Carole Pegg
carole pegg

University of Cambridge



Fig. 1. West Mongolian Altai, 1989.

The former Turko-Mongol nomadic pastoralist tribes of Inner Asia, who have at different points of history belonged to different states, are now divided between the Russian Federation (the republics of Altai, Khakassia and Tyva), Mongolia (West Mongolian Altai), China (Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang) and Kazakhstan. In this paper, I consider the musical landscapes created by these indigenous peoples, now minorities within different states, and the disjunctions and dilemmas that arise when alternative musical landscapes are fashioned by powerful nation-states in the cause of homogeneous national identity and the management of their minorities, a process facilitated by international bodies. I take khöömii throat-singing (overtone-singing) – a musical genre in which a single vocalist produces several simultaneous notes – as a prism through which the dilemmas of national and international identification of Intangible Cultural Heritage and consequent musical landscapes manifest themselves.
Musical Landscapes

The term ‘musical landscape’ as used here refers to the topographical, geographical landscape that is evoked when performing a particular complex of vocal and instrumental musical sounds, including instrumental choice, performance practices and beliefs, and shared traditions. I distinguish several kinds of musical landscape:


Fig. 2. Musical landscapes of Eastern & Western Mongols across 20th-century geopolitical borders (Pegg 2001:12)

a) Transnational-Confederative

During fieldwork in Mongolia between 1989 and 1996, I plotted two musical landscapes to which former nomadic Mongolian pastoralist musicians connected in performance. These landscapes crossed contemporary 21st century geopolitical borders and evoke historical homelands and previous tribal political confederations (Figs 2 and 3).
Eastern Mongol landscape

aud aizam urtyn duu extended long-song, accompanied by morin huur
bengsen üliger narrative tale
dch dörvön chihtuur huur 4-string spike tube fiddle
ho holboo connected verse
hu huuchir 2-string spike-tube fiddle
li limbe side-blown flute
mh morin huur 2-string spike box fiddle with horse-head decoration, bass string on right, accompanies long-song
ül üliger musical narratives/short epics
yo yoochor circle dance


Western Mongol landscape

bi biy individual dance using predominantly top half of body
bud besreg urtyn duu abbreviated long-song, unaccompanied
h huur 2-string spike box fiddle, bass string on right
ik ikil 2-string spike box fiddle, bass string on left, rear-inserted pegs, accompanies biy dance
to topshuur 2-string lute accompanies epics
ts tsuur end-blown pipe with vocal drone
tu tuul’ (baatarlag) epic (heroic)
khö khöömii throat-singing, overtone-singing


Fig. 3. Key illustrating difference in genres, instruments and vocal styles (Pegg 2001:13)


Fig. 4. The Jungar State and early Qing Dynasty. (Pegg 2001: 10).

One, a Western Mongol (Oirat) musical landscape, coincided with the territory of the Mongolian Jungar State (1630 – late 1750s), reaching across the contemporary north-west Mongolian state border into Tyva, Khakassia and Altai in the Russian Federation and the south-western Mongolian state border into Xinjiang in China (Fig. 4). It comprises a timbre-centred musical sound complex centred on thick harmonic textures (cf. Levin with Süzükei 2006) of which throat-singing is the epitome. This vocal technique is also used in epic performance, for instance, by West Mongolian bard Baataryn Avirmed of the Altai Urianghais (Fig. 5, Example 1) and Altaian bard Elbek Kalkin of the Telengits (Fig. 6, Example 2). An instrument that illustrates this musical aesthetic clearly is the end blown pipe as, for instance, played by Narantsogt of the Altai Urianghais (Fig. 7, Example 3).


From L to R : Fig.5. Avirmed of the Altai Urianghais ; Fig.6. Kalkin of the Telengits ; Fig.7. Narantsogt of the Altai Urianghais.

Example 1. Baataryn Avirmed of the Altai Urianghais performing the epic Dovon Har Böh (Black Wrestler Dovon) in häälah throat-singing style, Hovd province, West Mongolia, 1989 (Pegg 2001).

Example 2. Telengit bard Elbek Kalkin performing an extract from the epic Maadai Kara, Ust’ Kan province, Altai Republic, 2006 (Pegg 2001).

Example 3. Narantsogt of the Altai Urianghais playing on the tsuur end-blown pipe Altain Magtaal (Praises to Altai Mountains), Hovd province, West Mongolia, 1989 (Pegg 2001).

The other, an Eastern Mongol musical landscape, coincided with that of the early Qing Dynasty of China (1691–1724), reaching across the north-east Mongolian border into Buryatia in the Russian Federation and across the south-east Mongolian border into Inner Mongolia in China. This musical sound complex centres more on discrete notes that unfold melodically in lineal development.


