Joel Dwek & Danny Wiser
Interview: We Will Never Die - Albert Kuvezin from Yat-Kha
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Six years on from their previous release, despite being hampered by the pandemic, Tuvan folk-rockers Yat-Kha delighted fans earlier this year with the release of their most stripped back album to date, We Will Never Die. Fortunate enough to be joined by lead vocalist and guitarist Albert Kuvezin, we discussed a range of issues, learning about the intricacies of throat singing along the way.
“Western rock musicians like for example Jimi Hendrix, they wanted to find such kinds of sounds through pedals and effects, but suddenly I understood that we in Tuva, we are happy, we have this naturally."
The wind howled across the Central Asian steppe, the sun shone brightly over the endless river banks, and horses could be heard neighing vociferously across the sweeping alpine landscape. A lone figure marched across the unforgiving countryside. A city boy unsure of his surroundings, he looked across to see if any shelter could be found. In the horizon, a yurt came into his line of vision; he approached it hoping to quench his thirst and satiate his hunger with a small nibble of yak’s cheese. To his surprise, what lay inside was a rarity in the then-Soviet Union: a Led Zeppelin LP.
Western music was of course strictly prohibited in those days, with some rebels trying to get their fix by tuning into certain radio waves during the night. To discover a vinyl like this meant that someone had to go abroad and risk a stern punishment by bringing it back to their homeland. In this case it was a Soviet sailor who grew up in Tuva as the son of a shepherd, who felt compelled, when on a mission in Japan, to bring the sound of hard rock to his fellow townsfolk. Though for many traditionalists, external influences would not only be unappreciated but actually discouraged, for a young bass player in a teenage band, discovering such a unique find lit a fire in his soul and could be pinpointed as one of the many eye-opening moments in his youth that led him to where he is today – the world’s premier throat-singing rockstar.
Albert Kuvezin initially thought he would never be a singer as he quite simply believed didn’t have the voice for it. “In school, I had even been thrown away from the choir, because they thought my voice was horrible!” Undeterred from finding his place in the world of music, when he heard the state was organising a school band he enthusiastically put his hat in the ring. Though “the most talented guys” got to play lead guitar and hammer away on the percussion, there was one spot left that nobody wanted. From Trinidad to Tokyo, Toronto to Tuva, there is one eternal truth in rock music: the bass player is always the butt of the joke. Nonetheless, Kuvezin seized this opportunity to develop his musical talent by understanding the rhythm section of a band and latterly to compose riffs.
On the road to becoming one of the planet’s most unique throat singing voices, this experience also proved crucial to Kuvezin as the main vocalist of the group, Hertek, heard the young bassist imitate his voice and thus took it upon himself to show Kuvezin some traditional Tuvan melodies by throat singing. Perhaps embarrassed by the sound of his voice, much-slated by his peers and choirmaster, Kuvezin would hide his attempts of singing even from his family by practicing in the bath to produce a sound. He quipped, “my first rehearsal was in the bath”.
Kuvezin notes the difference in opportunities available during his youth when compared to the Tuvan youth of today. Now in Tuva, there are throat singing classes taught in art schools and music colleges and in 2021 a throat singing academy had even opened. This is a marked difference from Kuvezin’s salad days in which it was totally oppressed by the Soviet authorities. The reason why throat singing survived the Soviet era and many other cultural persecutions over the centuries was that it remained a valued oral tradition, handed down the generations and practiced privately amongst family and friends.
Throat singing acts as a link to Tuva’s cousins across the region from Mongolia to Altai, though there remain some key differences in style and sound. Kuvezin explained that the Tuvan style is closer to that of Mongolia than to the Altai’s, due to the fact that the Altai traditionally use throat singing to tell epic tales about heroes alongside instruments, whereas in Tuva, throat singing is used as in instrument in its own right. Links to Mongolia run deep as Kuvezin delineated, “except the language, we have everything the same with the Mongolian people.” The Tuvan-Mongolian cultural alliance is not strong by mere coincidence, but rather due to an intertwined political history that has united the two nations.
