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Mongolian Throat Singing

By G. Michael Schneider

February 10, 2008 

One of the most bizarre and enigmatic styles of music encountered during my two-month stay in Mongolia is khoomii , officially termed "overtone singing" by linguists, but almost universally known in English as Mongolian throat singing. It is unlike anything I have experienced during my travels abroad, and certainly not like any other sound I have heard emanating from the human voice box. It is produced deep in the larynx and appears to come from the singer's chest rather than the mouth and lips, creating a sense of disorientation as one wonders who is producing the notes and how it is done.

A khoomii song begins as a low bass rumble, and the listener has more a sense of "feeling" the music than "hearing" it. The singer next begins to generate multiple tones at the same time, each one clearly discernable to the human ear. Our voice, like all musical instruments, does not produce a pure tone but, instead, generates a single fundamental pitch along with multiple harmonics. That is what gives music its richness and depth. However, because the fundamental tone is much stronger, our ears only hear what appears to be a single note. A khoomii singer, by reshaping the mouth, tongue, larynx, and nasal cavity diminishes the strength of the fundamental tone while simultaneously enhancing the harmonics, so all tones become distinctly audible to the human ear. (I can't begin to understand the physics of all this, so don't even ask.) The overall effect is of someone singing an entire chord rather than a single note. However, the best khoomii singers are not finished. To this collection of bass notes they add one more tone--a high-pitched, ethereal, bird-like whistle. The result is that a person can sing a melody in the upper octaves while simultaneously accompanying himself ( khoomii singers are always male) harmonically in the bass.

Trying to describe in words the resulting sound is virtually impossible. One possible way is to compare it to the theramin--a sound generating machine that is played by moving one's hand around within an electronic field. This instrument (if you can call it that) was often used to produce the eerie, alien-like music used in the sound tracks of 50s sci-fi flicks. But that description does not really do it justice. At a khoomii concert a first-timer (like me) does not so much listen to the music and appreciate the artist's skills as much as sit in awe wondering if the person on stage is really singing or just lip-synching to a tape of a synthesizer!

Khoomi first appeared in the early 19th century in the provinces of Western Mongolia and Siberian Russia, especially the Russian province of Tuva , the epicenter of khoomii study and practice. Its exact origins and the reasons, if any, for wanting to produce this rather unusual sound, are unknown. Although a few DVDs are available in the marketplace, it is an art form not well known outside the region. The great majority of people, even those living in Mongolia and Tuva, are unable to master the larynx and mouth control needed to produce the desired effect. Those who do become accomplished are often rural, nomadic herders who would consider cutting a DVD or playing a large concert hall quite foreign. The few skilled khoomii singers in Ulaan Baatar earn their living appearing at cultural shows for western tourists. One of the most popular is the State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble who perform each summer at the National Academic Drama Theater. Another popular show is put on daily by the Tumen Ekh Song and Dance Ensemble at the State Youth and Culture Theater in Nairamdal Park .

Khoomii Singer Playing a Traditional Horsehead Fiddle

Khoomii is of interest to scientists trying, so far unsuccessfully, to understand the physics of the music. It is also of interest to some western recording artists drawn to its haunting sound. There have been a few examples of strange (to say the least) Khoomii /western duets. The most unusual surely must be the song "Genghis Blues" on the album Planet Soup, featuring a duet of Frank Zappa and Kargan-ol Ondan, a throat singer from Tuva. Art indeed does make for rather strange bedfellows!

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