Global Beat Fusion: Carmen Rizzo Tackles Tuvan Throat Singing

09/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"It's such a hard sell," Carmen Rizzo tells me from his Los Angeles studio. "There are so many artists who are from other countries who want to do American Idol bullshit, or be the eastern Coldplay. I say: Why?"

The topic of discussion is Inbar Bakal, an Israeli/Iraqi/Yemenite singer who re-rooted herself in the City of Angels to forge her way into a dance-pop career. Then she met Rizzo, whose credits include work with Paul Okenfold, Seal, Jem, and many other well-known acts. He persuaded her to make a U-turn -- her heritage, he said, would be so much more interesting. Rizzo himself had been tinkering with some incredible global music projects, including the Persian-electronica trio Niyaz, and another trio featuring a singer once going by the name of Rosey, Lal Meri. His instincts proved correct.

Bakal, as Rizzo says, called his bluff, and asked him to record a track together. They did; it turned into six, which formed the basis of her excellent self-titled debut on Rizzo's own Electrofone Records, a boutique label which at the moment features only three acts. "It's important that labels have identity," he says, "which is often missing. If you think of Six Degrees or Ninja Tune, they have such strong identities that you just buy it because you know it's going to be good. That's something I'm trying to form."

The third act -- outside of Bakal and Rizzo himself -- was the topic of discussion: a Tuvan group of musicians known as Huun Huur Tu. The band formed in 1992 and is pretty well known in the world music circuit; they have a strong following, being known as a breakthrough throat singing project. Outside of Yat-kha, which features a former member and co-founder of Huun Huur Tu, Albert Kuvezin, and Sainkho Namtchylak, not much is heard from the polyphonic sprees of Siberia.

These musicians try to be heard, however. Namtchylak has performed with numerous orchestras and recorded with Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan. Even more outlandishly, Kuvezin and Yat-kha released Re-covers in 2006, which featured throat sung versions of "When the Levee Breaks," "In a Gadda Da Vida," and "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Novelty, yes, but the album is damn good on its own merits. Then you have Huun Huur Tu, which has released twelve albums, plus two with Bulgarian Voices, leading to their current release with Rizzo, Eternal.

It is a phenomenal album, something I've personally been waiting for since I first heard this band nearly ten years ago: throat singing tempered by electronica. Don't think four-on-the-floor dance cuts; instead, envision powerful and tasteful low-end, percussively intelligent, moving and sweeping in the landscape while strings and voices grace the surface. There is something inspired in their vocals; with traditional instrumentation, it is an extremely powerful live experience. I've just never heard anything that captures the style so well on record. You're not going to hear throat singing turning on whatever radio stations still exist, which is part of the reason Rizzo launched the album from his own label.

After being asked to mix the album by producers Vladimir Oboronko and Mark Governor, Rizzo took the bold step of stating "in my opinion it needed a lot more than mixing." He wasn't being facetious -- he knew the band had the world music crowd locked down. He wanted to "attract the yoga crowd, the Whole Foods crowd, the KCRW and NPR crowds. I wasn't convinced that that audience was ready to hear a pure throat singing record. Hopefully they're going to find a new audience with this album."

There is a strong possibility of that, from my perspective. I've been spinning tracks from Eternal in my yoga classes over the past few weeks, and a number of people have approached me after class singling out their tracks. As it is, I don't believe in such a thing as "yoga music"; it's more about finding and sequencing music that fits the mood, and Rizzo nailed it for the structure of a class. Yet there is so much more to these eight songs than scoring a movement class, albeit meditative as some of the songs are. The album is dynamic and graceful in a way that Tuvan music has yet to be presented.

"I kept telling them: having nothing to do with me, you need to make a different record," he says. "I know you've worked with Ry Cooder, the Kronos Quartet, even Frank Zappa, but there has not been a Huun Huur Tu record showing Western sensibilities. What I did not want to do was a remix record. It would have been too easy to pick apart what they did and make some sort of coffee table remix album. That would have been disrespectful. I really wanted it to become collaborative. It naturally evolved to that."

The challenge was one that defied time, literally: the Tuvans did not use a click track, so their sense of time and tone proved extremely different to a Western ear. (This is partly why this form of music challenges the American listener, much like Gamelan drumming and Chinese opera.) Performing "surgery" on a number of tracks, Dr. Rizzo retuned and retimed to his heart's content. While this might be a generic statement, it is nowhere near false to say this is unlike anything you've ever heard. The parts are all recognizable, and you instantly feel a sympathetic connection to the creation, which adds to its beauty.

The future of Yemenite wedding music and shamanic throat tunes lies in the realm of independent releases. Then again, it always did. Rizzo has used his successes in mainstream music to fund and fuel his love for the music of the world. Electrofone might be a boutique, but its goods are worthy of broad attention. With the care and detail he's placing in each of the acts he's helping launch -- such a basic and yet lost instinct: to help artists establish actual careers in music rather than churning out sonic rhetoric -- he is helping redefine what it means to be an independent musician, and only further proving that quality has nothing to do with quantity.

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