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).


CAROLE PEGG: THROAT SINGING, in Britannica Encyclopaedia


Alternative Titles: höömii, kai, khöömei, khöömii, khai, overtone-singing, xöömii
Throat-singing, also called overtone-singing, a range of singing styles in which a single vocalist sounds more than one pitch simultaneously by reinforcing certain harmonics (overtones and undertones) of the fundamental pitch. In some styles, harmonic melodies are sounded above a fundamental vocal drone.

Originally called overtone-singing in Western scholarly literature, the identification by acoustical researchers of the presence of harmonics below the vocal drone in the deep, guttural styles as well as overtones in the more melodic styles led to adoption of the term throat-singing (a translation of the Mongolian term höömei). Throat-singing necessitates activating different combinations of muscles to manipulate the resonating chambers of the vocal tract under sustained pressurized airflow from the stomach and chest. As with operatic singing, the technique requires years of training to master..

Origin, distribution, and contexts of performance

Throat-singing originated among the indigenous Turko-Mongol tribes of the Altai and Sayan mountains of southern Siberia and western Mongolia. These communities are part of the broader cultural area of Inner Asia, which lies at the intersection of the rolling steppes and snowcapped mountains between Central Asia and East Asia and encompasses portions of three geopolitical systems: Mongolia, Russia (the republics of Khakassia, Tyva [Tuva], Altay [Altai], and Buryatia), and China (the autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia and Tibet). The region embraces many nomadic and seminomadic peoples who share the musical practice of using harmonically rich vocal timbres, such as those employed in throat-singing, to communicate with both the natural and supernatural worlds. In the western Mongolian Altai, throat-singing is called höömii (also khöömii or xöömii) and is practiced traditionally by the western Khalkha, Bait, and Altay Uriangkhai peoples. Indigenous peoples in Altay, Khakassia, and Tyva call throat-singing kai, khai, and khöömei, respectively.

There are also isolated traditions elsewhere—for instance, among the Bashkirs of the republic of Bashkortostan in southwestern Russia and among Xhosa women and girls in south-central South Africa. A form of throat-singing is also used by Tibetan Buddhist monks of the Dge-lugs-pa sect during ritual performances and by the Inuit (Eskimos) of northern Canada during vocal games. None of these practices, however, involves the manipulation of harmonics that characterizes the Altai-Sayan traditions.

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Initially forbidden by the communist regimes of the first half of the 20th century on account of its ritual and ethnic associations and because it was considered a “backward” practice, throat-singing became re-established as a national art form during the 1980s in both Mongolia and Russia. Consequently, the tradition was taught in schools, performed in theatres, and cultivated through competitions. Traditional uses were revived after the dissolution of the communist governments in Russia and Mongolia in the early 1990s. By the early 21st century, throat-singing was once again used to lull babies to sleep, lure wild and semidomesticated animals, help gain the favour of the spirit of the place, and summon shamanic spirits and Buddhist gods. In Altay, Khakassia, and western Mongolia, the guttural tones of throat-singing once again served as a medium for epic-narrative performance.


Melodic styles and classifications vary. In western Mongolia styles are identified by the parts of the body that figure most prominently in the manipulation of pitch and timbre. For example, the Bait people refer to the “root-of-the-tongue” style, and western Khalkhas distinguish labial, nasal, glottal or throat, palatal, and chest-cavity or stomach styles. The western Khalkhas also use a deep bass, nonmelodic throat-singing style, and certain specialists can combine a number of styles with lyrics. Tyvans, by contrast, often classify styles in relation to the landscape.

It is the Tyvans who have developed throat-singing most extensively. Although classificatory debates abound among Tyvan indigenous scholars and performers as well as among Western academics, there are three broadly acknowledged styles of Tyvan throat-singing: khöömei, the generic term, which also implies a “soft” style with diffused harmonics above a fundamental drone; sygyt, with a clear whistlelike melody above a drone; and kargyraa, a low growling that is rich in undertones. Borbangnadyr (or borbannadir; “rolling”), with its pulsating harmonics, and ezenggileer, which imitates the boots of a horseback rider hitting the stirrups, are called styles by some scholars and substyles by others. Indeed, there are many substyles—or ornamentations—of throat-singing that are evocative of various aspects of the performance and its environment. Substyles of kargyraa, for instance, may suggest features of the landscape, imitate the sounds of animals, indicate the part of the body used to create a particular sound, or identify the creator of the substyle.

Throat-singers usually accompany themselves on the distinctive Inner Asian fiddle, with its pegboard often carved in the shape of a horse’s head. For epic-narrative performance, however, the fiddle is replaced with a two-stringed plucked lute or a long board-zither. In the past, throat-singing was performed by men in ritual contexts. Female performance of throat-singing was thought to cause infertility or to bring misfortune on the performers’ menfolk for seven generations. Since the late 20th century, however, a number of female musicians have begun to challenge those taboos.

Since the late 20th century, innovative musicians have blended throat-singing with various international popular styles, thereby establishing a place for the genre within the commercial realm of world music. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Inner Asians have been able to travel more freely. As a result, throat-singing has been taken up by musicians in neighbouring areas such as Kyrgyzstan and the Russian republic of Buryatia. The West has developed its own practitioners, largely as part of a New Age collage of alternative beliefs about nature, the earth, healing, and spirituality.

