed and flowed from growling, multiphonic overtones to straight singing artfully combined with traditional strings (both plucked and bowed), flute, jaws harp, guitar and drums/percussion to create something incredible.

They traded singing styles within a song and played their instruments with the focus, skill and inspiration worthy of the best jazz improvisers. There were also a cappella pieces in which all four members sang, and the room vibrated with roars and cross-hatching overtones and songs where birdsongs, animal growls and whistles floated wonderfully in and out of bowed drones and drum thunder.

Where other music approximates the natural world, it was stunning to be so effortlessly transported by Huun Huur Tu's reverence for the land into such an authentic and sacred space. This effect was not lost on the audience, who sat in rapt attention in the intimacy of the Small World venue, giving the group two standing ovations. This was one of the best concerts of 2014.