The Tuvan Republic is one of 83 constituent entities of the Russian Federation. Located in southern Siberia and bordering western Mongolia, the Tuva’s population of just over 300,000 puts it roughly on par with the Lincoln, Nebraska metro area and places it as the seventh smallest of Russia’s constituent entities. A majority of the Republic’s population is ethnically Tuvan, a group whose recent ethnic history is rooted in Mongol, Turkic, and Samoyedic groups of peoples.
Yet despite (or perhaps because of) their small numbers and geographic isolation, their unique style of throat singing has gained a cult following worldwide. Tuvan throat singing is believed to have its roots in mimicry of sounds found in nature. As the name suggests, the singing originates deep in the throat and primarily composed of buzzing and whistling sounds. A singer will simultaneously produce several notes, with distinct styles of throat singing being centered around different base sounds.
The distinctive sounds of Tuvan throat singing probably received their greatest American audience thanks to “The Big Bang Theory”, where Sheldon Cooper has been known to dabble in the practice. Likewise, it was a British band that popularized the old American blues song, “When the Levee Breaks”. Originally recorded in 1929 by the blues duo of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, the song was written as a musing on the turmoil caused by the Great Mississippi flood of 1927.
Of course, Led Zeppelin reworked the song and recorded what may now be the definitive version of the song on Led Zeppelin IV. That recording was notable for its heavy use of production effects, including a backwards-echoed harmonica, slowed tempo from the actual recording, and John Bonham’s iconic, bombastic drum part recorded with mics two stories above him at the bottom of a stairwell.
But while Zeppelin relied heavily on production effects to achieve their sound on “When the Levee Breaks”, the unnatural natural sounds that Albert Kuvezin & Yat-Kha bring to the song are entirely manmade. The end product for us to enjoy is an American blues song that was popularized by some Brits, brought to us by some ethnically Tuvan Russians. I’m pretty sure Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie would approve of the way their song has traveled the globe.
When the Levee Breaks – Albert Kuvezin & Yat-Kha