Khoomei’n Get It: The Hidden Art of Throat Singing

August 28, 2017

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A man in traditional Mongolian clothing sits a rock and makes low guttural noises that sound similar to that of a bass instrument. His lips curve and flow, changing the tones and creating a serene atmosphere of zen tranquility.


Since overtone singing is not a part of most of America’s culture, this man may seem like he’s simply growling to any ignorant observer. However, the long-lived tradition of overtone singing, or throat singing to most, is used as a part of everyday life in many places throughout the world. Mongolia, Siberia, and even some areas in Japan and Inuit Canada are part of throat singing communities that have taken their “windpipe instruments” to another level.


The tradition of throat singing dates back to almost prehistoric times. The herders and gatherers of such archaic times would imitate the noises they heard around them in nature, thus creating a practice that has lasted hundreds of years. In Inuit Canada, throat singing was-and still is-a tradition created by the women of their ancient tribes who were waiting for the men to come back from their hunting trips. Two women would stand very close to each other, holding hands, and growl and compete to see whom of the two would falter with a laugh or a break in their breathing. It is very different from the throat traditions of the east, yet the technique used is the same.


These low growls and strangely high notes that are associated with throat singing are achieved through a process called biofeedback. Biofeedback allows singers to hit several notes at once, creating a harmony of sounds. This is achieved by placing one’s tongue on the roof his or her mouth and making a simple noise in the back of the throat like “er” or “oh” for a long period of time. Throat singers use this simple technique and their practiced muscles to open and close their vocal cords to sing songs and change pitch, while maintaining a long stream of seemingly endless notes.


This art form, however strange and outdated it may seem (singing for nature? herders? prehistoric?), in recent years, throat singing has made something of a comeback. In fact, there are many throat singers who have achieved world fame such as: Tanya Tagaq (a famous punk throat singer), Baatzorig Vaanchig (a talented singer and chanzy player-a chanzy is a Mongolian lute that is almost always played in throat singing performances), and The Alash Ensemble (a group of Mongolian instrument players and master throat singers). Each of these artists now have multi-million hits on Youtube and have made guest appearances on TEDx.


The calls Mongolian and Tuvan throat singing “ancient soul music from the east.” In any of the humble music videos created by these throat singers, the soul and love for this music can be seen by any of the performers. This soul and openness of heart has attracted many observers from all over the word. And as this practice of throat singing-the jazz of Asia-has made global recognition, the spiritual and cultural customs of the east are now becoming better known to many curious Americans.


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