Fig.8. Tyvan throat-singer Radik Tülüsh.

b) Federative

While investigating further the Oirat musical landscape during fieldwork in Altai, Tyva and Khakassia (ongoing since 2002), I noted that throat-singers used different styles, sub-styles, instruments, performance practices and contexts, in order to distinguish their own republic from  neighbouring ones, and their indigenous identities from both Russian and Mongolian. One of the five throat-singing styles professional Tyvan musician Radik Tülüsh performs, for instance, is ‘steppe’ (khovu) kargyraa, which he learnt from his uncle and which is characteristic of the Övür region of Tyva where Radik was raised (Fig. 8, Example 4).




Example 4. Tyvan musician Radik Tülüsh performing ‘steppe’ (khovu) kargyraa throat-singing in the song Ösküs Urug (Orphan Child) (Tülüsh 2005).


Fig. 9. Tserendavaa, Darjaa and Shagj, West Mongolian Altai, 1989.

c) Nationally-inspired musical landscapes

Although, in the Mongolian context, throat-singing arose among Western Mongol Oirats, contemporary Eastern Mongolians perceive it as being ‘Mongolian’ and the source of national pride. Mongolian styles are easily differentiated from Russian Altain styles, since they are pitched higher and consequently require more air pressure. They are identified according to the different parts of the body that channel that pressure: nasal (khamryn), labial (uruulyn), palatal (tagnain), glottal/throat (bagalzuuryn, khooloin), chest cavity/stomach (tseejiin khöndiin, khevliin), andtürlegt/khösmöljin or combination khöömii, as explained and demonstrated to me by Mongolian throat-singer Tserendavaa in 1989 (Fig. 9, Example 5). These national musical landscapes are supported by the UNESCO system of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Example 5. Western Khalkha Mongol Dashdorj Tserendavaa demonstrating Mongolian throat-singing styles, Cambridge, U.K., 1988 (Pegg 2001).
d) Global Landscapes: UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation)

The UNESCO system relies on ratification by states of particular Conventions, followed by a government-initiated selection and nomination process for inclusion in digitised Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) lists. Although “heritage” has changed in content in recent decades from ‘tangible’ to ‘intangible natural heritage’ and then to ‘intangible oral traditions’, including music, UNESCO’S itemization in lists de-contextualises the practices from social relations and re-contextualises them as objects in national inventories. Because the digitised objects of ICH are attached to nation-states and circulated in global space, they carry with them the potential for international prestige and access to funding, and are open to strategies of nation-building. Governments are able to promote their own nationality policies on a global stage, endorsed by UNESCO. UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage lists raise, then, issues of national identity. They also raise the question: who owns certain musical styles and forms? This question has implications for relations between nations, and between nations and their minorities, as the following example will illustrate.
Case Study: “China! Khöömii not yours – don’t register in UNESCO!”

The registration of the “art of Mongolian throat-singing” and other Mongolian arts and cultural objects as “Chinese” in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2010 caused uproar among Mongols in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. The petition “China! Khöömii not yours – don’t register in UNESCO!” appeared on the web with almost 9000 petitioners ( Emotions ran high, with some contributors from Mongolia threatening war and death to the Chinese, whom they perceived as trying to “steal their identity” as a strategy prior to the taking of their land. The attempt to eradicate Mongolian identity was also felt keenly in Inner Mongolia. One petitioner put it this way:

“Inner Mongolia is currently colonised by the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, it is important to hear the true voices of the Southern/ Inner Mongolians who have been robbed of their own land, sovereignty and basic human rights over decades since being placed under PRC colonial rule. This process of ultimately wiping out the Mongolian identity of the Southern Mongols is still in progress. Registering Mongolian musical heritage as “Chinese” is just one tiny step toward that final goal of China. I, as one of those Southern Mongolians being silenced by the Chinese imperialist machinery, am here to make my voice heard.”

It did not help that other Mongolian items also registered used transliterations of the Chinese language equivalents rather than the Mongolian terms.  For instance, instead of transliterating the Mongolian word morin hugur (morin huur) (2) for the Mongolian two-stringed horse-head fiddle, they transliterated the Chinese term for the instrument ma-tou-chin.

