Connections Between Intercontinental Throat Singing Native Groups

Connections Between Intercontinental Throat Singing Native Groups

Throat singing is an amazing, storied tradition of musical expression. A mixture of hoarse, rasping chanting and low, rumbling growls, throat singing has a rich history that spans the globe. It is generally thought to have originated in central Asia, specifically Tiber, Mongolia and Siberia.  Ranging from North America, to Central Asia, even all the way to Africa, throat singing has a very diverse range of people singing it, as well as a very diverse range of musical styles. With that said, I think that there is possibly a connection between most, if not all of these native groups that perform these traditions. Although some connections may not be direct, it is still interesting to look at the possible influences that were passed through these groups.

Throat singing has two main types that are significantly different. The first is utilizing overtones, in which there is not only the main, fundamental note, but also the overtone note that falls somewhere on the harmonic series. Examples of overtone throat signing include Tuvan techniques like sygyt and khoomei. In these techniques, the low drone was constant while the harmonics were constantly changed. Meanwhile, there are also throat singing techniques where there is more of a low, grumbling sound with very diverse tones and timbres. These type of throat singing are based in the unique vocalization and resonance in the singers’ throat. Examples of this singing are kargyraa, which has an incredible, rumbling sound that is reminiscent of a didgeridoo.

Aside from those two types of throat singing is one more types of throat singing that is found in two places in particular. In North America, among the Inuit people, and in northern Japan, among the Ainu people, is throat singing that resembles a game. Rather than performing, these types of singing are meant to be a game between two singers, specifically women.  The timbre of these games however is different as well, which we will get into later. First, I will try to outline the connections between two different groups of throat singing people; the Inuit and Ainu tribes.

Inuit throat singing is one of the most well known and recognized types of throat singing there is today. The Inuit people today are situated in northern parts of North America, specifically Alaska and Northern Canada, but some even range to Greenland, as well as the Kamchatka Peninsula in Northeast Siberia/Russia. I believe that this group of people, with a population of over 100,000, is somehow related to other throat singing groups in central Asia. In fact, some believe that the Inuit have origins connecting them to Mongolia. It is also believed that they crossed the Bering Strait around 10,000 B.C. from Northwest Siberia to Alaska and North America. In terms of this groups throat singing, they have multiple different names for the same technique. For those in Northern Quebec it’s called katajjaq, in Baffin Island it’s called pirkusirtuk and in Nunavut it is called nipaquhiit. The actual practice itself is performed by two women who perform against each other while using vocal techniques that utilize both inhales and exhales.

As you can hear, the women performing change their pace, rhythm, pitch and timbre throughout the entire game. This is what adds to the difficulty of the game, as one person has to follow while the other quickly changes these aspects of their singing. Jean-Jacques Nattiez describes it as such:

“We would judge [this] Inuit practice to be “musical” a priori: katajjaq, which is today referred to as a ‘throat-game.’ Katajjaq as music? Certainly from the western vantage point it is music, since [musical groups have] made a record of it (which was even awarded a prize, by a rather well known Academy). But within the Inuit social practice, this complex symbolic form has one predominant characteristic: it is a game. The principle behind performing katajjaq is as follows: it is played by two women; the repeat a brief motif at staggered intervals, until one of the women is forced to stop, having either run out of breath or tripped over her own tongue. There is a winner and a loser.” (Jean Jacques Nattiez)

The origins of this game are believed to be women who were playing this game while the men went out hunting for food. While men were hunting and gathering, the women in these tribes back with the children caring for them, cooking and making sure that everything at home ran smoothly. However, the men would, at times, be gone for days on end, so in order to pass the time, women began this practice which has now stood the test of time and defined this native group musically, even though it was not meant to be a form of music at all. Another tidbit on Inuit throat singing at one point was done with the women getting so close to each other that their lips were nearly touching. While this is no longer done in the modern practice of Inuit throat singing, it was done this way in order to use the other women’s throat as a resonator. This may seem like a useless fact, however when you begin to try to draw connections between the Inuit people and other throat singing groups, it becomes very valuable. For example, the Ainu people.

The Ainu tribes, located in Northern Japan, is also known for their throat singing technique called Rekuhkara. Rekuhkara, also performed by two women, is done by two women forming a tube with their hands and then chanting into each others mouths and throats. This cavity acts as a way of the performers using each others mouths and throats as a resonator to give the technique a unique sound. In addition, this technique also utilizes the inhale as a sound, although less so than Inuit throat singing.

(Also listen to the previous video on Inuit Throat singing at the 1:00 mark)

Picture of two Ainu women performing Rekuhkara

It’s hard not to recognize the similarities between these two techniques. Sound wise, you can clearly hear the inhales and exhales of both performances. In addition, the pace, tempo and back and forth format of the singing is almost too similar to consider it a coincidence. There are also times, like the ones pointed out, where both the Inuit throat singing and the Rekuhkara have a similar timbre. Although the timbre of the the Inuit throat singing is clearly more guttural in the attached videos, it is believed that Rekuhkara, in its true form, is meant to be sang much more gutturally. In fact, the Rekuhkara shown in the video may not be a proper representation of what true Rekuhkara was meant to sound like. The last true, recognized Rekuhkara practitioner actually died in 1978, meaning that the modern day presentation of Rekuhkara, in terms of sound, may not be completely accurate. Although many of the intricacies of the practice are specified, for instance sitting facing one another with your hands cupped together, the actually tone and timbre of the sound today is most likely not accurate. In fact, according to Jean-Jacques Nattiez, the word “Rekuhkara” actually means.

