Yat-kha were a three-piece on this occasion. Band leader Albert Kuvezin sat hunched up on the right, bringing thunder with his electric guitar and buzzing, subterranean bass growl. On the left, Radik Tiuliush added the scraping, whinnying noise of the igil (a form of two-stringed cello) and khoomei, the throat-singing I’ve gone on about so much. In the centre, pony-tail and beard clearly visible against the screen just behind him, Evginiy Tkachev looked reassuringly like a grizzled rock drummer, all bare arms and sproutings of hair, while covering percussion of all sorts.
Between the three of them, Yat-kha simply rocked the Barbican. I don’t mean that they blasted away for two solid hours. Far from it. For most of the film, Kuvezin’s folkish guitar doodling led the band gently from scene to scene, responding to the early Soviet propaganda-sized emoting up on screen, but saving the most eloquent passages for the long, slow shots of the Tuvan landscape, all empty plains and brutally rugged hills.
The igil turns out to be particularly good at imitating the sounds of a horse and of a hard wind whipping through a yurt. I doubt that this is coincidence.
The singing can also sound like the wind, or a ceremonial horn, or, frankly, nothing you’ve ever heard before. It was wisely kept to an elegant minimum in the first half, which for the most part told the story of a young herdsman’s misfortune in having a prize fur stolen at market by a rich English trader, then how he falls in with the local Soviet partisans.
The second, wilder, half of the film tells how he is captured by the occupying English, is sentenced to be killed, but survives to be identified (mistakenly) as a legitimate descendent of Genghis Khan. The English then attempt to set him up as a puppet ruler, only for him to finally escape and rally the Tuvan cause against the oppressors.
This rather ripe plot clearly caused political problems; the film was butchered by the Soviet censors, and the quality of image is awful in places where it has had to be reconstructed. Nevertheless, it’s a fine example of high Soviet film-making, with some blaring whip-cutting and sophisticated montage. Early on, as the herdsman leaves his yurt, unaware that he will never return, the hut slowly fades out of existence behind him, communicating his final leaving of home in the most concise manner possible.
There are two absolutely stand-out scenes in the film. The first records a Buddhist ceremonial dance. This starts with Yat-kha mimicking the horns and cymbals of the monks, then slowly builds through a stately procession to a whirligig masked stomp. It’s probably of some ethnographic interest, but in the film serves mainly as a foretaste of the storm to come.
The storm, which has been building with careful slowness through the film, finally arrives in its final couple of minutes, when the herdsman makes a leaping escape from the English encampment. Soldiers are sent rushing after him as he makes off on horseback. Yat-kha are racing, too, by this point. The herdsman screams vengeance on the thieves who have stolen his country, the intertitles flashing in and out of picture as he glares out of the screen at the audience. The soldiers are closing in.
Then, without warning he is accompanied by a raging Mongol horde. The wind is roaring across the plains, pummelling the soldiers, sending them tumbling backwards, tearing up trees, covering the land with seas of debris. By this stage, the band on stage are sounding like a horde themselves. It’s impossible to tell where all the sound is coming from, whether it’s from an instrument or those extraordinary voices. This bone-humming music, these cthonic harmonies from deep within this eternally stamped-upon people. After all the art, the careful guarding of folk tradition, the slow, slow horsetrot of nearly two hours of film, for a couple of minutes the Tuvans remember Genghis Khan and roar.