Because Russia did not ratify UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage or the 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, there is currently no possibility for the republics of Tyva, Khakassia and Altai to submit throat-singing as their Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is particularly perplexing to note Tyva’s absence on UNESCO’s digital lists, given its leading position in world music circles and its role in introducing this vocal genre to the world. It is possible that UNESCO will become aware of this ongoing dilemma, since the permanent representative of Azerbaijan to UNESCO, Eleonora Huseinova, has declared: “I will become an advocate of Tyvan throat-singing” (2010).
Living Human Treasures

UNESCO’s shift from focussing on the collection of ‘intangible objects’ to sustaining a system as a living entity is evidenced by the introduction of a list of Living Human Treasures. This involves not only supporting institutions that collect artefacts (songs, music, tales, customs) but also people (performers, artisans, healers), the bearers and transmitters of traditions, together with their knowledge and skills, and local communities. Recognition on a UNESCO heritage list enables funding but the system brings with it its own problems of institutionalisation and musical landscape affiliation, and remains a top-down selection process. The famous Telengit epic bard A.G. Kalkin, for instance, is constantly represented as a treasure of the Republic of Altai. Nevertheless, acknowledging individual musical contributions is a welcome development that could enable a more fluid model of musical geographies or landscapes to emerge.

Musical landscapes or geographies, as with any culture, will be complex and contested, particularly as they involve the thorny issue of individual, local, national and group identities. The following questions arise therefore:

  • How do we ensure that the musical landscapes of individually situated musicians are acknowledged, not only those of states, political administrative units, and powerful organisations?
  • Can we create a fluid living musical landscapes model that does not ‘fix’ them within state borders and UNESCO’s national musical inventories?
  • If former nomadic peoples are divided between several states, and musical landscapes are trans-national, which country has ownership of their cultural heritage in law (ratified by UNESCO), e.g. khöömii throat-singing?

UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme has become increasingly important in the struggle for global recognition both for powerful nations and for vulnerable minority or indigenous peoples. Although marginalised groups, absorbed by dominant societies, are increasingly claiming difference, UNESCO has created a system in which minority indigenous peoples only have voices if allowed to them by their national governments. Ownership of cultural identity, part of the process of nation-building, has become a resource to be defended (Harrison 1999), and the tussle for ownership and identity over throat-singing is a prime example of that. Since ownership, in its first application of the term in the Hague Convention of 1954, was in relation to “people”, rather than the “state”, “nation”, federative unit or region, the following questions arise:

  • How do we protect indigenous local ownership?
  • Should the state subsume the traditions of its minority indigenous peoples as its own ‘national culture’ (as in China/Mongolia)?
  • How can we encourage a bottom-up rather than a top-down partnership between local community and the state, in which the role of government is supportive rather than decisive?
  • How can we give voice to indigenous minority peoples within centralising states intent on eradicating their cultural and musical differences and give visibility to their own musical landscapes?


(1) With thanks to The British Academy, The Economic and Social Research Council; local academic institutions and colleagues at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, State University of Gorno-Altaisk; N.F. Katanov State University, Khakassia, and the Institute of Humanities Research, Kyzyl, Tyva; and local musicians, herders and families.

(2) The classical Mongolian script, still used in Inner Mongolia (hugur) is transliterated differently from the modern Cyrillic script used in Mongolia (huur).


Harrison, Simon. 1999. Identity as a scarce resource. In Social Anthropology. 7:3. 239-51.

Huseinova, Eleonora. 2010. “I will become an advocate of Tuvan throat-singing.” Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation.

Levin, Theodore with Valentina Süzükei. 2006. Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Pegg, Carole. 2001. Mongolian Music, Dance, and Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press. With CD.

Tülüsh, Radik. 2005. Spirits of My Land. 7-Star Records SSCD51.

The classical Mongolian script, still used in Inner Mongolia (hugur) is transliterated differently from the modern Cyrillic script used in Mongolia (huur).


Sami Jansson: A miraculous method of singing On Throat Singing of South Siberia

Versio Latina

A miraculous method of singing

On Throat Singing

of South Siberia

Sami Jansson narrates


Exercised by a number of Central Asian tribes, throat singing is a peculiar vocal art with three basic vocalizing methods and at least four submethods that allow a singer to simultaneously sing with two, indeed, sometimes even with four voices.


A rich throat singing tradition survives in Tuva (this is a republic that today belongs to Russia) and in Western Mongolia. In these areas that are marked by vast grasslands and mountain ranges, throat singing is called “chömei” (“ö” is pronounced like “o” and “e” simultaneously). As a singer elicits a fundamental tone that allows overtones to be extracted, the result is a “chömei-voice”. The singer extracts overtones by varying the shape of his oral parts and pharynx: as a result two, three, or even four distinct tones can be heard. As the fundamental tone remains constant, melodies are sung with the highest overtone, that resembles the sound of a flute.

Tuva is located in Central Asia 

What is throat singing and how does it differ from western singing?


