Mar 16, 2010
SETTING: Thomas (elevation 3,035 feet), a town of somewhat less than 500 people, located on the North Fork of the Blackwater River in Tucker County, West Virginia.
PLACE: The Purple Fiddle Cafe, a funky music venue and deli-style restaurant located in a reclaimed general store on East Street, downtown Thomas.
EVENT: A March 13, 2010 performance by Alash, a quartet of acclaimed Tuvan singers. Tuva is a country located in Siberia, at the very center of Asia.
If you're bewildered, I understand. I used to be bewildered. Make no mistake, even now I don't take this sort of thing for granted. I'm just no longer shocked when it occurs. Such impossible events are simply what happens in West Virginia.
Living here, I've learned not only to embrace, but to expect the improbable, if not the outright impossible. Diamonds are, after all, merely carbon transformed by heat and pressure. Suffice it to say, in West Virginia, diamonds have a tendency to float to the surface where and when I least expect to find them.
Alash are masters at throat-singing, a Tuvan folk-technique through which an individual singer creates multiple pitches at one time. A 2006 Newsweek article about Alash described throat-singing this way: "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--by the same person, at the same time."
Yeah, I agree. It's something like that, but also something more. Something that instinct tells me can't be described in words--although that's not going to stop me from trying!
Within moments of hearing them I thought: This is the human version of whale song.
The sounds these men created were a primal expression of universal human yearning. For what? It didn't matter--a tractor, a horse, a beautiful woman. It was the yearning that translated with exquisite beauty. The yearning that caused many of us in the audience to sob or moan in equal parts joyful and painful recognition.
Bagpipes meet Barry White? That's getting close, but still way short of the range of emotion these four young men from Siberia conveyed to a roomful of West Virginians in a little town by the North Fork of the Blackwater River.