One of the world’s best Tuvan throat singers lives in Portland. His name is Enrique Ugalde—though before explaining who he is, maybe it’s best to explain exactly what it is he’s famous for.
“A low and strong guttural buzz with whistlelike melodies over the top, sometimes sounding like a flowing stream and sometimes like a leaf blower,” is how Ugalde describes the oddly hypnotic noises he’s able to make come out of his mouth, all at the same time. “It’s the sound we hear that nature makes.”
Ugalde, who studied vocal performance at Cal State University Long Beach, placed third in the International Throat-Singing Symposium in Kyzyl, Tuva, in 2008, the highest ranking for a non-native. Now he’s bringing his talents to the international stage: He’s about to embark on a European tour performing Tuvan folk songs, which will eventually lead him back to Tuva, where he will appear at a conference on throat-singing and perform with some masters of the form.
So how did Ugalde, a taxi driver who grew up in San Francisco, get involved with such an esoteric folk-music tradition?
“My friends and I were, especially in the ’90s, very…neo-tribal,” he says. “We were turned on by anything ethnically obscure.” When a friend passed along a mixtape containing the Tuvan group Huun Huur-Tu, Ugalde was instantly fascinated. He took the cassette home and immersed himself in the Khöömei technique, whose organic whir recalls the didgeridoo.
Moving to Portland two decades ago, Ugalde—who also goes by Uger Khan, or “Milky Way King” in Tuvan—has turned his fascination into something of a second career. He’s introduced the art of throat singing to a wide variety of stages, from the reality television show America’s Got Talent in 2010 (“They absolutely hated me,” Ugalde laughs) to, more recently, a pool hall in Corpus Christi, Texas. Ugalde aims to tailor each show to the specific audience. “I try to be as present—incorporating the room, the people, what’s going on—during a performance, and I try to express that as truly as possible,” he says.
Under the stage name Soriah, Ugalde’s efforts are more modern, combining shamanic ritual performance with what he describes as “big regalia and more contemporary instrumentation.” “With Tuvan throat singing, the big lesson I’ve learned is that it’s basically a reflection of your environment in sound,” he says. “I live in more of a technological world, so I kind of gather what’s around me, and I reflect my environment, the moment, back to itself.” The upcoming competition in Tuva, however—part of a larger event that explores the origins and physical aspects of throat singing—is an opportunity for Ugalde to perform in a traditional folk arena.
“In Tuva, they’re
just really excited that somebody from the outside has brought so much
love to what they do, to their culture, [let alone] somebody from
America,” he says. “They’re all trying to be Westerners, and it’s kind
of freaky to them that somebody would—I guess, in a sense—revert back to
an ancient way.”