Western people commonly think that a single artist cannot simultaneously sing with more than one voice and that consequently several singers are required for a multivocal concert. However, a human voice is never absolutely pure. The reason for this is that voice is blown all the way from the lungs through the windpipe and small chambers in the respiratory tract. Two persons can never have quite identical air chambers; consequently no two human voices exist with exactly similar timbres. The peculiar character of a person’s voice results partly from a fundamental tone formed by the vocal chords, and partly from overtones that resonate in the windpipe and air chambers of the respiratory tract. Siberian singers, however, constrain the part of throat called false vocal chords and vary the shape of their pharynx and tongue to produce miraculous overtones of various kinds. Some of these overtones are nothing but buzzing and sqeaking, others sharp, clear, and beautiful, some of which resemble the sound of a flute. Usually these vocal overtones are not heard as distinct sounds. Instead, they are rather conceived as the characteristic quality of a person’s voice. By the way, it is the overtones that allow us to tell apart different vowels. It is clear that letters a, e, i, o, etc. uttered at the same pitch nevertheless sound different to our ears. However, stronger overtones can be produced with a somewhat stricter voice; that is: with constricted false vocal chords. Their task is to prevent the access of any food or liquid to the vocal chords and windpipe. Throat singers also amplify vocal overtones with their false vocal chords.



On peoples that exercise throat singing


A centuries-long tradition, throat singing is practised by nomadic tribes of South Siberia, where it is commonly called “chömei”. It is known to many Central Asian tribes like the Chacass, the Tuvinians, the Altaians, the Mongols, etc.
Ancient historians knew the Central Asian nomads as the Scythians. After the period of the Scythians Europe was terrorized by Attila and the Huns – also Siberian nomads. Later large areas of Asia were occupied by the Turcs, who left grave monuments scattered everywhere on the vast grasslands.
In the Middle Ages Chingghis Khan with his heirs collected fierce Mongol armies in the same areas. With his officers Chingghis Khan lead the Mongol armies against many Chinese, Middle Asian, and European cities that they often totally destroyed and killed the inhabitants to the last individual. In those days Europeans used to call these oriental bandits “the Tartars”.
It is believed that traditionally male and female singers had an equal position. Later however, throat singing was not considered suitable for women: and the tradition was long sustained mainly by men. The reason for this might have been a rumour according to which pregnant women would risk a miscarriage while practising throat singing. After the perestroika and the end of the Soviet imperium several minor tribes remained subjects to Russia. And many of them – especially the Tuvinians – recovered their spirit and felt their nation united by the traditional vocal art passed down by their ancestors. As more liberal ways have gradually gained footing, today also women are known to practise chömei.


Tuvinians wearing national costumes

Siberian equitarian herdsmen had little variation in their daily activities and so they would amuse themselves and their families by singing. They could not carry large instruments on horseback wherefore chömei long remained principally a vocal art among them.


However, various instruments were gradually introduced: e.g. the peculiar byzaantzy – a sort of viol – is played with the hairs of the bow threaded between the strings. Consequently, the bow always hangs onto the instrument! A musician holds the byzaantzy on his knee while playing. Although Siberian groups today make use of stringed instruments, drums, and voices in ensembles, the ancient tradition of single vocalists still survives.

Tuvan musicians with instruments. On the left Anatoli Kuular holds a byzaantzy, Radomir Mongush holds a dyngur in the middle, and on the right Kongar-Ool Ondar holds a doshpulur.

On chömei-methods practised by the Tuvinians and their neighbouring tribes: introductory directions


There are three basic Tuvinian throat singing methods: chömei, kargyraa, and sygyt. These are further embellished to at least five submethods.


The word “chömei” means “guttural” in English and this is a general name for Central Asian throat singing, as mentioned above. However, a certain method is also called chömei, and it is a little easier than the rest. This is how you can learn to sing chömei: if you utter a vocalization with constrained false vocal chords (Notice that the vocalization must have power yet be constrained at the same time) and then contract the opening of your lips with open mouth cavity and pharynx, you will have a resonating chamber in the mouth. With different positions of the lips and the tongue you will soon discern flute-like overtones whistling along the borduna (that is, along the fundamental tone). Of course, in the beginning your overtones will be weak or hardly exist. But do not give up. In fact few people can produce a borduna strong enough for clear overtones at their first attempts. But if you practise your voice well every day you will certainly get used to this kind of singing. After a few months of practise you will achieve a valid chömei-voice.


“Sygyt” has its roots in the chömei-method. To practise sygyt you must start with chömei. Sing chömei with a half-open mouth, place the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth as if pronouncing the letter “L”; then press sides of your tongue against the molars. Now you may be puzzled to realize that you no longer can utter a sound. However, if you keep your tongue in the described position you have a resonating chamber in your mouth again. If you now make a little opening to the seal between your tongue and your palate and utter a strong, constrained sound you will hear a clear flute-like overtone – a harmonic of the borduna. This miraculous overtone is actually as clear as the sound heard when a wineglass is clinked! A few people, who are not familiar with this sound, hardly believe that what they hear is a human voice. At your first attempt you will certainly notice that keeping the tongue in that position and simultaneously trying to utter a constrained sound is extremely difficult. However, a constrained voice character is a necessary condition without which you will not be able to utter any distinct overtones. For such a voice contains more material for overtone singing than a soft and ordinary voice.


