The Mongolian art of singing: Khoomei, INNER MONGOLIA

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The Mongolian art of singing: Khoomei

When you are wondering along Inner Mongolia, the chance is that a high-pitching, penetrating and touching voice will sparkle your curiosity and spur your reverie.Infectious and mysterious in character, it has concise yet elegant lyrics, euphonious melodies and diversified themes. It is Khoomei (Long-tune Song, Hooliin Chor, Throat Harmony or Throat Singing), the living fossil folk music of the Mongolian and one UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is teased by the Han Chinese as “The Wolf’s Cry ”.

Khoomei’s charm lies in its biphonic sound achieved through the tighten of throat and the manipulation of tongue, by the same person.
What is more incredible is that both follow different rhythms. The result is that you can hear two voice sung from the same person at the same time, one is low and melodious, which forms the background music, while the other is penetrating and high-pitched, which has lyrics and is the highlight. From some sense, it is  acrobatic performed through throat and tongue.

As we know, whenever the Mongolian holds a banquet, it will last for three days and nights. No banquet and party will be complete without Khoomei, and there are so many songs that you wont hear a repeated one during this period.

By present, Khoomei prevails in Tuwa of Siberian, Mongolia, Russia, Altai of Xinjiang, Khakass and Inner Mongolia. In Gyuto and Gyume Monasteries of Tibet, lamas there also use throat voice to chant the prayers. For a Khoomei master, it is a piece of cake to sing their own ethnic songs, or the popular songs of the Han Chinese as well as any classic song of America and Europe.

“Khoomei” means “song of eternity”. It is a gem inspired by the spectacular grassland and the unrestrained nomadic lifestyle.
Over one thousand years ago, the Mongolian’s ancestors migrated westward from the dense forests of Black Dragon River to Mongolian plateau, with lifestyle shifting from hunting to animal husbandry. During this process, Khoomei emerged. The following years saw it replaced the narrative hunting song (Short-tune song) as the dominating sight. Epitomizing the Mongolian’s culture, philosophy, customs and religion, Khoomei exerts profound and lasting influence on every aspect of their life. Today, it is a short-cut for us to unravel this nationality’s legacy and heritage.  Khoomei is to the Mongolian just like Beijing opera is to the Han Chinese, the Kam Grand Choirs to the Dong people andTibetan opera to the Tibetans. It has become a cultural identity and integral part of the Mongolian’s life. During Wedding Ceremony, holidays, religious festivals and especially theNaadam Festival, Khoomei is performed enthusiastically, which is one of the most eye-catching and expecting parts. As we know, whenever the Mongolian holds a banquet, it will last for three days and nights. No banquet and party will be complete without Khoomei, and there are so many songs that you wont hear a repeated one during this period.

 Khoomei can be performed in form of solo or chorus , with or without accompany music.  Highly spontaneous is its defining feature. The singer has ample room for on-site creation. Accompanied by Matou Zither(Horse Head Zither马头琴), the performers usually wear traditional gowns to sing Khoomei to mesmerize the audiences. The rhythm of Khoomei can be divided into the concise narrative tune, the prolonged and affectionate tune as well as the Nogula tune. Ornamental vibrato such as front appoggiaturas, back appoggiaturas, portamentoes and turns all abound.
This infectious and mysterious sound that resonates between heaven and earth may be straight-ford and imposing at first impression, but as long as you listen contently, you will be spellbound by its appealing tunes and indescribable charm.

Dynamic and ever-changing in tune, Khoomei is profound in theme, which addresses almost all the elements typical of Inner Mongolia: the enticing landscape, the beautiful Mongolia ladies, the strong Mongolian men, their ancient heroes and vibrant daily labor life. The beauty of life, friendship and love are also eternal subjects. Judging from the different occasions it serves, Khoomei splits into Love Song, Departing Song, Homesick Song, Wine Toast Song, Banquet Song, War Song, Hunting Song, Warrior’s song and Mourning Song. Through Khoomei, the living environment and spirit world of the Mongolian are revived and revealed before us vividly.

According to a famous musician, Khoomei is a voice flows from the innermost corner of the Mongolian’s heart, a voice imbued with wisdom, philosophy and emotion. Hence, no matter you can understand the lyrics or not, this captivating music can tug your heartstring easily. The best way to enjoy Khoomei is to close your eyes and let the arresting song carry you away.

Khoomei has developed four variants in Inner Mongolian, with some intertwine with one another especially along the bordering area: Hulunbuire Khoomei, Xilingol Khoomei, Ordos Khoomei and Alxa Khoomei.

Khoomei in western Inner Mongolian mirrors the balance of simplicity, archaic and religion. It is the celestial voice for those who want to seek console and serenity in this far-flug getaway to nature.

From east to west, the lush grassland gives way to hills and desolate deserts. In Hulunbuire and Horqin district, the eastern part of Inner Mongolian, the well-fed and happy nomads interpret Khoomei into a high-pitched, inspiring and passionate music with free form and concise lyrics. In Hulunbuire,the purity and sweetness of voice are valued, besides, the liberal use of ornamental vibrato bestows it with sumptuous beauty. Most Khoomei singers in Hulunbuir are women. Representatives songs include: The Expansive Grassland《辽阔的草原》. In Horqin, Khoomei is distinguished by its flowing, soothing and profound melody.

Moving westward, you can reach Xilingol, the political, economic and cultural center of Inner Mongolia since the 13th century. Xilingol has long been reputed an ideal pasture thanks to the mild weather and lush grass. Khoomei here adopts lingering melody, enlightening feeling, profound artistical effect, complete form and intricate structure. It is also notable for the broad range of voice, simplicity and sweet melancholy. Judging from tunes, lyrics, contents and artistic value, Xilingol Khoomei highlight the essence of Khoomei and become one of the top four representatives. Khoomei singers are mainly composed of men. Representative song include Little Yellow Horse《小黄马》.

Keeping advancing westward to Ordos and Alxa, you will notice the undulating grassland is replaced by barren landscape of Gobi and desserts. Life here is less colorful, so does Khoomei. With few ornamental vibrato, Khoomei here stays true to its original look and shows strong religious influence. Khoomei in Ordos has lively and dramatically-changing tunes, Khoomei in Alxa is calm, penetrating and overwhelming.

You can join our 5-Day Naadam Fair Tour in Inner Mongolia to listen to Khoomei, enjoy horse racing, wrestling and archery as well as to sample the delicious Inner Mongolia food.

Author: tranquanghai1944

Ethnomusicologist, composer and vietnamese traditional musician

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