Kuvezin told us an abridged version of Tuva’s modern political history. Until 1911, Tuva and Mongolia both belonged to China as part of the Qing dynasty. Whilst Mongolia sustained its independence, Tuva became technically independent, but in reality after 1914 was dependent on Russia for its political authority. Despite the Russian dependence, after the Russian revolution, Tuva became a semi-independent socialist state in which many of its citizens felt a greater kinship to Mongolia due to economic ties that still remained. “For a long time, Tuva paid taxes to Mongolia. A big part of [the] Tuvan people always thought they were a part of Mongolia. But in the 1930s these people were repressed.” In 1944, Tuva was subsumed into the Soviet Union for good, which Kuvezin believes had changed little in terms of the state of affairs for his fellow countrymen. He continued, “it was same like [it was] in Soviet times... total repression and all these people were killed or sent to prison.”
Under the thumb of Soviet dictatorship, Kuvezin had intimate experience with trying to maintain both a level of freedom and self-expression, whilst at the same time avoiding the long arm of the law. He fondly remembers his close scrapes with the authorities, but is wholly aware that these memories are only nostalgic due to the fact that he always seemed to have a lucky escape, with just several slaps on the wrist being doled out to him as opposed to a more severe punishment. He reminisced about “apartment gigs” which formulated part of the unique subculture in the Soviet Union where illicit styles of music would be performed in communal flats. What’s more, small gigs would be arranged in remote clubs in the city suburbs which officially would require a special application. “They called it the Artistic Commission, they gave you kind of licence to perform. I tried maybe three times. I never get once!”
Asked whether there were consequences to these underground performances, Kuvezin expounded that the police did indeed catch them on a handful of occasions. Instead of going through official channels they would prefer to accept bribes rather than go through the bureaucratic hassle of processing paperwork which would end up back at their school; this would be particularly problematic if one was a member of the Youth Communist organisation.
Kuvezin and his peers were obviously wary of the challenges of playing music during the era of communist dictatorship, but these were in some ways easier to navigate due to the explicit nature of the law. What he perhaps felt less equipped to deal with was the backlash of Tuvan nationalism that he would come up against throughout his career, despite carrying forth one of their most treasured traditions, as they believe that Kuvezin’s rock fusion is a dilution of their culture. The throat singer feels that nationalism in Tuva has its roots in their relatively brief stint as an independent republic. Despite politically being a fairly unsuccessful movement, Tuvan nationalism has won the hearts and minds of many in the region and as such this ideology continues to persist until today. However, in a perverse way, Kuvezin is somewhat grateful for this culturally conservative strata of society because “it helped to save our language and culture”. Without their fervent belief and pressure to preserve ancient traditions in their original form, much of Tuva’s booming arts and cultural scene, from stone crafting to throat singing, would be considered relics of the past.
The challenges that Kuvezin faced to perform almost paradoxically came from both ends of the political spectrum, both of which attempted to stymie the progressive and creative exploration of the youth of the day. “Both Tuvan nationalists or conservative people and communists, they both didn’t like experiments. So, I got a lot of… it’s not like real problems but I couldn’t get the possibility to play my music publicly on the stage.” The reaction of nationalist audiences have not only been a hill to climb for Kuvezin when playing at home, but he also came up against similar hostility when performing elsewhere in Russia. At first Kuvezin acknowledged a positive reaction from some, curious about the “exotic” nature of his performance, but this soon turned sour. “I met kind of nationalist and Nazi reactions again, because they didn’t like such kind of sounds. They shout at me ‘go back to tundra, yellow ass’” he recalled.
Nevertheless, Kuvezin soon found his place in the music world, carving out devoted audiences who would be enchanted and enamoured by his rather unique playing style. He has played in numerous collaborations with artists from across the globe, citing some of his favourite experiences as playing alongside Norwegian metal bands, traditional Taiwanese musicians and even the Irish folk band, The Chieftains. He has toured across the world and loves observing the marked differences between cultures in their reaction and response to his music. “You know, like Spain, Italy – they’re very hot people, at the same time in Netherlands or Germany they have a long history of world music and they know many kinds of traditions from Asia and Africa. I was first surprised in the USA where the people, if they like your music, they, in the end of your performance, they stand up and make an ovation,” speaking of his appreciation of world music scene established in the 1980s. “For me it was a real surprise, because here, in Russia or even in Europe it was rare in those days.”
