Hey, what’s that sound: Throat singing
What is it? A catch-all term covering different disciplines of extreme vocal technique from around the world, often recognised as a low, pulverising, drone-growl that western ears sometimes interpret as “scary”. But the history behind the throat singing traditions of Inuit tribes and the people of Siberia has strong cultural significance, and the overlapping, oscillating vocal tones (several different notes are produced in the mouth of one singer simultaneously) can be transcendent and beautiful.
Who uses it? The Canadian Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq has fashioned a powerful, abstract music all of her own, catching the ears of Mike Patton, Kronos Quartet and Björk. Tuvan exile Sainkho Namtchylak uses elements of throat singing in her challenging Yoko Ono-type music, which melds pop, jazz and avant garde. Huun Huur Tu are perhaps the Ladysmith Black Mambazo of Tuvan throat singing, with a prodigious back catalogue and collaboration credits with everyone from Frank Zappa to Nina Nastasia. Yat-Kha are edgier, covering Motörhead and working with Asian Dub Foundation. Check out our Spotify playlist.
How does it work? The Tuvan overtone technique involves producing a droning note that is raised and lowered by opening and closing the vocal cords until harmonic resonances appear. It is the abrupt open-and-shut of the vocal cords that (through a process known as biofeedback) apparently charges the higher harmonics with increasing energy, resulting in separation between up to six simultaneous tones. Inuit katajjaq (and the now-extinct Japanese rekukkara) throat singing is less dependant on overtones, instead two women will stand holding and facing each other and alternately sing either words, or half-words, or just abstract tones, faster and faster into each others mouths, with the “receiving” woman modulating the incoming stream of sound by adjusting the shape of her open mouth.
Where does it come from? Tuvan throat singing, like the (not dissimilar-sounding) Aboriginal didgeridoo is said to physically connect the singers to the spirituality of the Tuvan mountainside. The singing styles were supposedly modelled on the harmonic resonances herders would find naturally occurring around valleys or waterfalls, with some vocal styles configured to mimic the sounds of animals, wind or water. Inuit tradition doesn’t actually posit throat singing as music in itself, it evolved and continues as a game or competition that Inuit women would play to pass the time, the first woman to lose pace, run out of breath or start laughing is the loser.
Why is it classic? Throat singers sound as though they have a whole orchestra of instruments, that could never be invented by human hands, caged inside their bodies. It is ancient soul music.
What’s the best ever throat singing song? It’s not really a “song” medium, so don’t expect it to click with you instantly, but start with Tagaq and Huun Huur Tu.
Five facts and things
Tanya Tagaq admits she was not good at traditional competitive Inuit singing. It was by removing the technique from its role as a game, and imbuing her singing with deep emotion, that she found a new musical language.
The most famous non-traditional throat singer was the American blues musician Paul Pena, who brought self-taught throat singing into his bottleneck blues, and who in the 1999 documentary Genghis Blues travelled to Tuva to compete in throat singing contests.
What is it in the European musical psyche that links overtone singing to the demonic? Tenores is the profane counterpoint to cuncordu, Sardinia’s sacred polyphonic choir music. The styles are differentiated by the use of overtone singing in tenores, which also allocates roles in a four man-choir to each emulate the sounds of wind, sheep and cows.
There are four main disciplines of Tuvan overtone singing: khorekteer (“chest voice”), khomeii (a swirling, wind-like sound), sygyt (piercing, whistling bird noises), and kargyraa (the deep growling sound, said to be a figurative depiction of winter in Tuvan folklore).