Songlines Magazine Article 2020

I was commissioned to write this short article to introduce ‘throat singing’ to wider world.
It needed to be edited as it was too long. The top ten list is in Songlines order not mine.
There is a text version below

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A Beginners Guide to throat singing

© Michael Ormiston 

This a slightly different text version of the article

Traveling on the train the other day a group of school kids bundled in and started larking around like they do. Then suddenly one of them started emitting a rough low droning sound in an attempt to throat sing! Roll back over thirty years and I was trying the same thing after hearing Mongolian Tserendavaa’s astounding sounds emerging from his mouth at a concert of Mongolian music in London. He sounded a continuous rich drone and at the same time, what seemed to be an ethereal silvery high flute like melody. Tserendavaa’s strength, power and resonance profoundly struck a chord throughout my body and to be seemingly voicing two sounds at the same time stimulated my mind. In 1988 there was no internet to search, so I bought cassettes and vinyl and started experimenting intoxicated by the extraordinary sounds just like the youth on the train. He may have been one of the 33 million that heard the latest Mongolian throat singing group The Hu on youtube. The Hu combine the deep earthy vibrations of undertone singing with the distorted force of overdriven metal guitars. Connecting their perception of the ancient with the new.
Throat singing has enthralled, baffled and inspired musicians, audiences and researchers worldwide. This brief incomplete feature attempts to unpack the basics of throat singing, focusing on Mongolian and Tuvan traditions. Everyone vibrates their vocal folds in the larynx to speak and sing. This is part of the throat structure, so everything is throat singing! It is sometimes translated as overtone singing and/or undertone singing. Maybe it could be called precision timbral singing. 
Inspired, I travelled to Mongolia in 1993 to experiment and learn more. Mongolians have a general name for this type of sounding, Khöömii (khöömei in Tuva), which physiologically can be translated as pharynx although much more is involved. If you asked anyone at that time where Khöömii was strong in Mongolia they would say go west and in particular Chandman district in Khovd province (see Map). I met Khöömii singer Tsengedorj at the Khovd City Drama Theatre and then travelled to Chandman, where a five-year circle was completed as it was here, in Tserendavaa’s ger (round felt tent), that I  was honoured to learn. I met Tsengedorj the khöömiich (throat singer) at Khovd City Drama Theatre and then travelled to Chandman where a five year circle was completed as it was in Tserendavaa’s ger (round felt tent) where I was honoured to learn. It was not easy, it needs daily practice and I am still learning.
History and Origins of Throat Singing
It is impossible to precisely know when and where these styles of vocalising originated. However the places shown on the map are the strongest contenders. Tuva, a republic within the Russian Federation has probably the most Khöömei singers per population and is the home of Huun Huur Tu the most travelled of Tuvan groups. The western Mongolian provinces are another main region. In the Altai Republic the epic singers sometimes sang in a rich compressed style called Kai, the Khakhass as well. A style called Uzlyua is also sung by the Bashkirs in Bashkoristan far west by the Ural mountains. 
Mongolian and Tuvan legends and stories relate some of their throat singing origins to the sound of wind on water reverberating in mountains, echoes bouncing off cliffs and the sound of water running through rocks. Listening carefully to these complex sounds you may hear ever changing timbres competing within the continuous sound, a vertical way of listening. Researchers have postulated that throat singing may have developed as some kind of vocal response to these sounds and possibly an offering to placate the animate forces inhabiting themselves and their landscape. Another avenue is the non verbal sounds that are sung/called to help herd animals. Calling in Yaks is an instance where throat singing may have been used. Amongst most khöömiich, Khöömii is not considered singing in both a Mongolian/Tuvan and Non Mongolian/Tuvan sense but sounding with the pharynx. Maybe throat singing is at the intersection between vocal and instrumental music. Overtone rich instruments such as Jews-harps, the Tsuur/Choor end blown flute (where a vocal drone is sounded at the same time as playing the flute), the Tuvan igil fiddle and the overtone laden Mongolian khailakh epic singing sound quality played their part. As may have Buddhism and animism/shamanism in pre communist times. 
It seems up until the 1980/90’s that khöömii was not formerly taught in Chandman district, Khovd, other west Mongolian provinces and Tuva. Instead it was learnt by being inspired to copying great singers, advice from relatives who sang, hours practicing in nature and possibly listening to Mongolian Radio. However in Ulaanbataar you could learn a professional repertoire at the Arts and Culture College. This performative version of throat singing in which melodic innovation and eventually ensemble playing came to the fore germinated in Khovd Theatre via a film ‘Our Melody’ (Manai ayalguu) from 1956. It then went to Ulaanbaatar in the 1960’s and the national song and dance ensemble in the 70′ and 80’s where only a handful of self taught throat singers put khöömii on the stage. It was similar in Tuva. In 1976 The Ensemble Sygyrga was fomed and included talented self taught older Khöömei singers. Then in the 1980’s scholar Zoya Kyrgys created youth Khöömei ensembles as way of encouraging the dying tradition. The young singers were recruited into the state sponsored Ayan and Sayan ensembles which became into the Tuva ensemble in 1987.
Khöömii/ei was first heard live outside the Soviet block in 1980’s, usually concert tours organised by researchers specialising in musics from the region. When communism collapsed in the early 1990’s state funding of the arts was reduced and about the same time “world music” festivals, labels and enthusiasts invited newly formed bands and individuals to Europe, Japan and the USA introducing a commercial music business aspect to their work and performances. 
Huun Huur Tu gained the most recognition, continuously touring and also collaborating with the likes of Frank Zappa, the Kodo drummers and the female Bulgarian vocal ensemble Angelite. They became the premier throat singing group with the amazing Kaigal-ool Khovalyg being the star. In Europe, Mongolian groups like Egschiglen and Altai Khangai wowed the audiences not only with throat singing but also virtuosic Morin Khuur playing. Albert Kuvezin left Huun Huur Tu to form Yat-kha in order to create a powerful combination of throat singing with electric guitars, bass and drums that amongst others the Hu are now emulating. The next generation of Tuvan Throat singers formed Alash, Chirgilchin and the all female ensemble Tuva Kyzy. Innovations with mixing Tuvan and Mongolian styles/melodies, new compositions, arrangements of old tunes in new ways, using non traditional instruments, western style harmony, collaboration with other music cultures like rock, pop, and jazz were developed in the 2000’s by Mongolian groups such as TransMongolia, Sedaa, Altan Urag and the Ethnic Ballad Group Khusugtun. This inspired musicians from Inner Mongolia to study throat singing in Tuva and Mongolia. Of these Anda Union and Hanggai are continuing to entertain audiences worldwide.
The history of throat singing could be thought in a similar way as the winds blowing on the endless steppe continuously evolving, changing direction and gusting back on itself. Each performer creates their own unique sound, each generations idea of authenticity looks back to the past and into the future. You never know, maybe that youth in the train will become the next throat singing sensation.
For in-depth English language Mongolian musicology please check out Carole PeggJohanni Curtet (in French!), Andrew Colwell and for Tuva, Ted LevinMark van Tongeren and Robert Oliver Beahrs

