Alash are a Tuvan trio of singers and multi-instrumentalists Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, and Ayan Shirizhik. Founded in 2005, the group perform khoomei, also known as Tuvan throat singing, a traditional vocal style practiced in Tuva, Mongolia, and Siberia, in which singers manipulate their mouths and throats to layer overtones over a fundamental pitch, often combining buzzes, whistles, or low guttural sounds. Folk music built around throat-singing techniques has become popular in the West, not just for its uncanny vocal athletics but also for its wistful, evocative instrumental arrangements, which suggest the winds and landscapes of the Asian steppes and the rocking gaits of horses. Despite its ancient pastoral vibe, Tuvan throat singing pairs surprisingly well with modern forms of music, and fusing it with elements of much newer genres—including alt-rock (Yat-Kha), avant-garde jazz and electronica (Sainkho Namtchylak), and metal (the Hu)—has become a tradition in its own right.
The members of Alash are formally trained in the strictest traditions, which has made them adaptable; past collaborators include the Sun Ra Arkestra, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, and numerous jam bands. They’ve performed at many U.S. folk festivals over the years, and they’ve become familiar faces in Chicago, particularly at the Old Town School of Folk Music. In 2018 and 2019 they recorded sessions with local experimental chamber-music project Fifth House Ensemble, and in 2019 Bady-Dorzhu Ondar undertook a monumental collaborative project with Baltimore beatboxer Shodekeh, singer-rapper Jasmine Pope, and many others from the Charm City hip-hop scene. The resulting album, last year’s Embodiments, is surprising, ingenious, and stunningly beautiful.
Ever mindful of their role as cultural ambassadors, Alash usually include explanations of each element of their music when they perform traditional sets, including their vocal techniques, their instruments, and the themes of their songs. They’re masters of the form, so whether you’re new to Tuvan folk music or have loved it for years, expect to be entranced.
Alash Fri 1/27, 8 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, Szold Hall, 4545 N. Lincoln, $25, $23 members, all ages