Kyle runs a music school in California. He stumbled across Tuvan throat singing and self-taught it. In this interview we discover more about Kyle’s musical teleportation to Kyzyl, among other places across Inner Asia.
Kyle Abbott runs his own school of traditional Japanese music. He lives in California, and frequently travels abroad. What connection does he have to Russia and Tuva? Well, Kyle taught himself Tuvan throat singing, transcribing lyrics without understanding a single word and practicing khoomei until he got it! His talents combined with strong interest in Tuvan culture allowed him to whistle sygyt and hum khoomei indiscernibly from a Tuvinian.
I stumbled across Kyle’s videos on YouTube and instantly thought to ask him the how and why questions. In the West, Tuvan throat singing is not something one comes across often, let alone learns. It does not usually seem to have the traction and audience. In this way, Kyle’s case was outstanding. Without further ado, let us find out first-hand how an American musician discovers the sounds of the steppe.
About Kyle’s discovery and interest in Tuvan throat singing
How did you discover Tuvan throat singing? Why did you decide to start learning it?
Around 2004, I was listening to an internet radio from the Smithsonian Folkways website. Basically, the ‘radio’ consisted of random songs from their vast collection. One of the songs played was a field recording of a Tuvan throat singer. Hearing the whistling of sygyt instantly captivated me. I was fascinated with traditional music from around the world, but Tuvan throat singing especially caught my interest. Anything I enjoy the sound of, I want to be able to do myself, and so I wanted to begin learning.
I loved the sound of throat singing, but assumed that to begin the art of throat singing, one needed to start from childhood. Around that time, I found the movie ‘Genghis Blues’, where a blues singer in San Francisco teaches himself how to throat sing. It was incredibly inspirational. As one who self-taught himself a range of string instruments, that movie gave me the confidence to just start learning!
Luckily, I found a MP3 Khoomei Crash Course online (by Brian Grover). It explained many different approaches to Khoomei, Kargyraa and Sygyt. On the first day I tried Khoomei, I could hold the tone for only 4 seconds. But within that 4 seconds, I flicked my tongue which caused the harmonics to sound, and I instantly knew that Khoomei was possible! After waiting a day for my throat to heal, I immediately started again. On the next attempt, I could sing for about 10 seconds before my throat hurt. The next attempt lasted one minute. The next attempt five minutes. After that, I could sing as long as I wanted without pain!
Khoomei was relatively easy to get a grasp of. Kargyraa was possible, although generating a deeper tone and being able to change vowels and pitches while still keeping the ventricular folds vibrating.
Sygyt required the most experimentation, moving the tongue around until the optimal placement was found to achieve the focused harmonics. For that, I just experimented while making lunch or taking a bath. And one day, it finally clicked in!
I mostly transcribed the lyrics, listening to recordings over and over again and writing down what I heard.
You discuss on your website that string instruments have many similarities, what are the main similarities and differences of the Tuvan Igil in comparison to instruments you play from other cultures?
The main similarities between instruments is the relationship of the strings. I.e., when you press the string, the pitch changes. When you get a sense of how the pitch changes by how higher/lower you press the string, you can quickly advance with another stringed instrument, as those same basic principle applies. The main difference would be the horsehair strings and pushing the strings with the fingernail. Admittedly, lack of time has kept me from getting very skilled at the instrument, but even just simple bowing is very meditative.
Who are your favourite Tuvan, Russian and Mongolian musicians?
Above all, Alash, Chirgilchin and Altai Kai are my favourite.
About keeping folk culture relevant
What do you think are the best ways of keeping age old folk music relevant to modern day?
I ponder this question often. Alash mentioned something very interesting during their concert in California. Basically, they said they were performing a “living tradition”. They meant that while they were doing a traditional form of throat singing, most of the songs were modern (originals), their instrument had modern influences (nylon threads instead of horsehair), etc. That made a lot of sense. Basically, the world is constantly changing and evolving. If an age-old art form is to continue, it must go with the flow of time, like the current of a river.
Do you incorporate this sort of adaptation into your work?
Indeed, this is my mission with the shamisen. There are many who want to keep the instrument within it’s traditional, strict aesthetic style and guidelines. There is nothing wrong with this desire, and if they can get funding/support from cultural groups, this traditional aesthetic should be maintained to some degree. However, people are moving on with the evolution of society. If we live in the bubble of one era, can we expect people to stop their flow to come into our bubble? Many in the traditional shamisen world think this, and because of this, many shamisen retailers must shut down due to lower interest. Makers die out (from old age) without new makers to replace them, because they were unwilling to share their secretive art.
How would you suggest to popularise ancient folk music in the future?
The best way to keep the music relevant is to make the instruments accessible to the world. Incorporate it in other musical styles. Make it easy to find, pick up and play. We can’t force people to become interested in what they don’t know or care about. But assuming we are open/willing/cooperative enough to allow our treasured traditional instruments to be included into the international “stream”, for example if someone hears igil on a pop song and they become enchanted with the sound of igil, they will likely search for it and eventually discover the folk music from where it came.
On that note, many non-Japanese people have started learning shamisen and traditional songs not because they already loved traditional Japanese music, but because they heard the sound of shamisen on Anime cartoons when they were kids.
About Kyle’s school of Japanese and world music
You run a school and community of Shaminsen and Asian music. Please could you say what aspects of Asian musical culture have resonated most with you and your students? What are your principles when fusing musical styles from East and West? And when promoting Japanese music across the world?