How to Khöömii/ei

Amongst Khöömiich in Mongolia there is not a complete agreement with the name of a style and the techniques used in Khöömii. However Khöömii can be sounded either with a melody of overtones, by using words, or a combination of both. In Tuva there is an agreement with three main styles. It is important to understand that throat singing is not all about overtones and undertones. It is the whole sound including the quality of the drone as well as the intention imbued within the sounds of each individual performer that should be considered. In all styles breathe control and muscle support using the abdomen, small of the back, and an open raised chest are vital. It takes dedicated training master khöömii/ei. 

Mongolian Khöömii.

In most styles of melodic Khöömii overtone singing, precise movements of a loose tongue or a fixed tip of the tongue placed at the front of the hard palette in combination with a compressed rich drone along with subtle vowel changes can emphasise and alter the harmonics heard. Some Khöömiich differentiate their styles by saying the have nasal, throat or chest resonance within the compressed sound. Tserendaava developed a style where he would sing the words of a song as a compressed drone and then adjust the harmonic spectrum to create the overtone melody of that song. Imagine droning the words of amazing grace and singing the melody sung in harmonics at at the same time!
Khakhiraa is the Mongolian name for Sub-harmonic throat singing where a note usually an octave (half the frequency) below the pitch sung is created. Lots of chest resonance is used and the throat is open with very little compression of the vocal tract. When done correctly the sub-harmonic or undertone drops into place. Normally overtone melodies are created from that undertone by changes of specific vowel qualities not specifically using the tongue like in the other Khöömii styles. It’s likely that the movement of the vestibular/ventricular folds which reside above our vocal folds are employed.

Tuvan Khöömei

Sygyt which means whistling (though it is not) has a very compressed rich sounding drone. The tip of the tongue rests at the beginning of the hard palette. The rising, flattening and movement of the middle, back and root of the tongue in combination with subtle vowel changes can emphasise and alter the harmonics heard. The harmonics are clear and flute like and the drone very suppressed. Usually Sygyt is sounded with a higher drone pitch that the other Tuvan styles. However not as high as the Mongolian melodic Khöömii styles.
Khöömei is the name of a style and the general name for Tuvan Throat singing. The tongue unlike Sygyt is loose and the pitch of the slightly less compressed drone is lower. The overtones heard are  not as dominant as with Sygyt. It seems that the mix between the overtones, sometime higher and lower ones together and the drone is important. Some researchers think this could have been original style. Again it is mainly the forward to backward and rising and falling movement of the tongue that changes the harmonic content.


This is the majestic Tuvan sub-harmonic style and more than likely the Mongolians copied this style. The technique is similar to the Mongolian kharkhiraa, however the Tuvans are masters at creating overtone melodies from their undertones. There are two main types, Mountain Kargyraa and steppe Kargyraa. 
Borbangnadyr uses a very rapid movement of the back of the tongue with the same basic sound as Khöömei. This for example can be used to imitate the flow of a small river, sometimes as an offering to the animate spirit-masters of the river. With no specific melody it is up to the singers breathe length, improvisation and inspiration to create each phrase.
Chylandyk is a combination of the undertone of Kargyraa with the high overtone of Sygyt. The late Mongolian Khöömiich Zulsar heard this in the 1990’s to create his own amazing version.
Mongolians and Tuvans have many other sub-styles and innovations are happening all the time. With experimentation it is possible to highlight at least three different overtones whilst singing an undertone. Along with the fundamental making it seem like five sounds are happening at the same time even though it is from one source!
© Michael Ormiston 2020