Carole Pegg

MIREILLE HELFFER : compte rendu :Carole PEGG, Mongolian Music, Dance & Oral Narrative. Performing Diverse Identities

Carole PEGG
Seattle & London : University of Washington Press, 2001
mireille helffer
Mireille Helffer
p. 185-189
Référence(s) :

Carole PEGG, Mongolian Music, Dance & Oral Narrative. Performing Diverse Identities. Seattle & London : University of Washington Press, with a CD, 2001.

Texte intégral

1Avant d’aborder le contenu de l’ouvrage que Carole Pegg vient de consacrer à la musique mongole, il n’est sans doute pas inutile de se remémorer quelles étaient les connaissances dont on pouvait disposer à la fin du XXe siècle.

2Première constatation : un certain nombre de publications étaient facilement accessibles en Occident. Parmi celles-ci, je signalerai les titres suivants, classés par ordre chronologique de parution :
— Van Oost, P.J., « La musique chez les Mongols des Urdus », Anthropos 10-11 (1915-16) : 258-396.
Dix-huit chants et poèmes mongols. Recueillis par la Princesse Nirgidma de Torhout. Trans. Madame Humbert-Sauvageot Paris : Paul Geuthner [Bibliothèque musicale du Musée Guimet 1 (4)], 1937.
— Les articles de Ernst Emsheimer et Haslund Christensen in The Music of the Mongols Part I: Eastern Mongolia [Reports from the scientific Expedition to the North-Western Provinces of China under the leadership of Dr. Sven Hedin — The Sino-swedish Expedition — Publication 21 /VIII Ethnography 4]. Stockholm, 1943.
— Les publications hongroises des années 1960 :

  • Laszlo Vargyas: « Performing styles in Mongolian Chant », Journal of the IFMC 20 (1968): 70-72 > découverte du chant diphonique.

  • Györgi Kara : Chants d’un barde mongol. Budapest : Akadémiai Kiado [Bibliotheca Hungarica XII] 1970. D’après la documentation recueillie en 1959 auprès de barde Pajai, dans la Région autonome de la Mongolie intérieure (Chine).

— Les nombreux articles publiés à partir. de 1970 dans la revue Etudes Mongoles (devenue plus tard Etudes mongoles et sibériennes) animée par Roberte Hamayon et une équipe de mongolisants et touchant aussi bien à la littérature orale qu’au tambour chamanique.
— Sans oublier l’article de Laurent Aubert « La vièle-cheval et le luth-singe », publié dans le Bulletin du Musée d’ethnographie de Genève n° 28 (1986 : 27-51) à la suite de l’acquisition par ce musée d’un lot d’instruments de musique d’Asie centrale et de nombreuses cassettes de musique enregistrée.

3Deuxième constatation : entre 1967 et 1993, des enregistrements significatifs ont été édités et sont devenus disponibles en France ; malheureusement, les notices demeuraient le plus souvent sommaires. Sans prétendre à l’exhaustivité, il y a lieu de signaler :
— Lajos Vargyas : Mongol Nepzene [Mongolian Folk Music], Hungaroton, UNESCO cooperation LPX 18013-14 (1967), réédition HCO 18013-14 (1990). Un compte-rendu relatif à ces disques, accompagné d’informations complémentaires a été rédigé conjointement par Roberte Hamayon et Mireille Helffer : « A propos de Musique populaire mongole, enregistrements de Lajos Vargyas », in Etudes mongoles 4 (1973) : 145-180.
— Roberte Hamayon : Chants mongols et bouriates, Paris, collection Musée de l’Homme, Vogue LDM 30138, 1973 [enregistrements recueillis en1967-68 et 1970]. A compléter par Roberte Hamayon : « Quelques chants bouriates », in Etudes mongoles 6 (1975) : 190-213.
— Jean Jenkins: Vocal and Instrumental Music of Mongolia Topic TSCD909. Réédition des deux LP (1977) TGS126 et 127. Compte-rendu de Mireille Helffer in Yearbook of the IFMC vol. 10 (1978): 139-140.
— Xavier Bellenger : Mongolie : Musique et chants de tradition populaire, GREM G 7511, The digital archives of Traditional Music with the assistance from the International Music Council-UNESCO [34 extraits recueillis en 1985 à Oulan Bator, à la faveur d’un festival organisé par la République populaire de Mongolie].
— Alain Desjacques :

  • Mongolie : Musiques et chants de l’Altai. ORSTOM Selaf Cero 811 (1986).

  • Mongolia: Musics and Musicians of the World, coll. Auvidis-UNESCO D8207 (1991).

  • Mongolia : Chamanes et lamas (enregistrements 1991-1992 et 1993) OCORA C560059. Compte-rendu de Mireille Helffer in Cahiers de Musiques traditionnelles 8 (1995) : 269-272.

4La plupart de ces enregistrements sont aujourd’hui hors commerce et doivent être recherchés dans des discothèques spécialisées.

5C’est à la suite de ces chercheurs qu’il y a lieu de situer le parcours de Carole Pegg. Elle se réclame élève de Jacques Goody et Lawrence Picken et, après avoir étudié la musique de son pays natal dans l’East Suffolk, elle a opté pour la Mongolie où elle a effectué son premier terrain en 1987. Ses fonctions officielles — rattachement au Département d’Anthropologie sociale et à la Faculté de musique de l’Université de Cambridge, co-fondatrice du British Journal of Ethnomusicology (fondé, rappelons le, en 1992) — sont rappelées à la p. 377 de son ouvrage. Elle tient en outre à préciser que « As a social anthropologist and musician she has been working since 1987 with nomadic groups in remote areas of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia (China) and with urban Mongols in both countries. She has also toured with Mongol musicians in England and Hong-Kong ». On se demande pourquoi elle passe sous silence son exigeant travail de Ethnomusicology Area Editor pour la nouvelle édition du Grove

6Venons-en maintenant à l’objet de Mongolian Music, Dance & Oral Narrative, à savoir l’état de la musique mongole depuis les années 1990.

