RIP Vladimir Oidupaa 1949-2013

Another brilliant and influential Tuvan musician passed away recently (september 2013): Vladimir Oyun Oidupaa. Here is an excerpt from “Overtone Singing. Physics and Metaphysics of Harmonics in East and West”, 2004.

Tuvan city blues
Of course the majority of Tuvans have other things on their minds than traditional music. Modernity has permeated every corner of the republic. Tuva now has industrial areas, stadiums and post offices, paved roads and bridges, a parliament, concert halls, alcoholics and small crimes, so-called Dutch cheese, MTV and American B-movies. In the countryside private trucks come and go to fetch people and bring Russian bread, one finds camping tents next to the yurt, and some households are the proud owners of a portable hi-fi set with flickering lights of Chinese make. Once, after hours of driving a long winding dirt road, and believing that I was further removed from Western civilisation than I had ever been, I was struck like lightning by a nine year old youth in a yurt that inquired, in all seriousness, “Are you Arnold Schwarzenegger?”

The modern world is reflected in popular culture in many ways. The introduction of the accordion gave rise to a more worldly, strongly rhythmical type of throat singing. The Russian accordion or bayan had become popular to harmonise Tuvan songs in the 1960s. New, lyrical song genres emerged as the bayan caught on, some with influences from Russian folk and popular music. But it wasn’t until the late seventies and early eighties that the instrument began to be used as accompaniment to throat singing.

About a year before my first visit to Siberia Tuva aficionado Maksim Shaposhnikov introduced me to various styles of Tuvan music. I had been a practitioner of overtone singing for some years, and had already heard quite a few strange things either on recordings or issuing from my own, experimentally-inclined mouth. That night my curiosity was particularly peaked by something that I had never heard before and could hardly imagine to be human. It was a recording session made by the Tuvan radio of a singer named Oidupaa Oyun (henceforth called by his first name), accompanied by himself on the bayan. Oidupaa’s reputation was enormous, his person surrounded by mystery, his music unmatched, so much Shaposhnikov could tell me.

Most of the recordings that Shaposhnikov played were distorted by an artificial reverb. Some began or ended with a loud click that was repeated and then faded away slowly. In most songs the accordion started with a familiar Tuvan melody, but played in an unusually fluent and catchy style. Then, a low buzzing kargyraa voice would start to sing a melody in a very Tuvan, yet uncommonly bluesy way. There could be no doubt that this was a great master of the kargyraa voice. Other singers I had heard simply sang a drone and overtones in the deep register. Oidupaa succeeded in producing a complete and fluent melody one octave lower than it is usually done.

It was not just the profound notes which he produced that stirred me with disbelief. They were accompanied by a symphony – others would say a cacophony – of harmonics and long-drawn onomatopoeic sound effects. The whole sound was immensely rich in terms of resonance, more than any human voice I knew. It also reminded me of the sound of the so-called ‘wah-wah pedal,’ an effect used by rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and his late-1960s contemporaries to manipulate the sound spectrum of the electric guitar. I knew that there were similarities between this effect and creating vocal harmonics. But never before had I heard such electrifying, noisy wah-wah-like sounds from a human voice. Oidupaa sounded like the Jimi Hendrix of Tuvan throat singing.

What Oidupaa did was hold the tone of the last phrase and stretch it out, mould and modify the timbres extensively until he finished his breath. When Shaposhnikov first played this music for me I thought I heard a Spitfire whizzing by. I could hear it climbing up and up until it could not go any further. It made a few rounds, loops and barrel rolls, and then dived down again with dazzling speed, as if aiming for the very centre of the earth. Oidupaa’s voice had immense power, emanating from deep inside his chest, stomach, or perhaps the earth beneath his toes. A roaring, melodious ‘oo-ay-oo-ay-oo-ay-yeeee-ye,’ repeated twice, brought Oidupaa back to earth. With feather light notes of the accordion he flew on, like a bird, to the next quatrain.

A year later, when I was in Tuva myself, I was eager to have a meeting arranged with him and started asking people about Oidupaa. His age was estimated at anything from thirty up to sixty-five years by different Tuvans. Several Tuvans said that they were his friend and claimed to have talked to him a while before in Kyzyl. But in my apartment overlooking one of Kyzyl’s notorious jails, acquaintances told me that he was imprisoned somewhere else. He had supposedly been sentenced twice before for severe crimes, serving seven and eight years respectively. Now he was sentenced a third time to serve a term of fifteen years in a prison far away from his native country. Even worse was the rumour that he had died not so long before.

Oidupaa’s social status was just as controversial as his age and place of residence. Like traditional musicians and wandering minstrels in other societies, such as Mississippi bluesmen and the rembetika musicians from Greece, Oidupaa was a hero and an outcast at the same time. His poetry was unmatched, yet he was considered a criminal. He never made a mistake musically, but failed hopelessly in society. He had introduced a completely new feeling into the national khöömei genre. A feeling and a sound that is rough, powerful and unpolished, in a way quite different from the roughness which is naturally inherent in kargyraa. This was more the roughness of motorcars, apartment blocks, industry and, last but not least, of jails. Oidupaa had created a musical analogy of the glorious ánd less glorious sides of the developments that had sky-rocketed the Republic of Tuva into the modern age.

When I finally learnt that Oidupaa was likely to be alive though imprisoned, finding out exactly where he was doing time was no easy task. By the time I left Tuva in the autumn of 1993, the whereabouts of the renowned singer and accordionist Oidupaa were still shrouded in mystery. All I had were some commercial tapes of the poorest imaginable quality with a few songs by him, alongside some recent recordings of Tuvan pop groups. Upon my return to Tuva in 1995, I met Oidupaa’s son Tana-Kherel (‘Pearl-Beam’), who earned a living by building traditional instruments. It turned out that Oidupaa had been an accomplished player of the chadagan dulcimer, long before he had taken up the accordion. Tana-Kherel had just received a letter from his father, who was indeed imprisoned far beyond the borders of Tuva, and whom he had not seen for years. In jail Oidupaa was converted to Christianity, and he had recently taken up painting.

Oidupaa may well be the first in human history to use the voice so naturally, musically and with such flexibility in the deep bass register. He inspired younger generations of Tuvans, who regard him as an example of their experiments with throat singing and Western-style rock music, even though that wasn’t exactly what he did. Several others, like Yura Deleg and Mönggün-ool Dambashtai, borrowed elements from his original musicianship and created their own styles from it. The latter is a semi-professional throat singer and bayan player from Ak-Dovurak in west Tuva and knows many techniques of throat singing. In 1995 he was one of over a hundred participants in the international khöömei competition in Kyzyl. He left a strong impression with a catchy, humorous song of his own, which he performed with a deep kargyraa voice and bluesy bayan reminiscent of Oidupaa. The recording that Maksim Shaposhnikov and I made afterwards in Dambashtai’s hotel room is one of the ways that Oidupaa might sound today if he would be a free man.