Bringing Altai throat-singing from Siberia to Prague


In this week's Arts, a look at the music of the Altai Republic in Siberia and attempts by one man to bring it here to the Czech Republic. He is Prague-born Ludek Broz, who's currently doing a PhD in social anthropology at Cambridge University and who also runs a company which encourages tourism and business opportunities in the Altai region.

Ludek, when did your love affair with Altai begin?

"It began a long time ago, in 1994. Just after I finished my A levels, I went to Altai with a friend of mine, who managed to purchase several quite good maps of the region. And we found it really fascinating that such high mountains far away could be depicted in maps so precisely. So we decided to go and visit, and I was really excited about the spot. I liked the people, I liked the country, the landscape. At the time I was studying chemistry at Prague's Charles University, but just before I finished my BA, I actually decided to change my subject to social anthropology."

A crucial part of the culture of any nation is music. You've brought along some CDs from the Altai region with you. Can you tell us more about this extraordinary form of music?

"The music of the Altai region is very specific, and similar music styles can only be found in neighbouring regions such as Mongolia, Tuva and Tibet. So it's unique to this Inner Asian region. The term for this style of singing is overtone, or aliquot singing."

Is that also known as throat singing?

"Yes, that's the third term that can be used for describing this style of music. What is usually fascinating for Europeans is what might be called the 'schizophrenia' of this form of singing. One singer makes the noises of two people, as if at the same time. One is low, and the other is very high."

It must be a very difficult thing to do.

"It is an unusual skill. No-one really understands how this sort of voice is produced. Many people say that, actually, all of us produce these overtones when we sing, but we produce them in an inaudible part of the sound spectrum. The skill those people have cultivated for centuries is in bringing it a bit lower so people can actually hear it. I'd like to play you a song which is performed by Altai Kai, one of the most distinguished music ensembles in the Altai Republic.

Altai Kai in Prague
This song was composed by Emil Terkishev, and it's called 'Attar', which means 'Horses'. As you can imagine for that region, horses are a very important part of your life, especially if you're a young man. This song tells us about the 'Argymak', which is the name of a mythical horse, which can only gallop, and never stops unless you tell him to stop. So he never gets tired."

"What we can hear is the throat-singing, plus a traditional Altain instrument called the topshur. It's a two-stringed balalaika-like instrument. Another instrument which is very typical of the region is the ikili. It's again a two-stringed instrument, but it's used in the same way as a cello."

You're involved in bringing this music to Prague. The Czech Republic was once Czechoslovakia, and that was once part of the Soviet bloc. Did people during those four decades of Communist rule have the opportunity to listen to this sort of music?

"Not really. A few Czechs, as part of socialist expeditions, went to Altai in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were mostly people who did white-water rafting and climbing there, and though some of them wrote a few books about Altai in Czech which were published in the early 1980s, almost none of them mentioned this style of music."

I'd like at the end to hear another piece of music - what have you picked for us?

"It's a song about a little rabbit, which is being hunted by an owl and a fox. If you check out the original texts as collected by ethnographers in the 19th century, you see that the wording is very different. The story goes that during the Civil War in Russia, Altains actually adjusted the song so it fits Whites and Reds, who were terrorising equally the local population and trying to make them take sides. And they are the rabbits who are running between the fox and the owl."

Altai Kai will be performing at the Smetana Hall in Prague's Obecni Dum on September 18th and 20th, together with Hradistan, the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Jumping Drums and Brenda Jackson. They'll also be a solo Altai Kai concert at Vysehrad on September 21st.

For more about the Altai Republic, see