7Dans son introduction, l’auteur se pose résolument comme une ‘social anthropologist’ principalement intéressée par l’ethnographie de la performance, et elle va jusqu’à dire « questions of authenticity are not at issue here. Whether the performances are on Western stages in concert hall or within traditional nair in the round felt tent, the processes are the same » (p. 6). Ces présupposés expliquent le plan qui a été choisi pour cet ouvrage, dont le titre laissait attendre un traitement plus musical des données recueillies. Il se divise en quatre parties dont je conserve ici volontairement les titres en anglais afin de ne pas fausser la pensée de l’auteur :
— Part I: Performing Ethnicity, History and Place (7-93).
— Part II: Embodying spiritual landscape (95-168)
— Part III: Creating Sociality, Time and Space (169-248)
— Part IV: Transforming political identities (249-297)

8L’ouvrage est complété par une bibliographie abondante (faisant place à nombre de contributions mongoles difficilement accessibles), par une discographie sélective, un glossaire de 406 entrées, un index et une liste des personnes interviewées, portant sur 171 noms avec mention des lieux et dates des rencontres.

9Si je comprends bien le propos de Carole Pegg, il s’agit dans la première partie de montrer comment les conditions de la performance recréent de nouvelles identités en relation avec l’origine ethnique, l’histoire et le lieu. Pour répondre à cette interrogation, l’auteur a su nouer, grâce à sa connaissance de la langue, des contacts étroits avec les chercheurs et musiciens mongols, rencontrés sur place ou fréquentés au cours des tournées qu’elle a accompagnées en Angleterre ou à Hong-Kong.

10Cette longue partie est divisée en trois chapitres qui traitent successivement des « connections » c’est-à-dire des données historiques nécessaires à la compréhension des rapports entre groupes (ch. 1), des répertoires de musique vocale et notamment des différents styles de « chants longs » (urtyn duu), selon qu’on se trouve à l’est (avec accompagnement de vièle morin huur), à l’ouest, sans accompagnement, ou en Mongolie intérieure avec support d’un bourdon vocal produit par l’assistance (ch. 2), des instruments de musique et de la danse (ch.3).

11C’est seulement dans cette partie que la question de la substance musicale est brièvement abordée, étayée par une seule notation sur portée d’un fragment de chant long (urtyn duu) empruntée à la contribution d’un musicologue japonais (p. 46 : fig. 4 a et b), et par les indications relatives à l’accord des principaux instruments : vièle morin huur (p. 71 : fig. 5), vièle à archet emprisonné huuchir (p. 76 : fig. 6), luth shudraga (p. 80 : fig. 7), flûte limbe (p. 82 : fig. 8) etc.

12Pour répondre aux questions d’ordre musical que se pose le lecteur, il y a heureusement le CD accompagnant l’ouvrage qui regroupe 38 courts exemples, choisis dans le souci de mettre en évidence les styles régionaux des différents genres. C’est à juste titre que l’accent est mis sur les « chants longs » avec 11 plages consacrées aux urtyn duu, chantés par des hommes ou des femmes, avec ou sans accompagnement de la vièle à tête de cheval morin huur, dans des styles différents selon qu’ils ont été recueillis à l’ouest ou à l’est de la Mongolie ou en Mongolie intérieure. Le chant diphonique hoomii, devenu emblématique de la musique mongole, est à l’honneur avec 4 plages dont une (CD 19) offre la démonstration de six types différents de hoomii. On notera en outre les deux extraits de chant épique selon les deux styles pratiqués dans l’ouest de la Mongolie (CD 15 et 16), les deux exemples de « louanges », magtaal, les rares chants pour encourager les animaux domestiques à se laisser traire (CD 36), et l’extrait de séance chamanique (CD 33). Enfin, le jeu de la plupart des instruments de musique en usage est illustré par un exemple.

13Dans la deuxième partie, l’auteur aborde le difficile problème des conditions religieuses résultant de la longue période de domination russe et, reprenant les observations de plusieurs chercheurs mongols concernés, adopte un triple point de vue, avec un chapitre consacré aux pratiques de la religion populaire (ch. 5), un chapitre consacré à la renaissance du chamanisme (ch. 6 : 120-142 et CD 33), un chapitre sur ce qui reste des traditions bouddhistes, après des décennies de persécution (ch. 7 : 143-155). Mais ces distinctions étaient-elles opportunes quand l’auteur elle-même souligne comment on assiste à des « mosaics of performance practices and discourses rather than discrete sets of practices and beliefs » (p. 95).

14En ce qui concerne le chamanisme, persécuté depuis des générations, les informations recueillies se basent sur les témoignages des anciens et sur des entretiens auprès de trois femmes-chamanes âgées et en particulier Baljir Udgan, dont une partie de la performance figure au CD 33. On peut regretter que la description du tambour chamanique se limite à celle d’un tambour conservé au musée d’Ulaangom et ne s’appuie pas plutôt sur les instruments dont usaient ses informatrices.

