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.”
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, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* 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