“Kargyraa” is an extremely low sound: to get an idea of kargyraa imagine a voice that resembles the roaring of a lion, the howling of a wolf, and the croaking of a frog – and all these mixed together. The Tuvinian word “kargyraa” means “hoarse voice”. You can also learn to sing kargyraa: when you start speaking, don’t you often hawk and clear your throat? This is the desired trick: for kargyraa is nothing else than a deep and continuous hawking. This hawking must rise from the deepest part of the windpipe; consequently low tones will start resonating in the chest. Overtones are amplified by varying the shape of the mouth cavity and the position of the tongue. Other methods are derived from the above mentioned.


The Mongolian musical tradition is essentially similar with that of Tuvinian. The Mongolians know throat singing methods that can be identified with the Tuvinian sygyt and kargyraa. Also Tibetan Gyoto monks chant their prayers in a very low register that resembles the Tuvinian kargyraa method. However, the monks have not developed as many variations as Tuvan and Mongolian musicians.



On Tuvan web-pages


With the exception of its native areas, throat singing has almost entirely been an unknown form of art until this decade. Tuva and Mongolia have remained remote and unknown areas to the peoples of the west until the Soviet Imperium came to its end last decade. Due to that event news between the East and the West began to move more freely. Rumours about Tuva and the peculiar Tuvinian musical culture spread in the West and especially in North America thanks to Richard Feynman, a distinguished American physicist, who was an ardent devotee of Tuvan matters. Today, partly because of Feynman’s influence, there exists a society called “Friends of Tuva” in California. Friends of Tuva circulates news about Tuva in the West [among other things; Friends of Tuva was founded by Ralph Leighton, a friend and travelling companion of Richard Feynman].


Anyone with an access to the internet can navigate in the web and see many pictures and find a lot of information about Tuva by using “Tuva” or “Friends of Tuva” as entries. In these pages there are discographies, questions and answers about Tuva (naturally written in English), photographs, and even samples of songs that you can actually listen to if you have a computer with audio equipment! You will also find precepts for learning throat singing. I suggest that, unless you do not use the entries, you first open a page called “Frequently Asked Questions” (that is “”). On that page you will find questions and anwers and some links to pages of related matters.





I am most grateful to the distinguished gentlemen Tuomo Pekkanen and Erkki Palmén (University of Jyväskylä, Finland), who read the text throughout and gave me many useful pieces of advice. Honorable Mr. Kerry Yackoboski (University of Manitoba, Canada) kindly permitted me to use his photograps for which favour I am indebted to him. I found the geographical map in the web but have no idea of its origin. I am grateful to the person who composed it, whoever it is! Lady Kaija Virolainen advised me on the use of computers and their programs for which work I am indebted to her as well.


My email address: ;
my URL-address:
(where you can find samples of throat singing)


Note of the editors: Unfortunately in our little Melissa there was not enough room to publish the long bibliography added by Sami Jansson; if you want to see it, please write to the author.

Jeffrey Hays : Home China Minorities – Minorities in Northern China KHOOMI SINGERING: SINGING TWO TONES SIMULTANIOUSLY


Khoomi singers are male singers who appear to produce two notes simultaneously. One sound is like the metallic warbling of a juice harp; the other sound is like a moaning growl. Also known as overtone singing or throat singing, the sounds are made by carefully controlling the larynx, mouth and abdominal muscles. Some of the songs are meant to imitate the noises made by sheep and goats.

The origin of khoomi (also spelled hoomi) is unknown. It is believed to have originated Chandmani sum (county) in Khovd aimag in western Mongolia. Many khoomi singers continue to come from there. Explaining how khoomi songs began, one singer told National Geographic, “In the western part of our country there are many mountains and streams. The herder is there. He wants to imitate nature—how the wind blows, how the water gurgles. Khoomi.”

Khoomi singing is also done by the Tuvans of the Altai region and Buryiats of Siberia in Russia. It is performed almost exclusively by men (there are a few female khoomi singes from Inner Mongolia) but in the past it is believed that many khoomi singers were women. Today, women have trouble duplicating the deep, powerful voice of male khoomi singers. The best singers are said to come from Tuva.

The simultaneous sounds are made by manipulating harmonics. Normally harmonics are the sound given to a note that helps us differentiate between a violin and trumpet playing the same note. In Khoomi, the harmonics are louder than the drone from which they are derived. Melodies are produced by altering the harmonics of a given note. Some think the style may have evolved from Tibetan Buddhism in which monks producing similar sounds when they chant sutras.