15Il n’y a pas lieu de s’étonner que les données recueillies concernant la pratique musicale en milieu bouddhiste demeurent extrêmement limitées, en raison des sévères persécutions qui se sont abattues sur les monastères et qui ont eu pour conséquence d’éliminer ou d’appauvrir considérablement les traditions musicales. La plupart des monastères qui revivent aujourd’hui ne disposent pas de tous les instruments nécessaires au culte et on peut être surpris d’apprendre dans quelles conditions sont rétablies les danses rituelles tsam (tib. ’cham) avec des acteurs laïques et l’introduction de chants hoomii. De plus, on aurait souhaité quelques explications sur la photo d’une partition musicale (fig. 9) dont il est simplement dit qu’elle concerne des « chants de monastère », mais qui, contrairement à ce type de document dans la tradition tibétaine, ne comporte pas de texte.

16La troisième partie, consacrée à l’entretien des liens sociaux dans l’espace et dans le temps, s’attache à montrer l’importance donnée aux célébrations domestiques et notamment au mariage (ch. 8). Mais elle traite aussi des sports et des jeux pratiqués dans diverses circonstances (ch. 9) et en particulier du « Festival des trois sports virils », les courses de chevaux, la lutte et le tir à l’arc, toutes disciplines dont les vainqueurs ont droit à des « louanges » (yerööl).

17Enfin le chapitre 10 évoque les pratiques musicales liées à l’élevage et à la chasse, avec les chants pour favoriser la traite des animaux domestiques, différents selon qu’il s’agit des juments (CD 36) des chèvres, des chamelles ou des vaches.

18C’est manifestement dans la quatrième partie que Carole Pegg se trouve le plus à l’aise car elle fait bénéficier le lecteur de son expérience vécue des changements politiques à l’œuvre, du contrôle idéologique exercé et des conséquences qui en ont résulté au plan musical en traitant au ch. 11 de la création d’une « identité nationale socialiste », au chapitre 12 des ‘ruptures et diversités’ avant d’esquisser en post-scriptum (ch. 13) une sorte de bilan.

19Elle constate en effet que, selon le modèle préconisé par l’Union soviétique, la musique est supposée devenir « nationale par la forme et socialiste par le contenu ». Ce programme aboutit à une élimination des diversités régionales, tendant à un processus de standardisation de la musique mongole, avec l’adoption de nouvelles classifications des instruments de musique (avec standardisation des accords) et des chants dont les textes sont adaptés pour les mettre en conformité avec la pensée officielle.

20Le développement des clubs et des théâtres locaux, combiné avec l’organisation de festivals folkloriques destinés à promouvoir les talents locaux contribue largement à la diffusion de cette musique mongole standardisée.

21Avec Mongolian Music, Dance & Oral Narrative, on dispose désormais d’un ouvrage utile et même indispensable pour qui veut aborder la musique mongole au seuil du troisième millénaire. Pourtant, malgré la richesse de l’information dispensée, la lecture de ce livre laisse un sentiment d’insatisfaction pour plusieurs raisons :

22– Le plan adopté ne facilite pas la compréhension du lecteur et aboutit à un certain éparpillement des données. Qu’on en juge plutôt pour la connaissance de ce genre essentiel de la musique mongole, à savoir le chant long (urtyn duu), traité comme on pouvait s’y attendre au ch. 1, mais abondamment évoqué tout au long de l’ouvrage et notamment au ch. 8 concernant les célébrations domestiques et plus particulièrement les mariages (p. 173 / p. 191 / p. 206).

23– Le non-mongolisant se perd facilement entre régions (les cartes p. 10 et 12 ne sont pas d’une grande clarté !) et il est fastidieux de devoir se reporter au tableau des groupes mongols qui figure p. XII. De même pour se retrouver entre genres, nom des informateurs, titre des chants, il faut avoir recours à l’index et au glossaire, quand ce n’est pas au contenu du CD.

24– Le glossaire (pp. 313-324), dont la consultation s’avère fort utile, ne reconnaît pas toujours les emprunts faits au tibétain comme en témoignent les exemples suivants : dorje pour tib. rdo-rje / dun pour tib. dung désignant la conque / hadag pour les écharpes de cérémonie kha-btags / san pour tib.bsang / tangka / tsam pour tib. ‘cham etc…

25Au chapitre des lacunes, qu’il soit permis de regretter que l’auteur n’ait pas jugé utile de donner quelques indications sur les règles de la versification et de la poétique mongoles et que les possibilités de confronter enregistrements et textes des chants soient presque inexistantes. Il eut été appréciable de pouvoir disposer d’indications concernant le volume des enregistrements recueillis par l’auteur au cours de ses nombreuses missions.

26Enfin on peut s’étonner que la bibliographie ignore des chercheurs français comme Evelyne Falck ou Laurence Delaby, et ne mentionne pas l’importante contribution du musicologue soviétique A. Smirnov, publiée en 1961 sous le titre Mongol’skaja narodnaja muzyka, Moscou, Sovietskij Kompositor et comportant une classification des différents genres musicaux illustrée par environ 200 notations sur portée.

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Mireille Helffer, « Carole PEGG, Mongolian Music, Dance & Oral Narrative. Performing Diverse Identities », Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie, 15 | 2002, 185-189.