“In fact, what distinguishes it essentially from [other Japanese singing traditions] […] is the ‘guttural’ sound. In the Ainu language, according to the Ainu-Japanese dictionary compiled by Chiri Mashio, rek means ‘to speak’ or ‘make a sound” and kut means “throat.’” (Jean-Jacques Nattiez)

This would imply that the original form of Rekuhkara does not in fact utilize a lighter tone. On the contrary. The fact that the name itself roughly means “to make a sound from the throat” means that this practice was surely meant to have its vocalization and resonance come from the throat.

Not only in sound, but in form as well, the Inuit and Ainu people clearly have a relation in their musical traditions. It is hard to deny the similarities between both techniques due to the fact that they typically use women, they attempt (or at least at one point they did) to use their partners mouth and throat as a resonating cavity, they both use inhales as a part of the sound, and there are possible connections geographically from their history as the Inuit have been linked to Mongolia and the surrounding Central Asian territories.

From here, I tried to find a connection between the Central Asian natives and the Ainu people. Because throat singing as a practice is generally thought to have originated in the Mongolian/Tibetan/Siberian region, it is reasonable to believe that the Ainu could possibly have been influenced by these groups who are close in geographic proximity. With this in mind, I believe there is possibly a connection between the Ainu people and a Tribe in Northern Russia: The Nganasan people. There are multiple things that can be connected between these two tribes, but the first we will be looking at is the significance of bears, and the similarities between many of their ceremonies and tradition. Both the Ainu and the Nganasan people have ceremonies that are based around bears and their belief in bears as a god or an overall important figure. In fact, in the Ainu language bear can also be translated to god, so clearly the bear holds a very important cultural status in their community. In addition, the Ainu people have an old tradtion that involves sacrificing a bear, as well as a small animal (typically a deer), and then eating the animals that were sacrificed. During this ceremony, they perform Rekuhkara, dance, and then perform a ritual that involves a tribe member imitating “the pleasure the god must have experienced in the last moments before the release of its spirit.

They believed that inside the bear is the spirit of the god, and in order to release it, it must be sacrificed. This practice is even more interesting when you compare it to the traditions of the Nganasan people as well. They have a ceremony/tradition simply called the “Bear Dance” in which they attempt to imitate a bear both physically and audibly. The bear dance is performed in a low, grumbling voice which is reminiscent of throat singing, however they seem to call it throat rasping rather than singing. Regardless, these similarities are hard to ignore.

In addition, there is thought to be some connection between the Ainu and the Nganasan genetically. In fact, in one study called Deep History of East Asian Populations Revealed Through Genetic Analysis of the Ainu they suggest that, genetically, the Ainu and the Nganasan are related so closely that they could even be considered sister tribes. “Siberian populations (Nganasan and Itelmen) were modeled either as a sister group of all East Asians including the Ainu (76.8%) or as a sister group of Native Americans.” Not only are there connections based off of the ceremonies, but there is also scientific evidence of them being genetically related. Lastly however, there is also musical connections potentially between the Nganasan and the Inuit who were previously discussed. Ethnomusicologists have done studies on both of these groups and their singing styles, and after studying these groups the actually decided to use the same notation for the two tribes. Because both groups utilize both the inhale and the exhale so heavily, they used notation that had the inhales marked with triangles, while the exhales were marked with rectangles. Although this doesn’t not prove any true connection between these groups, it is very interesting that these two distant tribes happen to utilize many of the same structures in their singing styles.

Following these connections from the Inuk to the Ainu, and the the Ainu to the Nganasan, I found my research to be in the correct place geographically. The Nganasan are located in Russia/Siberia, so this is one of the locations that is believed to be the birthplace of throat singing. With that, I scoured the internet for connections between the Nganasan and any other central Asian tribe or group. I attempted to look for connections between them and the Tuvans and Tibetan indigenous groups, as well as tribes like the Chukchi in Northern Russia, however to no avail. I unfortunately was not able to find direct connections between these groups, however I don’t believe this is because there isn’t any connection. I believe that this is simply due to a lack of research in this field. The reason I believe this is because the groups are all similar in the sense that they practice this very niche, unique singing style, as well as the fact that they are all in very close proximity of each other. Because these groups, who are believed to be tens of thousands of years old, are all in the same area and practice throat singing, which is practiced very seldom in any other geographic location, it is hard to believe that this high concentration of of throat singing is simply due to coincidence.

Although this study was not completely successful, it seems that I was on track to finding deep connections. Due to lack of research on the topic, I was unable to find discernible connections between groups located in Asia. However, the connections between the Inuit, Ainu, and Nganasan feel to me very believable and authentic. Musically, traditionally/ceremonially, and even genetically, there is evidence of connection between these groups, and I think that it is fair to say that many, if not all, throat singing groups are potentially related through influence on each other. Although these influences may have occurred thousands of years ago, I myself believe that these connections are impossible to ignore.




Works Cited

Hai, Tran. “Bruno DESCHENES: Inuit Throat Singing.” Overtone Music Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2017. <;.

Jeong, Choongwon, Shigeki Nakagome, and Anna Di Rienzo. “Deep History of East Asian Populations Revealed Through Genetic Analysis of the Ainu.” Genetics 202.1 (2016): 261–272. PMC. Web. 20 May 2017.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. “The Rekkukara of the Ainu (Japan) and the Katajjaq of the Inuit (Canada): A Comparison.” The World of Music, vol. 25, no. 2, 1983, pp. 33–44. JSTOR,

Ojamaa, Triinu. “Throat Rasping: Problems of Visualization.” The World of Music, vol. 47, no. 2, 2005, pp. 55–69. JSTOR,

Walz, Jonathan David. “From Primitives to Zen: The Ainu Bear Sacrifice.” Man and the Sacred. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2017. <;.