According to UNESCO: The multitude of Khöömei techniques in Mongolia are grouped within two main styles: the kharkhiraa (deep Khöömei) and isgeree Khöömei (whistled Khöömei). In kharkhiraa the singer sings a drone in a normal voice, while emphasizing the undertone or subharmonic one octave below. In isgeree Khöömei, it is the overtones above the fundamental note of the drone that are emphasized, creating a higher-pitched whistle. In both cases, the drone is produced with very taut vocal cords, and the melody is created by modulating the size and shape of the mouth cavity, opening and closing the lips and moving the tongue. [Source: UNESCO]

History of Mongolian Throat Singing

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “Mongolian throat singing—a fiendishly difficult practice that musicologists know as overtone singing—has often attracted interest, sometimes covetous, from outside Mongolia. The Russian region of Tuva, which borders Mongolia, tried briefly in the 1990s to brand it as Tuvan and impose a licensing system on throat singers. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

Frank Zappa, the late American musician, jammed with a throat-rock ensemble called Huun-Huur-Tu, and folk music aficionados around the world have long marveled at how a good throat singer can produce two or more distinct pitches simultaneously in an otherworldly mix of melody and tone. Two-tone singing is also performed by Tibetan monks and people from the Aleutian Islands.

Throat singing is generally accepted to have originated in the west of what is now Mongolia. It is thought to have originated among herders mimicking the sounds of animals, water and the wind. The practice developed alongside animist beliefs that all natural objects have souls or spirits whose power humans can harness through mimicry.

Throat singing was spread by the explosive conquests of Genghis Khan and his descendants, one of whom, Kublai Khan, took control of China in 1271. Mongolia, which later fell under China’s sway, became an independent state in 1921, but, with a population of only 2.8 million today, it is deeply wary of its 1.3-billion-strong neighbor and longtime rival to the south.

Mechanics of Khoomi Singers

A singer can produce two distinct sounds—melodies from the harmonic or overtones that he is singing— by moving the larynx, tongue and jaw. The “first voice”—a low, throaty voice, usually a drone—forms the melodic text of the song. It is accompanied by a “second voice”—harmonics of the drone—produced by contorting the lips, tongue, soft palate and throat muscles.

The double sound can be maintained for intervals of about 30 seconds. Much of the sound is produced by vibrating false vocal chords in the throat. In normal singing the false vocal chords area are open. In khoomi singing they are nearly closed and their vibration produces the sound. Mongolians regard khoomi singing as something that one does not take lightly. Some famous singers were wrestlers. Others have passed out while singing or had blood vessels burst around their eyes.

There are at least five styles, including whistling, “rattling,” chirping like a cricket, trotting like horse and rushing like a river. Three main sounds are taught to beginners: a middle sound, a low sound like a juice harp and a high sound like a flute. Mongolian khoomi singing is being studied as way to teach speaking to people who have lost their vocal chords.

Dorjnyam Shinetsong, an accomplished khoomi singer at the age of 19 said he had to practice five hours a day to keep his throat technique fresh. “When I first started leaning khoomi, I found it difficult to produce such a deep powerful sound. It put a lot of strain on my throat.” Huun-Huur-Tu, a Tuvan group, is probably the best known khoomi group. They have performed at the WOMAD Festival.

Mongolians Teach Throat Singing to Chinese

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “For nearly two decades, Odsuren Baatar, a master of Mongolian throat singing, has been visiting China to teach his craft—making the human voice soar, quiver and drone, its pitches in eerie unison like a bagpipe.” [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

“When he first started going there, his students were all beginners, because nobody in China knew much about throat singing. But they were eager to learn, and, after years of sharing his techniques, Odsuren took pride in having helped promote an art form prized here in Mongolia as a singular national treasure.”

“His pride, however, turned to dismay and then anger when he saw a copy of a video that China had submitted to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): It featured one of his former students pitching a bid by Beijing to have throat singing registered by the United Nations as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” with China getting the credit.

“I was in shock. I taught them and then they say it is theirs,” Odsuren said.Sitting in a dingy Soviet-style apartment, the 63-year-old teacher showed photographs of himself in happier times with his pupils in China and fumed at the betrayal: “I don’t like people lying and claiming something that everyone knows is Mongolian.”

