New Asia’s Chorchok

cover art for ChorchokHere’s a little gem of music from Eurasia. If you are as fond of overtone singing as our former staffer Big Earl Sellar was, you might be interested in New Asia’s Chorchok. They’re from the Altai Republic in southwestern Siberia. It’s a region of high mountains and windswept steppes that borders Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia.

Before I go any further, I want to note that this is most definitely folk rock music, not traditional Altai music, even though New Asia employs many traditional instruments. Dobrynya Satin plays most of those traditional instruments, which include the topshuur, a two-stringed plucked lute or zither; the ikili, another two-stringed zither played with a bow; the tyadagan, which looks and sounds a bit like an autoharp, one of the most ancient instruments in the region and one closely linked to “throat singing”; the khomus, the Altai’s version of a Jew’s harp; the shoor, a three-hole end-blown flute; and the amyrgy, a wind instrument that is said to mimic the sound of the Altai maral or Siberian red deer. And Satin also does the vocals, sometimes in overtone or throat singing and sometimes in regular voice. The Altai overtone singing seems to be a type of khöömei that’s most common in Tuva and Mongolia.

The other band members all play mostly modern instruments: Alexander Trifonov, who composed many of the tunes, also plays keyboards including a smokin’ Hammond style organ; Roman Fionov is the recording engineer and plays electric bass guitar; Dmitry Krestovozdvizhensky plays electri guitar; and Konstantin Balakhnin drums. The album’s title Chorchok means something like “fairy tales” or “legends from ancient times,” and the band draws on Siberian, Central Asian and Mongolian songs, stories and styles. But the songs all list the names of lyricists other than “trad” in addition to the music composed by Trifonov or New Asia as a group.

The album has seven tracks – six songs and an instrumental – covering a pretty wide range of styles. It opens with “Topshuur,” an homage to the traditional instrument and the style of music it plays. The song moves between overtone and regular vocal styles in a western style verse/chorus/verse structure and a three-beat time signature. Though it starts with a very pastoral setting of overtone singing accompanied by the topshuur and light synth strings, it rises to a dramatic climax that includes electric guitar with distortion pedals. Things really kick into overdrive on the next one, “Shunu Warrior,” the tale of a traditional warrior sung in a very modern setting. It’s Altai trad music meets Deep Purple or King Crimson, with electric guitar riffs and organ inventions over a driving rhythm set by the topshuur. “El Oyin” is a full on folk rocker depicting the folk games and sports that take place on the song’s titular national holiday, and “Kai Chorchoktiy Altaida” is a patriotic power ballad about the homeland set to swelling synth strings and wah-wah guitar.

A little light diversion is offered by “Konokrad,” a traditional comic song about a horse thief complete with clopping percussion and singers imitating neighing equines. There’s lots of mock bravado in the vocals and some cheesy tremolo in the Lowrey style organ, and even a reggae beat in the middle section. If Pirates of the Caribbean ever somehow visits the Eurasian Steppes, this would be a good theme song. Also a little bit cheesy (that’s not necessarily a bad thing!) is the closing track “Derevenskie Tancy – Village Dances.” This one with its accordion and straight-ahead drumming has a bit of a Frankie Yankovic vibe – Upper Midwest polka night, only with throat singing.

The centerpiece at track four “Strannik” or “Wanderer” is my favorite. It’s almost entirely instrumental with some wordless but soaring multi-tracked vocals, but otherwise it’s a showcase for all of this band’s instruments both traditional and modern. It maybe goes on a bit too long at seven and a half minutes, but it needs the time for lovely solos on the fiddle-like ikili, the strummed tyadagan and plenty of topshuur, twanging Jew’s harp, flute, plus organ, synth and electric guitar solos, all over a driving rock rhythm from bass guitar and a full drum kit.

You’ll find Chorchok in the usual streaming and sales platforms including Bandcamp.

(CPL-Music, 2022)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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