Sainkho :: Step Mother City
One of the more recent geographic locations the world music spotlight has turned to is a small autonomous region of Russia called Tuva, famous for their musical heritage of throat singing, otherwise known as overtone singing. Throat singing is phenomenal feat of sound and organics: creating two or more pitches with the one human voice at the same time. More and more groups originating from Tuva such as Yat-Kha and Huun-Huur-Tu are collaborating with other world musicians (e.g. Transglobal Underground) to create various interpretations. Mainstream label Warner Bros. recently released an album by Ondar, another popular Tuvan vocalist whose one track made it to the remixing machines of Hani, Thievery Corporation, and Desert, transformed heavily rotated dancefloor hits.
Throat singing was traditionally reserved for men, and from that restriction emerged Sainkho Namtchylak, a bold woman who is now Tuva's most celebrated female vocalist, residing outside of Tuva. Sainkho's latest album, Stepmother City accurately reflects who she is and where she has been. Born in Tuva, Sainkho travels between Vienna, Moscow, Amsterdam, and Milan, taking along with her various influences. And this is manifested in her album: you see a little bit Tuvan folk music, experimental jazz, reggae, soul, and electronica. But the real value of the album does not lie in its genre variety (though it does add), but in the content and vibe of each track. Being educated in overtone singing, having knowledge the dark folklore of Siberia and shamanistic ritual, Sainkho lends privy to a plethora of sounds. From screeching, birds, rain, man-made animal sounds, multi-pitched vocals, Buddhist chanting, drums of all sorts, to plain cacophony, it's all here.
Sound unappetizing? Au contraire.
This album can be divided into two parts: "Like Transparent Shadow," "Let the Sunshine," and "Old Melody" are ballad-like songs very simple in musical composition; Sainkho's vocals subtly merge into the backdrop acting as an instrument when she goes in and out of her overtone singing. It is in these tracks that we see the beauty in Sainkho's vocals chiseled to perfection over decades, yet sounding young and fresh, shedding light on Stepmother City.
Then comes the opposite pole, what some would call "avant-garde," a soundtrack to Dante's Inferno. But it seems Sainkho would not care what you think, letting her mind speak what it wants, when it wants. "Tuva Blues," having the feel of an improvisational poetry night in a smokey basement, probably tells us about her early years in Tuva, experimenting with the overtone singing she was not supposed to. "Order to Survive" has a deep, bassy Massive Attack-like vibe. It is when you get to tracks such as "Ritual Virtuality" and "Lonely Soul" where Sainkho seems to show you her song rather than just make you hear it. Shamanistic rituals over a twenty-second drum + bass break in the middle of spacey atmospherics; opera-like Bhuddist chanting over the electronics of a rhythm machine: Sainkho connects, in her unique way, Western materialism with Eastern philosophy and spirituality using material probably never used before in the field of world music.
Stepmother City is a one-of-a-kind experience; for all the reasons mentioned above. The content makes you want to meet the woman to see what she sees... if you can handle it, that is. Check out the cover of Stepmother City and decide.