Khoomi Singing Performance

On a performance of khoomi singing accompanied by dancing at Lincoln Center in New York, Alastair Macaulay wrote in the New York Times, “Even among Mongolians onstage it varies fascinatingly from performer to performer. Usually it arrives in the middle of an already extended phrase. One man, while continuing a firmly resonant vocal line from the chest, suddenly overlays it with a high head tone that sounds something like a piccolo, and the phrase continues with the same single breath just as long again. The range of vocal resonance is staggering: Another man sings at times with the kind of buzzing hum normally only achieved by banging on big rubber tubes, and, though nobody sings with more than two voices at the same time, some of them seem to use more than four or five vocal sounds within a single song. [Source: Alastair Macaulay, New York Times, July 26, 2007 \+/]

“The delivery is calm, dispassionate, and the male singers all play instruments while singing. The mouth when singing is never opened wide, and looks as if you could scarcely place a quarter between its parted lips. The one female singer, Narantuya, neither plays an instrument nor sings with more than one voice. And yet hers is the most haunting singing of all, both sweet and firm, effortlessly passing from loud to soft, from high to low, and including midphrase ornaments that sound related now to yodeling, now to trilling, now to those soft one-note repetitions in Monteverdi and Cavalli. Anyone following singers with a watch becomes aware how few of them sustain a changing vocal line for as much as 15 seconds. But lines this long are commonplace among these Mongolians, and the most remarkable moments of the phrase often occur only in its second half. \+/

“And the dancing? This is engagingly — although too briefly — performed by two bright-eyed men, the boyish Chuluunbaatar and the weather-beaten Zinamyetr, with a male accompanist. At first it looks as if they’re marking the movement, but soon it’s apparent that this is through-the-body movement, sometimes with a series of wrist-flicks that send keen currents rippling down to the feet. Often they mime actions (archery, lassoing, flying) above the waist while bouncing or pacing a rhythm with the legs. No part of the body is livelier than the shoulders, chugging together or in alternation, and they are always involved in a larger action. \+/

“The diphonic aspect of the singing is part of a dualistic harmony that runs through the performance. In one dance the two men suddenly become conjoined at the waist (to illustrate branches of one tree) not unlike images common to Pilobolus Dance Theater, with the older man’s legs locked around the younger’s waist, and his torso arching back and forth. The tone is merry. The male flute player produces a chesty singing sound out of the corner of his mouth while playing his instrument. (To this alien ear, this sonority is the least rewarding.) The stringed instruments frequently are bowed to play two notes simultaneously.” \+/

Screens show translations of the Mongolian words. “Often it seems…that the music is suggesting something quite unlike its words; and this multilayering only enriches the experience. As the concert progresses, space and time feel transformed. One hears movement within stillness, action within reflection, and time — especially amid those long vocal phrases — suspended.” \+/

Khöömei Recognized by UNESCO

In 2010, Khöömei was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: Khöömei is a form of singing originating in western Mongolia, in the Altai mountains. The performer imitates sounds of nature, simultaneously emitting two distinct vocal sounds: along with a continuous drone, the singer produces a melody of harmonics. Khöömei literally means pharynx, and it is believed to have been learned from birds, whose spirits are central to shamanic practices. [Source: UNESCO ~]

Khöömei is performed by Mongolian nomads in a variety of social occasions, from grand state ceremonies to festive household events. Khöömei is also sung during herding, and inside the yurt to lull babies to sleep. Traditionally, Khöömei is transmitted orally from bearer to learner, or via master-to-apprentice. ~

According to UNESCO Khöömei was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) An essential part of ritual ceremonies, the Mongolian traditional art of Khöömei praises and shows respect to nature; passed on from generation to generation, it is continually recreated and renewed as a symbol of the community’s identity and continuity; 2) Its inscription on the Representative List could contribute to the visibility of intangible cultural heritage by reflecting the interaction and harmony between humankind and nature, while creating a bridge of dialogue between different communities and cultures in the region. ~

“Mongolian Art of Khoomei” Recognized by UNESCO

In 2009, the “Mongolian art of singing, Khoomei” was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: The Mongolian art of singing: Khoomei, or Hooliin Chor (‘throat harmony’), is a style of singing in which a single performer produces a diversified harmony of multiple voice parts, including a continued bass element produced in the throat. These singers may perform alone or in groups. Khoomei is practised today among Mongolian communities in several countries, especially in Inner Mongolia in northern China, western Mongolia and the Tuva Republic of Russia. [Source: UNESCO ~]

Traditionally performed on the occasion of ritual ceremonies, songs express respect and praise for the natural world, for the ancestors of the Mongolian people and for great heroes. The form is reserved for special events and group activities such as horse races, archery and wrestling tournaments, large banquets and sacrificial rituals. The timing and order of songs is often strictly regulated. Khoomei has long been regarded as a central element representing Mongolian culture and remains a strong symbol of national or ethnic identity. As a window into the philosophy and aesthetic values of the Mongol people, it has served as a kind of cultural emissary promoting understanding and friendship among China, Mongolia and Russia, and has attracted attention around the world as a unique form of musical expression. ~

According to UNESCO “Mongolian art of Khoomei singing,” was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) The Mongolian art of singing: Khoomei is recognized by the community as an important part of its identity and continuity that is continually recreated, innovated and transmitted as a symbolic expression of its culture; 2) Inscription of the element on the Representative List would contribute to a better understanding of the Mongolian people’s special attachment and interaction with nature, to increased awareness among younger generations and academia, and to strengthened respect and cooperation between countries in the region. ~

Mongolian Throat Singing: A Chinese UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Asset?

