Tuva or bust!

by Jessie Cole

It is possible that there is no music quite as strange as Tuvan throat-singing. Described somewhat unflatteringly as ‘a bullfrog swallowing a whistle’, essentially it is a singing style in which two or more pitches sound simultaneously over a fundamental pitch, producing a mesmerizing, even entrancing sound. Journalist Anne Underwood asks you to “Imagine a human bagpipe—a person who could sing a sustained low note while humming an eerie, whistle like melody. For good measure, toss in a thrumming rhythm similar to that of a jaw harp, but produced vocally— all by the same person, at the same time.”

Tuvan throat-singing was unknown in the west until relatively recently, and the tale of its discovery involves the rarest of travel stories – an unrealised journey. There is something inherently wondrous about a long yearned for journey finally coming to fruition. That moment of standing on top of the mountain and knowing it has taken five, ten, fifteen, forty years to get there. Travelling is awash with such tales. Everyone has dreamed at some point of an exotic location, of seeing it with their own eyes, and many have gotten there. But what about those who haven’t? Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and all round eccentric, spent a decade in the 1980s trying to get to Tuva, only to succumb to cancer just before the visas finally arrived.

The mysterious republic of Tuva hides between two mountain ranges on the edge of Siberia. Specifically, it is a 170 000 square kilometre region between modern Mongolia and the former USSR. Legend has it when the Russians were negotiating the border treaty with the Chinese in the 18th century, both sides used ‘the mountain range’ as the border in this region, neither side realizing there were two ranges, with the fertile land of Tannu Tuva nestled in between. Once an independent nation, Tuva was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944 and remained closed to foreigners until the crumbling of Russian communism in the early 1990s. It is a country of great variety with almost every type of landscape: luxuriant meadows, green forests, boundless steppes, medicinal springs, beautiful lakes, rushing mountain rivers fed in spring by melting snows, dusty semi-desert and snowy chains of mountains.

Richard Feynman was a curious character. One of the most famous scientists in the world, he was also known as a prankster, juggler, safe-cracker, amateur painter, and bongo player. He pursued a variety of seemingly unrelated interests like deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs, and lock picking, and had a perpetual desire to discover new things. He believed that the journey of discovery held just as much promise as the destination. “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong … in order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar,” he once said.

tuvan stamp

Feynman’s fascination with Tuva began as a child collecting stamps. In a brief period of independence in the 1920s Tuva produced an array of beautiful stamps depicting life on the land, and for many years these stamps were the only images to come out of Tuva, tantalizing proof that the country was indeed real. When Feynman discovered the name of the capital he proclaimed – “Any place that’s got a Capital named K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be interesting!”

And so the journey began. It took him and his friends several years searching through libraries to track down one book about travelling in Tuva, an obscure German title published in 1931. There was simply nothing else. This was in the days before ‘to google’ had become a verb, when accessing information about a far-off destination involved more ingenuity than just tapping some keys. Closed to foreigners for nearly half a century, Tuva had become a kind of obscure imagined wonderland. It took a whole decade of searching for the place to gradually become real. This journey of discovery was the subject of a 1991 book entitled ‘Tuva or Bust!’

By far the most amazing thing Feynman unearthed was the incredible phenomena of Tuvan throat singing. Throat singing exists in other pockets of the world, but it is in Tuvan isolation where it flourished. The open landscape of Tuva allows for the sounds to carry a great distance. Often, singers will travel far into the countryside looking for the right river, or will go up to the steppes of the mountains to create the proper environment for throat-singing. Many Tuvans believe in animism, a religious idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, and natural phenomena. Tuvans identify the spirituality of objects in nature, not just in their shape or location, but in their sound as well. The singing served several functions. Shamans used music to call upon spirits, conjure ancestors, discover birthplaces and connect with natural surroundings. Shepherds also used music to herd animals and imitate the galloping of horses. They sang certain songs while riding and played other music while working or relaxing. In this way, the largely nomadic people of earlier Tuva created sounds not to be analysed in Western terms; it was designed for specific ways of being. In this way, the largely nomadic people of Tuva created a music that was not easily analysed in western terms. Included with some editions of ‘Tuva or Bust!’ was a small plastic turntable record of this singing, previously unheard in the West.

Unrealised journeys hold a certain kind of romance, akin to unrequited love, or perhaps less tragically, the fish that got away. They are not the usual fare of travel writing, but what Feynman discovered about this mysterious place in all his thwarted efforts to get there was a journey in itself. It is difficult to envisage just how little was known about Tuva before the 1990s, and how revelatory discoveries of Tuvan culture must have seemed to Feynmen and his fellow journeymen. Today, Tuvan throat singing has its own wikipedia entry, and typing “Tuvan throat singing” into youtube brings up hundreds of videos. The Tuvan throat singing ensemble Alash regularly tours the US, and has their own myspace and facebook pages. A documentary, ‘Genghis Blues,’ about a blind US bluesman’s trip to Tuva to take part in the annual throat singing contest, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1999, and Kongar-ool Ondar, perhaps Tuva’s most well-known throat singer has even performed on The Late Show with David Letterman. But when Richard Feynman first posed the question – “Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva?” there was little evidence that such a place even existed.

Though it is now possible to travel to Tuva, it is still a place few travellers ever reach. And no doubt Tuva’s relative inaccessibility, (it still has no railway!), will guarantee the survival of what started out as music, not for audiences, but for the sake of communion with nature.

First published in get lost magazine, June 2010.