Tuvan throat-singing and American beat-boxing make unlikely companions in "SHU-DE!" – a film that merges travel and music to ear-opening effect.
Shodekeh, a virtuoso vocal percussionist from Baltimore, journeys by invitation to the remote Russian republic of Tuva for a national festival, hoping along the way to learn more about the traditional art that uses also uses the human voice for mind-boggling effects.
The film begins with a quote from American bluesman Paul Pena, who took a similar journey in a 1999 documentary, "Genghis Blues." Hearing the Tuvans' low tones, one can't help but think of the deep-voiced blues singers like Howlin' Wolf or the great rock belter Captain Beefheart.
However, the higher-pitched overtones in Tuvan singing don't have a vocal equivalent in Western music. They're more likely to remind you perhaps some avant-garde classical or electronic music, or perhaps it won't remind you of anything you've ever heard before.
That element of surprise, really, is what Shodekeh is after as a beat-boxer. He's of the caliber who can use circular breathing to create polyrhythms that mimic patterns created by the most boundary-pushing producers in beat music.
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Shodekeh says he wants to "push the limits of what the human body is capable of," much like martial artists. He's there to collaborate with Tuvan musicians, and their jam sessions seem fluid without much rehearsal, whether it's with more American-influenced players or the throat singers. Naturally, hip-hop culture is familiar to them, and Shodekeh finds plenty of break-dancers to play with.
The film isn't a straight biography of Shodekeh or a history in Tuvan culture. Instead, it's a slowly rolling travelogue, with director Michael Faulkner taking time to film cross-cultural performances on mountaintops or fields and near site-seeing stops. Some music documentaries neglect to allow the music to flow at length, but Faulkner lets the songs unfold in full, inter-cutting with beautiful scenes of Tuvan life. Its latitude is a few notches north of Montana, so some aspects are familiar, and others less so. The mountainsides are eye candy Montanans will recognize. The reindeer less so.
A particular stand-out is the Alash Ensemble, whom Shodekeh eventually brought back to the United States; and a performance on stage with Kongar-ool Ondar, a legendary Tuvan singer and teacher who's credited with helping keep the art alive.
As a travel film, those spontaneous moments of unexpected musical cohesion between two vocal arts developed continents and centuries apart are the real peaks.