The school and community I run is mostly for the Shamisen instrument. The quality of the shamisen that resonates most with myself, students and the community is the way it’s both melodic and percussive at the same time. Both percussion and melody are two aspects of music that has been a part of human history for, as commonly assumed, over a million years. Most instruments can only achieve one or the other. Those who are especially attracted to rhythm will play drums, and those who are attracted to melody will play violin or guitar or whatever else. Because the shamisen can simultaneously achieve both melody and strong percussion, it is incredibly alluring.
How do your interests in Shaminsen fit in with the rest of the world music you play?
I notice that shamisen fits in very well with folk music from around the world. Why? Although there are various classical forms of shamisen, there is also a distinct folk style of shamisen. I notice that folk music from around the world (Appalachian, Scottish, Russian-Tuvan) share a special connection. Folk music is a way for real people to express their daily life experience through music. They express the toils of work, the happiness of being with friends, the sadness of losing family, and much more. Everyone around the world has these same feelings, and although the specific melodies might be different, there is a shared spirit of in folk music. Thus, I think folk style of shamisen fits in very well with all folk music.
Anthropologists speculate that early string instruments travelled across Eurasia, perhaps from Africa. The three-stringed lute migrated eastward, it’s shape changing wherever it went. Such an instrument arrived in Japan only about 500 years ago, where it became the Shaminsen. Again, because of this, the shamisen can often fit very well with folk music from around the world – crucially including with the Tuvan Igil. When the descendant plays with ancestor lutes, it’s like a family reunion!
How do you go about fusing western and eastern music? For example, for mixing Igil with its American counterparts?
Originally, my background is in Bluegrass folk music, which I started when I was 7. When I picked up Shamisen at age 14, I simultaneously studied the main traditional styles. As I gained skill with the instrument, I tried fusing traditional Japanese aesthetic style of shamisen with Bluegrass. In my opinion, it was a huge clash. I was sticking to a very specific scale and sticking it on to another very specific aesthetic genre. Approaching it in that inflexible way, it felt like there was a wall between the two styles.
It is similar to two people with starkly contrasting beliefs trying to converse. If both people enter that room only expressing themselves through their beliefs, of course there will be a clash. There is no way to resonate or connect if both people are just outwardly expressing an aesthetic. Similarly, there are many shamisen players who spend 20+ years mastering a specific aesthetic style of shamisen. Without question, within that particular style, they are true masters. After reaching this master level, some have made fusion albums, combining their style of shamisen with pop music, world music or other. It feels very uncomfortable, because while this particular master is a legend within their own style, they have no awareness or ability to “flow” together with other musical genres. It just sounds layered.
However, when two people of differing beliefs enter a room, the way they can connect is to emphasise the human element. No matter what we believe, we are all humans with emotions. When you become skilled enough with an instrument, the instrument can be used as a way to express personal feelings. Thus, when two skilled people are playing instruments from different cultures, the way they should seek to fuse is by having a deep and empathetic musical “conversation”.
Do you mix musical traditions in your performances and work?
Recently, I’ve been enjoying playing with a friend who has lots of experience with Romanian/Gypsy music. He integrates his diverse experience into his Shaminsen style. My style is also influenced by Bluegrass, Greek, various forms of Metal and other styles. How we use those influences depends on our moods and emotions at the moment of performance. How we play goes beyond bridging styles. We’re connecting to one another as emotional creatures of the world.
I still love playing traditional Japanese music on shamisen, but recently I am using shamisen as my vehicle to connect with people around the world (Others do the same with Tabla, Balalaika, Bagpipes, and more). Not pushing a specific cultural music, but rather sharing an instrument that we can all enjoy for the unique qualities it has.
Thus, we see how encaptivating Tuvan culture and a series of accidental events led to khoomei making it across the ocean. For Kyle, I think we all wish him all the best in his creative endeavours and his efforts in promoting Inner Asian culture, in particular, the shaminsen. Many would have stopped at assuming throat singing was something one picked up from birth – Kyle’s persistence is praiseworthy. I would highlight a few of his answers for the conclusion.
Tuvan, and other equally ancient, cultural traditions live on if they are “alive”. They need to adapt to new styles and fashions, keeping themselves relevant. Tuvan folk music has done just that – remained relevant by being reproduced in new forms, fused with genres from all around the world. Examples like Hartyga illustrate this. Such adaptation breathes new life into arts of times bygone and much can be learnt from the success of throat singing in Tuva and the rest of Inner Asia.
Kyle also highlighted the similarity between string instruments. The musical map of Eurasia depicts a smorgasbord of relatively similar flavours. We have inherited compatibilities from the way our cultures cross-pollinated. The values of folk cultural traditions are also roughly compatible. At a time when we seek cross-compatibility for a foundation for integrative initiatives, common folk cultures could lay down a much needed and sizeable brick.
Lastly, Kyle pointed out the absolute keystone of cultural continuation and popularisation – awareness and availability. How can one learn something if they are not aware of its existence? This rhetorical question serves to point out to cultural stakeholders that if they feel strongly about a niche element, they should do everything to get the word out. Get some exposure going. Then they will find young enthusiasts like Kyle to take up the flag.
And thus, hats off again to the very talented Kyle Abbot!