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Mireille Helffer, « Carole PEGG, Mongolian Music, Dance & Oral Narrative. Performing Diverse Identities », Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie [En ligne], 15 | 2002, mis en ligne le 11 janvier 2012, consulté le 08 janvier 2019. URL :

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CAROLE PEGG : Mongolian Conceptualizations of Overtone Singing (Xöömii)

Mongolian Conceptualizations of Overtone Singing (Xöömii)

By Carole PEGG

Radik Tülüsh and Carole Pegg

Mongolian conceptualizations of overtone singing (xöömii)

By Carole Pegg

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Based on fieldwork in western Mongolia during 1989 and 1990, this paper relates Mongolian xöömii or overtone singing to its social context and to the cognitive world of the performers. It looks at secular performance contexts, theories of origin, legendary/historical development, recent transformation into an art form, traditional training methods and transmission, Mongolian classification of xöömii, and its relationship with nature and shamanism. A brief overview is given of previous non‑Mongolian perspectives, which have either concentrated on acoustical and physiological analysis of the sounds themselves or have made claims that overtone singing is a “magical voice technique” causing spiritual and physical healing. The latter is contrasted with the Mongolian belief that, although consumption of the sounds may be beneficial, the production of xöömii is potentially harmful to the body.


The term “overtone singing” (see note 1) refers to an extraordinary vocal technique in, which a single performer simultaneously produces up to three separate voca1 lines, which can be clearly distinguished by listeners. There are several types of “overtone singing”, but most involve the sounding of a fundamental drone, whilst producing a flute‑like melody by reinforcing a series of chosen harmonics or partials of that fundamental. This phenomenon has been embraced in the West by two groups of people who view it with very different perspectives. On the one hand, there are those who assume that it is linked with ancient religious practices and beliefs, with powerful forces within the universe, that it may be used for meditation or for magical healing. On the other hand, there are those who are curious to understand how one person can physically produce such sounds, and musicologists and others have carried out a considerable amount of research on this over the last ten years. But little has been done to relate the phenomenon to its social context or to the cognitive world of the performers. This has been partly because of the inaccessibility of those Central Asian areas where it occurs and partly because of the orientation of the researchers. This paper attempts to augment these previous perspectives with indigenous ones gained during fieldwork undertaken in Mongolia during 1989 and 1990. It contextualises Mongolian overtone singing in geographical, historical and societal terms and considers the culture bearers’ own conceptualisation of musical sound. It also illustrates the use of xöömii in secular contexts in Mongolia, considers its relationship with religion and points to the potentially harmful effects of the production of these sounds on the body.


1  Turko‑Mongol peoples

Overtone singing is found predominantly amongst the Turco‑Mongol peoples of Southern Siberia and Central Asia. In addition to Mongolia, it is found in Tannu Tuva, an autonomous region of Russia which lies just north of western Mongolia, and amongst neighbouring peoples such as the Bashkirs (Garcia 1840; Lebedinskii 1962:147‑49), Khakassians and the Gorno altai/Mountain Altai (Aksenov 1964). Lamas in the dGe‑lugs‑pa monasteries of Gyume and Gyottö in Tibet were trained from the age of twelve for tantric ritual performance to produce sounds which have been called ” xöömii” (Smith and Stevens 1967:211), but the harmonics or partials are not produced with the intention of creating melodies as in Mongolian xöömii.

2  South Africa and India

Isolated examples have been found in other parts of the world. For instance, the women and girls of the Xhosa people of South Africa perform overtone singing (umngqokolo) during which three tones simultaneously produced by one person are clearly audible (Dargie 1991:39). Umngqokolo ngomqangi, a technique where only two lines are audible (fundamental and overtone), is explained by one performer as originating in the Xhosa boys’ habit of impaling a large flying beetle called umqangi on a thorn and then holding the desperately buzzing insect within the mouth. Umqangi is also an alternative name for the umrhubhe mouth bow, and it is suggested that the umngqokolo ngomqangi overtone technique and narne were derived frorn the bow either directly or via the unfortunate insect (ibid.). The single example (note 2) recorded in Rajasthan is thought to be imitating either the satara double flute or the jew’s harp (Zemp and Tran 1989 F). (note 3)

3 Mongolia

In Mongolia, prior to the destruction of the monasteries by the communists during the 1930s and 1940s, the chanting of Buddhist monks was pitched very deep, and overtones would also sometimes occur, although apparently with no intention of producing a melody. The lama Ven Luvsangshirab (who had been training to become a lama prior to the Revolution and in 1990, because of the new freedom, had been reinstated) dismissed this as a sound which, although impressive, only “resembled” xöömii (IN). Amongst the Mongols, xöömii performance was a secular activity which was considered by the lamas to be “without respect” (xdndtei bish). Despite the claims in 1967 of the Hungarian musicologist Vargyas (D) that xöömii was “still fairly common among male singers, especially in Eastern Mongolia”, the tradition of secular overtone singing belongs to the Altai mountain region of western Mongolia.

My own fieldwork was undertaken in the three provinces or aimag which lie along the Altai mountain range‑Uvs, Xovd and Bayan Olgii‑and contain many different yastan. (Note 4) The majority of Mongols belong to the XaIxa, but there are 22 other yastan in Mongolia, mostly living in the west. An aimag is divided into administrative units called sum, each occupied predominantly by one yastan. I investigated the xöömii tradition in each aimag.

