Milt Jackson. Stefon Harris. Bobby McFerrin. Keith Terry. Jackie Rago. Andy Narell. Linda Tillery. Eddie Marshall. Marcus Printup. Rova Saxophone Quartet. Fred Newman. Gee's Bend Quilters/ Singers. Baka Pygmies. Tibetan Monks.
These are just some of the illustrious musicians who have come to The San Francisco School over the years to share their talent and genius with the kids. And now we can add one more.
Tuvan throat singers.
Three Tuvan singers and one American, Shawn Quirk, came to school yesterday and rarely have I seen the 100 elementary children who gather daily to sing so completely mesmerized and moved by what they heard and saw. This group, named Alash, is on tour and graciously offered to stop by. (The next day, they’re going to L.A. to teach Lily Tomlin to throat-sing as part of some Netflix show she’s working on!)
If you’ve never heard Tuvan singing, get thee to Youtube and prepare to be amazed. It is one of the highly-developed overtone singing cultures, with refined techniques that allow them to sing more than one note at a time and make melodies with the overtones above the fundamental pitch. These three also played a Tuvan drum, fiddle and banjo-like instrument. For me, one of the highlights of the presentation was getting to sit in with them on my own banjo and have the kids sing Oh Susannah.
When I introduced them to the kids, I said something like this:
Kids, the world is so much larger and wonderful than you would ever find out just watching TV or listening to the radio. There are remarkable cultures out there with incredible music and stories and ways of living that we can learn so much from— or at least be delighted by. There are also remarkable people that will never be famous in our country that have remarkable talents to share. You are so lucky that today you will get to meet some of these people and their culture. Enjoy!
Nomads who live on the plains above Mongolia, the Tuvans depend on and revere horses. When introducing the instruments, Shawn told a beautiful story about the fiddle with a carved horse’s head. He told of a boy who witnessed the birth of a horse whose mother died. The rich and greedy man in power told the boy to kill the baby horse, but the boy secretly raised him instead. The horse grew to be beautiful and powerful, but the rich man found out and hunted the horse down and forced him off a cliff to his death. The boy, now a young man, grieved deeply over the loss of his horse, but was visited in a dream. The horse told him to go to his body and make a fiddle from his skin and bones and hair and in that way, the horse would sing on in the fiddler’s hand and his spirit live on in the music. So every time the fiddler plays, the people’s connection with horses and the whole miracle of creation and the bounties of the natural world is affirmed and remembered and celebrated. Beautiful.
Of course, with the kids, I resisted making a comparison to the Republican debates televised to millions where the American public gets to consider such thrilling high-level conversation as “Obama is a Muslim. How can we get rid of him?” Such ignorance, prejudice, disrespect for our national leader, gets big air time while the beautiful story of the Tuvan fiddle only was told to 100 elementary kids at their daily Singing Time. We seem to be celebrating that story’s rich and greedy man in power who sent the horse to his death without remorse instead of the boy who cared for him and kept his spirit alive.
But if the 100 children who heard the right story pass on its spirit, the world just might continue its slow march to healing.