Floating in Vibration:
How a Portland Cab Driver Became a World-Class Tuvan Throat Singer Named Soriah
A champion Tuvan throat singer shares the stage with the world’s most celebrated gothic rock star. This sounds like the start of a Surrealist film. Yet this is exactly what happened when legendary Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy invited Soriah to be the opening act during Murphy’s San Francisco and New York City residency shows this year.
At one of the New York shows, in August, Soriah grabs everyone’s attention as soon as he comes onstage: with his face painted white and the rest of him almost hidden under an elaborate outfit involving a huge hat and voluminous robes, he looks like a cross between a sorcerer and a shaman. A murmur passes through the audience when he lets loose with almost unearthly guttural Tuvan throat singing, and the supernatural-sounding overtone singing (where he achieves the seemingly impossible feat of singing two different notes simultaneously). Then he brings out Tuvan instruments most people here have likely never seen nor heard before (an igil, a two-stringed bowed instrument; a kengergee, a large drum; and a doshpuluur, a kind of banjo). On some songs, he adheres to Tuvan tradition, while on others, he introduces electronica, trance, industrial or goth elements, using a looper effects pedal. It’s probably safe to say that Soriah may be the most uncommon performer in the city tonight.
While some audience members seem taken aback by this enigmatic sound and vision (and a couple of people even mutter questions about whether what he’s doing is “cultural appropriation” before they make a pointed exit), most people stay and watch Soriah’s full set with a kind of silent, mesmerized intensity.
So it’s strange, four days later, to sit down with Soriah in Wild Willy’s, a pirate-themed bar on Bleecker Street. In a t-shirt, without makeup, he dines on jerk chicken wings and beer as he talks freely about his life in Portland, Oregon, where he moved 23 years ago (from California, where he was born and raised). His real name is Enrique Ugalde, and when he isn’t performing, he works as a taxi driver. He is chatty and upbeat. In other words, he seems almost opposite to his otherworldly onstage persona.
The obvious question: how on earth does someone with his background become an expert Tuvan throat singer? He smiles at the question. “It’s a very non-conventional type of endeavor,” he admits. Soon after his move to Portland, a friend gave him a mix tape featuring a Tuvan throat singer; he was instantly enthralled and began trying to figure out how to do it. But things really started to click when, in 2005, he attended a throat singing workshop in California and began studying under native master teachers. In 2008, Soriah participated in a major competition in Tuva, the birthplace of throat singing (located in the Siberian region of Russia). He won third place in a main category – an almost unheard-of accomplishment for a foreigner. Since then, he has competed regularly, and is now the highest ranking non-native Tuvan throat singer in the world.
He took the stage name “Soriah” and began performing across the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Mexico. Over the years, he has released six studio albums, eight live albums, and several singles on compilations (available on his Bandcamp page or via links on his website).
He has also collaborated with many rock artists, including Modest Mouse, Perry Farrell, GWAR, Psychic TV, Trance to the Sun, and fellow Portlanders The Dandy Warhols. He says electronica music blends particularly well with throat singing because “a lot of these synthesizer sounds are actually mimicking sounds that happen in nature,” and reflecting nature is also the ultimate goal with throat singing.
Perhaps Soriah’s most significant collaboration, though, came when Bauhaus bassist David J approached him after a show in 2011. They’ve been good friends ever since, performing together both in concert and on recordings. Through this connection, Soriah met Peter Murphy, who then invited him to open his residency shows. Soriah says his work and theirs pair well together because “I’m using a dark aesthetic, darker sound, which is in common musically with their material. And David and Peter recognize the healthy quality of darkness – embracing it. You don’t learn anything by shunning it altogether. You have to face it. And that’s what I really want to do, is to show people that you don’t have to be afraid of the darkness, you can work through it and it can be a transformative experience.
“What I try to do is create a hypnotic state with the throat singing, with the frequencies that I do. That makes our consciousness a little bit more pliable. And I try to inject positive healing aspects into that. So in a way, it’s a shamanic cleansing with every performance. It’s coaxing out the darkness and wishing it away. It’s meant to be a healing endeavor.”
In addition to his performances, Soriah – now the master – has taken on students of his own. He conducts lessons via Skype, or in workshops. He says his group of students is small but highly dedicated. He is adamant that everyone – male and female – has the ability to do this. “We all have the physiology in order to make these sounds. It’s just about stopping the mind and listening, and then you compose your environment back to yourself. If someone had difficulties learning to do this, it would be psychosomatic, it wouldn’t be physiological.”
Busy as he’s been with all of his various projects, though, he has still repeatedly returned to Tuva, renting an apartment and staying for months at a time. In fact, later tonight, he will head to the airport to undertake his 11th trip there, even though he admits it is a very expensive and arduous journey: it involves a flight to Moscow, another flight to Abakan, Siberia, then a six-hour car trip.
By now, it’s no longer just throat singing that draws him back to Tuva again and again: he also has a five-year-old son there, named Enriquito, born to a Tuvan woman. It is likely that Enriquito will also become a throat singer – and not just because of Soriah’s influence. “His great-grandfather was the very first Tuvan [throat singing] superstar; he toured around Russia. So he’s got that lineage even without me. But whenever I’m with him, I sing to him all the time.”
Given his family ties to Tuva, as well as demonstrably immersing himself in the Tuvan traditions and current way of life, he shrugs off the question about whether his Soriah persona verges on cultural appropriation. “Tuvans view me as one of their own,” he says firmly.
Three weeks after the Wicked Willy’s dinner, Soriah speaks on the phone from Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva. He says his rental apartment is very nice, with a lovely view of the Yenisei River. He sounds relaxed and happy as he relays the news that since arriving there, he competed in the “Khöömei in the Center of Asia” throat singing contest and won for “Best Performance of Kargyraa,” which is the low guttural droning style of throat singing. It’s yet another prestigious award to add to his list, but he’s extra excited about this one because it validates a new technique that he created himself.
“I think I won because I developed my own style, this intense, profound thing that nobody else does, where I utilize my uvula. What’s really great is that now [because of winning], this is legitimized in the canon of throat singing. Now that I won, I have all these people trying to mimic what I do, which is great – it’s my contribution to the form. That blows me away.”
Being back in Tuva, especially after doing so well in this latest competition, seems to have put him in a reflective mood about his craft. “The thing about the human voice is, it’s so vast. There’s no end to the possibilities of different timbres and tones and sounds you can make. It’s incredible.
“[When] people see me in clubs and theaters, I’m bringing the experience that you can find here in Tuva, there. I want it to be transportive – a deep, profound experience for people. Going into these ecstatic states and bringing them out onstage in front of an audience is an extraordinary thing. My ultimate goal is to become transparent, to disappear. I can forget myself in the performance, and just relay the divine quality of the moment and transport everybody to a place where we transcend our bodies and our minds and are floating in vibration. That’s a really healing thing.”
He sounds content and peaceful. If he can be that way, despite the challenges that come with dividing his life between two very different worlds, perhaps he really is onto something.