  1. Uys aimag.(note 5) Situated in northwest Mongolia, immediately south of the border with Tannu Tuva, this aimag is occupied by three yastan, the Bayad, the Dörvöd and the Xoton. Overtone singing is rare amongst the Dörvöd and Xoton but has a strong tradition amongst the Bayad. Opinions vary about whether the Bayad had their own xöömii tradition or whether they took it from the Urianxai in Tannu Tuva. (note 6)  It is 85‑year old Düüdei’ s belief (IN) that the Bayad in the border sum of Tes copied the Urianxai. This however was disputed by Byambadorj (IN), a knowledgeable Bayad in charge of the Ulaangom Museum.

He pointed the relationship between ?// (cannot readt the text badly photocopied) an epic performance. He suggested that since the Bayad had a strong epic tradition it was likely that xöömii was also indigenous, In Byarribadorj’s opinion, the influence between the two groups of people was mutual, arising from (instant interaction between the Uriarixai and Bayad in pre‑Revolutionary Mongolia). Many of the Mongols in the seven sum which lie along the border with Tuva intermarried with the Urianxai and gave children to families across the border (Piiveen IN). They also traded with each other, and some of the Urianxai xöömiich (xöömii performers) settled in Uvs.(Note 7) Certainly the xöömii tradition was strong among the Bayad in the 1930s. Jamiyan, who was a teenage Bayad herder in Tes sum at that time, recalled that almost everyone could perform xöömii (IN). Later, in the 1950s and 60s, the media also began to aid the dissemination of xöömii and its different styles, reaching yastan which previously had no known tradition of it. For example, 40‑year old Dörvöd Tseveen copied Tuvan xöömii performers whom he beard on his radio whilst herding as a boy in Ölgii sum, Uvs aimag.

  1. Xovd aimag. Xovd aimag is divided from Xirijiang, (note 8) an autonomous region of northwest China, by the Altai mountains in the south and southwest and lies to the south of Uvs aimag. Xovd is divided into seventeen sum in which ‘live six different yastan.(note 9) The people of Chandman’ sum, who are XaIxa, believe that Mongolian xöömii originated there (note 10) Certainly, Chandman’ sum is the source and centre of xöömii revival in Mongolia and of its transformation into a cultural “art form” (see below). But xöömii is also found amongst other yastan in Xovd aimag‑for instance, among the Torguud and Urianxai in Bulgan sum, (Tsoloo IN), the Bayad and Dörvöd in Uvs aimag (as described above)‑‑and also among the Tuvans in Tsengel sum, Bayan Ölgii aimag.

iii. Bayan Ölgii aimag. Bayan Ölgii aimag lies in the extreme northwest of Mongolia. On its western border the Altai Mountains separate it from China and in the north from Russia. To the East lie Uvs and Xovd aimags. In Bayan Ölgii aimag are three yastan: Tuvan, Urianxai and Kazak. The Tuvans, who live in Tsengel sum, say that they originated in that area and spread out from there to present‑day Tannu Tuva (Magsar IN). (note 11) Now there are less than 1,000 Tuvans. (???cannot read from photocopy) population are Kazak. In “the old time” when the Tuvans herder yaks and lived in the high mountain there were many xöömii perfromers  as thers are now in Russia (Magsar ) The Kazaks also perfrom xöömii

The majority of Mongols are semi‑nomadic pastoralists who, despite political changes, have led a virtually unchanged lifestyle since the time of Chinggis Xaan. They continue to live in round felt, easily transportable tents called ger, to lead a semi‑nomadic life within a prescribed (note12) area in accordance with the wealth of pasture, and to use the animals they herd for their own subsistence needs. Chinggis united the Mongol tribes in the thirteenth century, founding a great empire which eventually encompassed the whole of China and spread as far west as the Black Sea. When Mongolia succumbed to Manchu rule in the sixteenth century, the aristocratic princes (xan) and noblemen (noyon) retained their position of dominance within Mongolian society, although they remained answerable to the Manchu Emperor and paid tribute to him (apart from a ten‑year period of autonomy beginning in 1911) until the communist‑inspired revolution of 1921. In pre‑revolutionary Mongolia, when Lamaism was strong, xöömii was used in everyday contexts despite the disapproval of the lamas, who did not like people to indulge in such secular activities.

A consideration of some Mongolian perspectives on xöömii will assist in greater understanding and help to distinguish differences in the way in which Mongols and some Westerners view it.


1 Performance contexts

1 Herding

Xöömii was popular amongst the Urianxai and Bayad camel herders and the Bayan Ölgii Tuvan yak herders. For instance, Mangiljav, a 48‑year‑old Bayad, camel herdsman, is a fine xöömiich who used to perform whilst looking after the herds as a child. He learned from Setsen, his avga (uncle on father’s side), and recalled how his uncle’s xöömii could be heard over a great distance, an ability which was much prized. The Bayad Jamiyan, for instance, recalled People who could be heard over a distance of three kilometres (IN)  The Tuvans in Bayan Olgii aimag used xöömii to “call” yaks ‑ a function which may be connected with this great value placed on carrying power.

2 The ger

In pre‑revolutionary Mongolia, xöömii was also performed within the ger, the round felt tent which was the standard home of the nomadic Mongols. Düüdei (IN), for example, recalled how, during her childhood in Tes sum, Urianxai camel‑herders came from Tuva to gather Sea Buckthorn (Note13) berries, which they used for medicinal purposes and which only grew in Tes sum. Bringing with them many camels and much baggage, they often spent four or five days in her father’s ger, during which time they performed xöömii She noted that before performing they would always repeat the following couplet:

Altai tsantai jurtentei

Amban noen zaxirgaatai. (note14)

suggesting that, in contrast to the lamas’ attitude, the people did treat the performance of xöömii with respect. It is possible that this short introduction was an “offering” to the Altai mountains in much the same way that Altain Magtaal / Praise Song to the Altai Mountains was always performed by the Uriarixai before the rendering of an epic.

