A superbly immediate and vivifying album, Like a Bird or Spirit, not a Face captures Sainkho Namtchylak, a great improvising vocalist with a technique rooted in Khöömei (Tuvan throat singing), in a spontaneous and mostly ‘live’ recording session with two rhythm players from Malian desert blues band Tinariwen, overseen by Tinariwen’s Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan.
Namtchylak, now 58, was born in Tuva, southern Siberia, to a couple of music teachers, but she was apparently expelled from musical college as “incapable in the field.” After that she completed her education in Moscow, began a singing career in the Tuva State Folk Ensemble Sayani, and has since become one of the best-known exponents of throat-singing, by which drone notes and harmonic overtones are vocalised simultaneously.
She’s never operated in obeisance to Tuvan musical traditions, preferring to follow a more experimental path, away from the ironically narrow confines of the ‘World Music’ circuit. She began collaborating with experimental musicians in Moscow in her early 30s, and debuted on record in 1992 with a brace of albums for German improv label FMP: the solo Lost Rivers, and a studio date with stellar musicians Peter Kowald, Werner Lüdi and Butch Morris, When the Sun is Out You don’t See Stars.
The 30 or so albums she’s recorded since include ‘world fusion’ on Out of Tuva (Crammed Discs, 1993), further encounters with improvisers, such as a one-off duet with Evan Parker on Mars Song (Victo, 1996), and four mid-90’s collaborations with the Moscow Composers Orchestra.
She’s joined here by Tinariwen’s Eyadou Ag Leche on guitar and bass and Said Ag Ayad on percussion, while Ian Brennan subtly fleshes out this skeleton crew’s sound with loops.
The two opening tracks demonstrate the album’s range. “Nomadic Mood” is a slow-burner in desert blues mode, with Eyadou Ag Leche taking the lead vocal. Namtchylak’s voice swoops in after nearly two minutes, ululating chants that soar boldly above a rhythm bed of rolling guitar licks and handclap percussion. Tinariwen fans will doubtless enjoy this; also “Erge Chokka To”, the track that delivers most uncomplicatedly on the promised marriage of Tuareg rhythmics and Namtchylak’s idiosyncratic throat singing; “Melody in My Heart”, a simple arrangement hung on spoken reminiscence and deft acoustic guitar; and gentle vocal lulling and guitar lick unspooling on the nevertheless insistent, incantatory “The Snow Fall Without You”.
These tracks are studded throughout the album. But there’s no trace of Tinariwen on “The Road Back”, which has field recording with wind and birdsong, deep bass and back-masked guitar loops, and Namtchylak’s semi-spoken and curiously childlike vocal, heavily reverb’d and fx’d, creating a shifting, dreamlike ambience. And the pulsing bass and clanky guitar that pushes “Dushkan Ezim To” has a curiously but pleasantly dated post-rock feel, disconcerting creaky tape fx, and simpatico twangs of jaw harp.
Namtchylak varies her intonation and attack to suit each shifting moment, thought to thought. She’s sing-song one moment, wordlessly vocalising the next in loud flutters and trills. She’s jittery and gasping to needlepoint plucked guitar and hand bells that tap out a repetitive rhythm on “So Strange! So Strange!”, then bleats and strangulates ululations to the accompaniment of thunderous African tribal drums on the self-descriptive “Worker Song (Nomads Dance Around the Fire)”. The immediacy of the recording is thrilling, and it seems exactly right that these visceral exercises in rhythm brooke no pause for thoughtful lyrical transcription.
I suppose I should mention Namtchylak’s vaunted seven octave vocal range, but it’s the intimacy, the warmth and depth of experience conveyed by her voice, and an apparently lustful appetite for expression that’s really remarkable. At the end of “Melody in My Heart” there’s a catch in her voice as she coos and laughs like a teletubby, but she sounds aged and crone-like when incanting over an emphatic fire dance titled “Nomadic Blues”. The latter has a curious coda, a vinyl needle-drop sample and brief snare drum tattoo; it’s just one of many felicitous production touches.
Sainkho Namtchylak vocals, guitar; Eyadou Ag Leche bass, guitars, vocals; Said Ag Ayad percussion; Ian Brennan loops.
Buy Like a Bird or Spirit, not a Face via Ponderosa Music & Art.