Throat Singer Soriah Reveals a New Sound and Two International Rewards

Projekt Records releases Atlán, a melodic and lush CD by innovative Portland performer Soriah in collaboration with Ashkelon Sain.

It's been a busy year for Soriah. The solo project of Enrique Ugalde, a Mexican-American throat singer and ritual performer, combines his mastery of the khoomei Tuvan throat singing tradition with contemporary Western influences from noise to Goth. He received international awards inkhoomei, finished his latest album, and signed to the long-standing independent record label Projekt.

The Atlan record release party happens August 21 at the Someday Lounge in Portland, Oregon.

The new sound of Atlan

"Atlan is a contrast to my last album," says Ugalde, "which was pure power noise, very intense and very harsh. Atlan is an's more relaxed, though it definitely has some intensity. You can dance to subtle tribal-trancey rhythms with hand percussion, yet it's smooth and graceful."

Ugalde's personal life and musical evolution paralleled the experience of making the new album, which he considers more accessible and conventional than his previous work. "I had lived my life pretty precariously, and that was evident in the format of my music," he says, calling his previous album "a kind of sonic exorcism." After expressing that darkness, he says he was "at peace with moving in a different direction."

Collaborator and producer Ashkelon Sain is known for his band Trance to the Sun and for weaving strands of melody and moody washes of sound into sumptuous sonic tapestries. Ugalde credits him with bringing Soriah's latest tranformation to fruition. "He's an extremely adept producer, and he's able to convey my wordless ideas. I'm the generative force, and he defines it, refines it, makes it accessible. He's also an awesome musician who can effortlessly create these wonderful moods that are fertile ground for me to sing on top of. It was spontaneous."

Competing in Tuva

Tuva puts the central in Central Asia. Smack in the middle of the continent, this region of 300,000 residents is an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation–and the ancient home of khoomei. Here, masters of the form celebrate with the International Symposium of Khoomei Competition. In 2008, they awarded Soriah third place, making him the third best khoomei singer in the world. The video of his performance went viral among musicians on Facebook; it can currently be viewed on MySpace at . Traveling to Tuva, Ugalde also received the 2008 Ustuu-Khorree World Music Festival award for "Best Foreigner."

Throat singing is sometimes introduced to American listeners almost as a gimmick, like an Optigan solo or a theremin whoop quickly jammed out by the band's rhythm guitarist. Traditional khoomei might be sampled briefly in a dance track or attempted by earnest but unschooled dilettantes. Serious throat singers, however, like serious thereminists or talking-drum players, achieve their uncanny, haunting sounds through constant practice and committed study.

Having personally known and collaborated with Ugalde for years, I watched with curiosity over the last decade as his throat singing advanced from self-taught circular breathing to a layered, expertly controlled depth of sound, as he studied with masters of the form on their teaching visits to the West Coast. The difference was recognizable even to an ignorant layperson. Khoomei, it seemed, was like wine: even Three-Buck-Chuck drinkers like myself can be carried away by a complex and nuanced Chateauneuf-du-Pape, should some wealthy friend happen to open one in our presence.

Khoomei sounds like three or four singers with a full array of digital effects on their microphones, backed by deep bass and maybe a didjeridoo. In fact, when listening to Ugalde sing, you're hearing one set of lungs expertly expelling breath through one voice box: the one in his throat. The sounds resonate and expand, creating harmonics, high notes trilling above deep ones, along with a trance-inducing circular sound like the swirling of water. The layers of sound work their way into your body like a wall of feedback from Sonic Youth–without the amplifiers.

"You're working with the physics of sound," Ugalde elaborates. "These overtones are naturally occurring things, they're in nature As a singer, it's something that you have with you all the time. People are blown away that you can do that without the technology."

From the Mall to Portland

Khoomei is his latest, perhaps deepest subject of training, but Ugalde draws on training in the kirana style of raga–East Indian classical music–and choral, pop, Western classical, and religious singing that goes back to his childhood.

"I grew up in a musical family," he explains. "My father was a drummer in a band in Mexico in the sixties, and he was a good singer. His love of music translated to me." Ugalde began playing guitar and singing in the Catholic church as a kid, and joined the school choir. "I was known right away for my singing. Like, I would get solos for performances we'd do in the mall," he says, and then laughs for a good thirty seconds. Going to high school in Fairfield, California, the kind of town you pay no attention to on the drive from Sacramento to San Francisco, Ugalde was the first student to ever be accepted to the California State Honor Choir, which enabled him to travel and perform.