3 The noyon’‑s nair / nobleman’s celebration

Jarniyan (IN), born in 1924 in Tes sum, recalled how the noyon JaJin Gün would invite the best bii (Note15) dancers, two‑stringed spiked fiddle players (ixelch) (note16) longsong singers (urtyn duuch) and xöömii performers to his ger to entertain distinguished guests. Xöömii performers, however, were not usually invited to the herders’ own nair (celebrations), to local nair held by the noyon or to a nair held officially (alban yusoor).

4 Chigee uulaax / to cause to drink fermented mare’s milk (note17)

This term was used for a collective celebrations forming part of the wedding ritual known as “seeing off the bride”; it was the only herders’ celebration at which xöömii was performed. Over several days the bride‑to‑be would be invited to the ger of different relatives, accompanied by two xia (note18) and someone whose function was to carry her gifts. She had to wear a special hat and to cover her face with a scarf. Inside each ger she would be offered special meat to eatsheep’s breast, adjoining meat and roasted fat‑and a nair would be held at which, as above, dancers, fiddle players, long‑song singers and xöömiich would perform.

2 Theories of origin

The people of Chandman’ sum believe that xöömii explain its origin in several ways.

1 Nature and the supernatural

The Performance of xöömii and the claim that Chandman’ is its place of origin is attributed to the unusual natural features of this sum: the mountains, lakes. rivers and birds. This “natural origin is also linked, however, with the supernatural or magical.

The geographical features of Chandman’ sum are unusual in Mongolian terms in that it is surrounded on three sides by mountains and lakes. Its western border is formed by Lake Xar Us Nuur in the north and two high mountain ranges, Zuun Jargalantyn Nuruu and Xuremtiin Nuruu. The eastern border is formed by two lakes, Xar Nuur and Dargin Nuur. The two largest lakes, Xar Us Nuur and Xar Nuur are connected in the north by a much smaller lake, Dalai Nuur, and by a river called Chono Xaraix. To the south lies semi‑desert.

Birds. It is claimed that several birds produce xöömii ‑type sounds. For instance, the usny buxI bittern (Note19) keeps its head under water in the lake and produces a sound which can be heard a saaxalt (note20) away (Sengedorj IN). The crane (togoruu), said to live for 3,000 years, also has a distinctive call which, when heard, is considered a portent of long life (Bolorma IN). The noise produced by the wings of the snow cock (xoilog), widespread in Mount Jargalant as well as on the lakes, is said to be very like the sound xöömii. Xöömii is sometimes referred to as the ‘voice’s echo” or “bird’s echo”.

Mountains. The mountains stand alone in the steppe, seperated  from the main Altai massif. The people of Chandman’ sum stress that the sounds heard in the mountains have a special quality, and those who live on Mount Jargalant often discuss the variety of sounds which they hear. For example, they say that sounds are different in the morning from the evening because of a difference in the flow of air (agaaryn ursgal), that common sounds such as rain sound quite different in the mountains, and that there is a particular kind of echo which enables a noise to be heard four or five am (note21) away (Tserendavaa INa).

Mount Jargalant also has a special power. It is said to be able to “hold” the very strong winds which come from the west before releasing them into the steppe below. Sometimes the wind is “held” for four to five hours (Sengedorj) sometimes 24 hours (Tserendavaa INc) and sometimes for as long as three days. During this time the mountain drones or makes a hollow sound (dungenex). The people in the steppe below are thus warned of the impending wind and able to make preparations to meet it. Old people credit the same power to the lake as well. They say that Mount Jargalant and Lake Xar Us Nuur ” attract and digest the sound of the wind” (tataj sleingeex). Batchuluian (IN), a horse herder who lives on the steppe between the mountains and the lake, talked of a musical communication which is set up between the two. His father, a very good xöömiich born 100 years ago, told him, “Our mountain and lakes speak to each other in musical language, and that is why people living between do the same.” His father added that the music had a beneficial effect, which explained why the horses there are bigger, the cattle very good and so on.

Rivers. In addition, the mountains contain many rivers and waterfalls, which produce different combinations of sounds according to the types of stones over which they run. On the peak of Mount Jargalant is a small river‑itself an unusual phenomenon‑which is said to produce good sounds. Once again, though, the explanation in terms of nature is elaborated to include the magical. A particular river is cited as the origin of xöömii ‑ the River Eev‑and this has “magical” properties.            For the peoples of western Mongolia, the River Eev has become a symbol of the “old time” before the Oirad (western Mongols) settled east of the Altai mountains. Identification of its exact location varies. (Note 22) Although everyone knew of it, I never met anyone who had personally seen this river. In old times , Urianixai people used to say that they wanted to drink the water of the River Eev before they died. For all of the yastan in western Mongolia it remains a powerful symbol. Opinions differ about whether it was a river or a stream, but all agree that it made particularly unusual sounds as it trickled or ran over stones. Chuluun used to perform a melody on his morin xuur (note23) Called “The River Eev”(note 24) or “The flow of the River Eev” producing xöömii at the same time. He said that this melody represented the sound of the River Eev which was connected with the origin of xöömii and with the playing of the tsuur. (note25) Xöömii said Chuluun is an interpretation of the sounds of the River Eev in the mind of the xöömiich.