Speaking of identity, he recognises the big part that his Tuvan upbringing and culture has had on both his personal life and career. Nevertheless, these experiences playing across the globe have shaped Kuvezin into a citizen of the world, appreciative of all of the world’s traditions, both musical and otherwise. “I just feel like I am part of all the big world, but at the same time I feel like I am a Tuvan guy.” This view of the planet should come as no surprise given that his musical career has only come about as a consequence of his exposure to music from all over the world. Despite clandestine ways of tuning into foreign radio waves and occasional stumblings across Led Zeppelin LPs, his exposure to the West’s plethora of music stylings only really came to the fore after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to Kuvezin, “it was like a big explosion, a big fountain, and I started to listen to alternative music when the perestroika came”. Though the flavour of the day back at home was Deep Purple, as an influx of music arrived from countries such as Germany and Japan, his favourites were British and American independent artists like Sonic Youth and Joy Division.
Alternative music is most certainly not the only genre that Kuvezin considers an influence. As an accomplished guitarist, Kuvezin inevitably looks to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, legends in their own right, but also to riff-gods Lynyrd Skynyrd, blues legend Taj Mahal, and West African legend Ali Farka Touré. As a singer and composer, though his key inspiration is not a throat singer, Kuvezin feels a great kinship with American esotericist Captain Beefheart, joking that he could be him in reincarnated form. Rock is certainly at the essence of what Kuvezin does. Though the uninitiated might look at his work as a novelty, due to the incorporation of a vocal style that most outside of the Steppe are unfamiliar with, Kuvezin is undeniably at heart a rock musician. With this in mind, he does not wish to carry the burden of being seen primarily as a cultural preserver but rather that his inclusion of throat singing in his music is predominantly a means of expressing his “own artistic thoughts”.
He himself notes that as a younger man he was only interested in using music as a tool for self-expression, however, as he gets older he understands the importance of preserving throat singing as a tradition, and thus feels a certain weight of responsibility upon his shoulders to carry the torch for this beautiful vocal style. He pondered, “we live in a neighbourhood with big nations like Russians, Chinese, Mongols. I know that some Siberian small populated peoples [sic] they are dying out, disappearing from the world, they are losing their own languages, music, cultures and traditions, they start to assimilate with Russians or Mongols, so it is very important to save our own identity as an ethnic group, and of course [so is] music culture.” Even though his goal is simply to create good music, he nonetheless is self-aware enough to realise his role as a cultural ambassador having broken many barriers that other throat singers have been unable to achieve in gaining fame, notoriety and respect in the wider music industry.
However, at the start of his career Kuvezin was a founding member of arguably Tuva’s most famous folk ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu. His stay in the band was relatively short-lived, as he disliked having to perform in the same way as everyone else without as much freedom to innovate musically, something which he came across once again after founding Yat-Kha, bringing in sound producers who tried to stamp on his ideas and even took away his solo guitars. In recent years, he has self-produced his work, which has its own limitations he acknowledges. At the same time, he is a big proponent of creative liberty and as such prioritises this in his professional endeavours, stating that he wishes “other musicians to try to be just free, as an experience for them.” Yat-Kha's 2021 release We Will Never Die was initially recorded in Southern Germany before Kuvezin had to continue recordings in the Russian city of Abakan due to limitations brought about by the pandemic. Joined by backing vocalist Sholban Mongush on igil (a bowed horsehair two-string cello) which really shines on both Shartylaam and Bodap Choran, Yat-Kha's album kicks off with a beautiful blues ballad on Kongurgai and we are soon reminded of Kuvezin's talents, not only as a droning vocalist but, as a guitarist throughout. This is particularly evident on the instrumental track Ak-Oruk. There are also two excellent covers of rock classics, namely Solitude by Black Sabbath and While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles. Kuvezin’s idiosyncratic style manages to make both covers memorable and distinct from their iconic originals.
As novices to the technique and structure of throat singing composition, we naively questioned Kuvezin about the difficulties of setting lyrics from other languages, as he so deftly does on tracks such as the aformentioned Solitude on their latest album and an older cover of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart. However, Kuvezin informed us, that the challenge comes not from the application of foreign languages, but rather the application of language altogether. This is because in Tuva, the throat singing traditions are not used to convey lyrics but rather are used as a vocalisation. The technique, which he explains took a long time to adjust to, is now something he has mastered and somewhat pioneered. Kuvezin’s compositional process begins from the guitar melody which he often bases on traditional songs, and then looks for lyrics to fit his skeletal base which he then sends to his band. The group will typically improvise with the more traditional arrangements with which they work, sardonically retorting “we have some interesting ideas, some bad ideas.”