Then came deathrock, which he cites as a major influence to this day. "Especially with this album, deep electro-ethno-ambient music influences me, and neo-tribal noise," he adds. Drawing inspiration from Crash Worship, Steve Roach, Bauhaus, Dead Can Dance, and Muslimgauze–along with more mainstream influences like Jane's Addiction and The Cure–he played in Bay Area bands and experimental music projects throughout the mid nineties, eventually landing in Portland in 1996.

Here Ugalde found "a lot of freakiness and integrity–Portland has that so much more than the Bay Area. It was great. Portland at that time still had this awesome very small town feel. No one outside of Portland gave a second thought about this city back then. I certainly hadn't. What came from here back then? Dan Reed? The Motels? Even in the grunge days, a lot of people had never heard of the Wipers."

In the mid to late nineties, during what he calls "the post-grunge fallout," Ugalde found that below-the-radar music scenes filled the void. "Though most of the time you'd be playing in front of the band members of the other groups, it was the perfect underground scene."

For several years, he played as a multi-instrumentalist, rather than a singer, soon working regularly with no fewer than eight gigging bands. One was Black Orchid, which gathered musicians ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties (including me), who brought far-flung influences and musical chops to an improvisation and performance art mentality.

Another was Sumerland, a favorite of the small but committed local Goth and darkwave scenes. "I started focusing on Sumerland about 1998. The band was perverted Goth, but beautiful; Dorien Campbell's lyrics are all about sex and paganism," Ugalde says. The band signed to Middle Pillar Records out of New York, released two albums, and did some touring. In the early 2000s, Ugalde decided to focus on khoomei and his theatrical solo performances complete with costumes and live rituals.

Soriah in the Swamp

He's played for late-night rock and burlesque fans at Dante's, arts-focused audiences at the Enteractive Language Festival, and thousands of spectators at the Bay Area's infamous Exotic Erotic Ball. But many of Ugalde's favorite venues pop up in unexpected places, from the Shanghai Tunnels beneath the city of Portland to volcanos, deserts, and forests.

At Reed College, a Soriah performance took place in a wetland canyon where Ugalde created a stage in a swamp, under a full moon. "People stood on this little island, and I was knee-deep in the mud. I hid a small speaker in the bushes, playing a field recording of a frog pond, so I was singing on top of this backtrack of frogs. That activated all the real frogs in the swamp, so they started singing, too. The swamp became this 360 degree performance from all sorts of swamp creatures, crazy squawking birds, racoons were baying at the moon... this massive symphony of swamp creatures, and all the sounds were swirling around me as I performed."

Utilizing natural and urban spaces, and then collaborating with them, has been a hallmark of Ugalde's work since the early nineties. In Oakland, he made vocal field recordings in cemeteries and hosted illegal Trespass Parties at abandoned factories and security-patrolled storage fields full of empty shipping containers. When he began immersing himself in khoomei, he found that the Tuvans were intent upon finding "the perfect place to perform."

Animists who believe that all nature is infused with spirit beings, the Tuvans "perform specifically for the place they choose. It doesn't matter if there is an audience of people. It gave me an appreciation for listening to and watching what's around me." Likewise, whether in urban or natural environments, "Guerrilla performance is always about finding or creating the perfect moment and environment, using what's there. The places I choose are special places I'd like to honor, like an ocean cave, in a tree, or with my body buried in the earth in the forest. Places that don't have turnstiles or bars."

What comes next for Soriah? Ugalde would like to promote the new album with a tour–albeit in venues that might have turnstiles and bars–and hopes to do so as the opener for a larger band. (Soriah was tapped to support Faith & the Muse on the U.S. leg of their international tour, but the North American shows were cancelled before being booked.) In the meantime, Ugalde will continue to explore the many frequencies and harmonics he can produce simultaneously using nothing but his breath and his voice.

"I think people aren't used to hearing frequencies like that," he says. "It  breaks a lot of social and cultural taboos. It blows your hair back and it's a very intense, visceral experience through sound. I hope that it encourages people to be self reflective, to think about where they're from and how it applies to them."

Soriah online:

Top: Tonacayotica Video shoot, September, 2008, photo by Eveline Darroch
Middle: album cover, Atlan
Next: Ex Conventa de Santa Teresa, Mexico City, October 2008, Photographer unknown
Bottom: Stolen from Oaklandopolis; photographer unknown. Please contact us at neworegonarts at gmail if this photo is yours!

About This Story

  • Author: Tiffany Lee Brown
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012