The China quietly applied to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to have throat singing registered by the United Nations as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” with China getting the credit. The pitch worked. UNESCO listed Mongolian throat singing under China’s name. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “A listing by UNESCO doesn’t bring any money or copyright privileges, but it does confer bragging rights—and it helps China reinforce cultural claims viewed as essential to holding together a vast territory populated on the fringes by ethnic minorities of often uncertain loyalties. That includes a population of ethnic Mongolians, most of them in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, which was hit by a wave of unrest in May 2011 and further protests in June fed by resentment against the area’s majority Han Chinese… By claiming—and controlling—culture, the Communist Party has sought to keep such tensions in check, not only in normally placid Inner Mongolia, but also in far more protest-prone regions such as Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang.”

“Throat singing is part of China’s splendid general culture because Mongolians are one of China’s ethnic groups,” Li Qiang told the Washington Post. He is the director of Inner Mongolia’s Song and Dance Academy, the institution where Odsuren taught. Arguments over who actually developed throat singing and where, Li added, aren’t important because what matters today is who can best protect the art: “Right now, we are strong and capable enough to do that.”

Fight Over Whether Throat Singing Should be a Chinese UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Asset

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “When news of UNESCO’s decision to endorse China’s claim reached Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, Odsuren was pilloried in the local media for selling out Mongolian culture. China’s UNESCO video included not only his former pupil—who declined to comment—but also footage of Odsuren during one of his visits to Inner Mongolia. “I suffered for a whole year. There was a lot of commotion here about how I sold throat singing to the Chinese,” Odsuren said. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

“I was very surprised to find the Chinese khoomei (throat singing) nomination,” said Mark van Tongeren, a Dutch musicologist who served as an expert on a UNESCO review panel. “For me, it seemed obvious this was a tricky one.” Li, the Song and Dance Academy director, denied any attempt by China to annex Mongolia’s heritage, insisting that Inner Mongolia had its own throat singers long before Odsuren started teaching in China. “We prepared well, and we showed enough evidence (to UNESCO). No wonder we got it.”

Odsuren acknowledged that the area that is now Chinese Inner Mongolia did have throat singers in the distant past but said the art died out there long ago, a claim supported by China’s official Xinhua News Agency, which reported in 2006 that throat singing “was lost more than 100 years ago” in China. Odsuren thinks this should have made China ineligible for a UNESCO listing because the tradition was not “transmitted from generation to generation” as required by the 2003 convention.

Li, for his part, said that although it looks “on the surface” that throat singing had vanished in China, and “we thought so at first,” it had in fact survived among Chinese nomads. Under Mao Zedong, who ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976, the Communist Party took a dim view of “minority” cultures. It still frowns on cultural activities it doesn’t control, but is now eager to develop—and lay claim to—songs, dances and other art forms that it hopes will help cement the loyalties of Mongolians and other minorities.

The furor calmed after Mongolia submitted its own entry for throat singing and, in November, secured a spot on UNESCO’s list. The register now has two throat singing entries, one for China, one for Mongolia. Odsuren said he’s over his anger and doesn’t bear any grudge toward Chinese Mongolians who now claim for China an art that he taught them.

UNESCO and a Culture Grab by China?

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “In 2009 and 2010, more than a quarter of all items inscribed by Paris-based UNESCO on its cultural heritage roster were from China. Many of the items under China’s name are clearly Chinese, such as Peking Opera, acupuncture, dragon boat festivals and Chinese calligraphy. But also listed as Chinese are the epic of Manas, a poem that Kyrgyzstan considers the cornerstone of its national culture, as well as Tibetan Opera, and a Korean farmers dance. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

Cecile Duvelle, head of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage section, said in response to written questions by the Washington Post that a listing does not mean an item “belongs to the state” or that China’s cultural heritage “has more or less value,” but she added that the organization “is nevertheless discussing this unbalanced situation.”

Exactly which “practices, expressions, knowledge and skills” are put on UNESCO’s list gets decided by a U.N. committee made up of officials from 24 member states. And no country has been more active than China in nominating entries—to the chagrin of Mongolians, Kyrgyz, Tibetans and others whose culture is in part now registered as being from China.

When the United Nations first adopted a Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003, the idea was to promote diversity and help indigenous peoples protect their heritage. Higgins wrote, ‘scholars with no dog in the fight also have been taken aback by a system they complain is driven by bureaucratic process and power politics as much as concerns for cultural authenticity.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China \*\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016