Considering Kuvezin uses lyrics from traditional songs and sources as well as the fact that many Tuvans simultaneously practice a unique blend of both Tibetan Buddhism and their own Shamanism, we were curious to know if religious texts play a part in his selection of lyrics. Furthermore, we were keen to discover whether religion and spirituality are key facets of his daily life and music in general. At this moment in time, Kuvezin no longer draws upon a belief in Buddhist Shamanism in the production of his lyrics, however, he informed us that “when I started I used many melodies and texts from Shamanism, and also was interested in Shamanism and oriental philosophical schools”. Formerly a practitioner of Esoteric Buddhism, a strand of the religion characterised by personal relationship with a guide, he explained that he no longer holds a belief but still remains fascinated by spiritual practice. He continued, “right now I just have an interest, maybe more like a scientist for Shamanism. So I still use their texts, but I am not religious at all.”
Kuvezin taught us that whilst throat singing is not an inherently religious practice like Tibetan chanting, some shamans do use throat singing and believe that it is connected to the spirit world. “Each style of singing is connected to different levels and different kinds of spirits.” Kuvezin added, “for example, low style, my style, kargyraa, is connected to the spirits of the heaven; some styles are connected to the spirits of the water.” Acknowledging that his especially deep voice might not typically be associated with angelic imagery, he joked that audiences outside Tuva “thought this sound was connected to hell!” In fact, in performances in the major cities of Moscow and St Petersburg “all the people thought I am a shaman myself, and I connected to the dark side of reality.”
The Yat-Kha frontman makes clear that opportunities to learn throat singing are more accessible than ever, with there even being online workshops for foreigners in Tuva. Though YouTube videos might be a 21st century way of learning the practice, they still at their core maintain the same principle of requiring the tradition to be passed orally from person to person. Though Kuvezin does not teach throat singing, he once owned a book, published in the 1950s, that attempted to notate throat singing. He points out it would be incredibly difficult to learn from due to the fact that there are lots of overtones that surround the main sound, making it a challenge to write and read. “One Russian composer and ethnomusicologist, he had written down on the paper a notation of throat singing, and it looks like a small orchestra or band. It is not just one line,” said Kuvezin.
These days the Tuvan Cultural Centre and Academy are looking to make a methodology for Westerners to learn. However, perhaps the most immersive way that outsiders can learn the practice themselves is heading to the Tuvan Rock Club, of which Kuvezin is the honorary president, where they can hopefully catch him giving a rare performance there. In typically self-effacing style, Kuvezin explains that his contribution to the club is limited. “I just come and watch the concerts, watch the young musicians, and there is a director and other people, they arrange everything. I just come for the festival or if they need me to come and show my face.” This underplaying of his position at the club further demonstrates his desire to foster a new generation of talent, with many young Tuvan bands like Hartyga with whom he has collaborated benefiting from his ample experience and guidance.
Through the existence of locations in which Tuvans can express themselves through music, be it folk, rock or even hip-hop, it seems like a great deal of progress has been made from the days of the Soviet Union. However, do not be fooled by the shiny veneer of ‘acceptance’, as just like many other ethnic minorities, Tuvans remain all too aware of the ephemeral nature of this current state of affairs. Kuvezin believes that for the Tuvan arts scene to continue to flourish, they must employ a certain level of brinkmanship with a government that they may fear due to the treatment of other minority groups. “Tuva very much depends on Russia financially today, so we have to be diplomatic to get money, but at the same time to push our culture, or at least save our culture.”
One thing is for certain, regardless of Tuva’s burgeoning music scene perennially living on a knife edge, Kuvezin is unfazed by the prospect of changing attitudes towards his music. He told us that due to his “underground, alternative music with a horrible sound from your throat” in which he plays “with electric guitar, loud, so it is not like Russian rock music”, nor is it like “classical hard rock from the UK”, neither is it folky enough to be considered an “officially allowed folkloric style band”, he has had trouble cementing his place in the music world from day one. Having certainly achieved his goal, gaining a loyal global audience along the way, avoiding the erstwhile communist authorities and swerving the barbed critiques of Tuvan nationalists who both tried to stop Kuvezin in his tracks, with a wry smile he declared, “I always have been in between these legal styles”. Whatever Tuva’s future holds, Kuvezin’s devil-may-care attitude and one of a kind music is certainly here to stay.