The sounds of this river also had a magical effect. They lured animals to the water to drink but then bewitched them, causing them to fall in (Margad IN, Tserendavaa INb). They also had the power to entrance people. For example, the tale was told of a young girl who went to the river to get water: once she heard the melody of the river she remained there all day, forgetting her mission (Tseveen IN). Samdan (IN) maintained that people born by the River Eev became very good singers and very beautiful people.

2 Historical and legendary time

There is no firm evidence to suggest a date for the origin of xöömii in Mongolia. Historical documents refer to musicians, 300‑strong court orchestras and singers, but xöömii is never mentioned. One of the earliest apparent references to overtone singing appears in Serruys’ translation of a sixteenth‑century Chinese document, containing a description of songs which have “beaucoup de sons de la gorge et des levres that is, “many sounds from the throat and the lips” (1945:153). Another clue, perhaps more definite, occurs in a sixteenth century French poem which seems to describe overtone singing (Anvers 1520, cited in Leothaud 1989).

J’ay veu comme il me semble,

Ung fort homme d’honneur,

Luy seul chanter ensemble

Et dessus et teneur

I saw, it seems to me

A strong man of honour

Singing together with himself

Both above and below. (Note26)

And three centuries later, in a paper given in 1840 to the French Academy of Sciences, Garcia referred to the solo two‑part singing of the Bashkirs (OP.Cit.).

This lack of documentation is possibly because the elevation of overtone singing (and of Mongolian traditional music generally) into an “art form” postdates the Communist Revolution of 1921, when the “music of the people” became imbued with special value and found support from “people’s power” ,Tserendavaa INb). Cultural centres were included in the small group of Administrative buildings placed at the centre of each sum, and local traditional music performers were enlisted to give concerts. The theatres built in each aimag centre drew their artists from those who performed at the cultural centres.

For the people of Chandman’, the origin of xöömii lies in a legendary time when Bazarsad used to perform at nair (celebrations). The xarxiraa xöömiich Margad, now 50 years old, recalled that when he was a boy the old people used to talk of Bazarsad of Chandman’ sum, who lived in ancient times. They described him as being very tall and strong (chadaltai) and a very good wrestler.

When horseman Dashdondob was five years old in 1923, he heard that Bazarsad was the first to perform xöömii in Chandman’ (IN). It was said that he performed türlegt or xosmoljin xöömii a combination of long song with different xöömii techniques, and that when he performed this kind of xöömii well, the spirits of the land and waters came to listen to him (Tserendavaa INc). Although no‑one has actually met or heard Bazarsad, it is affirmed that none will match his skill. By contrast, people did know Chimiddorj, who performed three‑voiced xöömii and Togon Chulum the man who is credited with beginning a new stage in xöömii development.

3 Development of xöömii as a cultural art form

In pre‑revolutionary Mongolia, the performance of xöömii was a secular tradition which had been passed down from generation to generation but was in decline (Sengedorj IN). Old people in Chandman’ sum attributed this to the predominance of Buddhism saying that the disapproval of the lamas caused an interruption in xöömii  development. The Bayad in Uvs aimag still consider it to have declined, since at present only two or three young people can perform it (Jamiyan IN). The new development in the history of xöömii came from Chandman’ sum in Xovd aimag through individual xöömiich

1 Chandman’ Xöömiich

Togon Chuluun was a XaIxa Mongol born in the 1890s who, in addition to performing xöömii whistled, played the tsuur and excelled on the morin xuur  Before the Revolution, he often used his skills when travelling with a camel train to secure himself food and lodgings in ger along the route. There is some disagreement about whether Chuluun learned overtone singing from the declining tradition in Chandman’ sum and later improved his performance whilst in military service in the West Border Guards, or whether he learned the skill whilst in the Guards. In any event, it was Chuluun who, in 1930, first demonstrated xöömii as a “folk art” (Tsambaa IN). He had many pupils, including the now well‑known xöömiich Tserendavaa. These pupils developed xöömiii into a national “art” form capable of winning many medals in folk competitions.

Tsedee is the man accredited with the introduction of xöömii to the rest of the country. He lived on the lakeside and learned xöömiii from Chuluun. In 195? Tsedee joined Xovd Theatre, becoming the first professional xöömii perforner in Mongolia. In 1954 Xovd Aimag Musical Drama Theatre (Xovd Aimagiin Kogjimt Dramyn Teatr) visited the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to present a (dekaden (note27); or ten‑day) concert, and Tsedee became the first person to perform xöömiii there. Xöömii was subsequently officially recognised as a professional “art”. After Tsedee, Sundui joined Xovd Theatre.

Sundui is considered to be the founder of what has been termed the “modern classical form” of xöömii (Tserendavaa INb). He is said to be unique among xöömii performers in that he can produce half tones, rather than the usual full tones. (Note28) He can perform classical European melodies by composers such as Tchaikovsky and Bizet (Batzengel 1980:52) and is able to make vocal leaps over wide intervals (Sengedorj IN). He has a high technical level of xöömii performance, can produce “a scale using four vowels” (gammalax dorvon egshig: Tserendavaa INC) (note29) and is thought to be a possible match for the legendary, Bazarsad.

Sundui’s main attributes are said to be: xevliin bagtaamj sailai / having good storage capacity in the stomach; duuny xooloi saitai / having good throat sounds; and mash ix tamirtai / having great physical strength.(note 30)

Sundui later joined the State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble (Ulsyn Ardyn , Duu Bujgiin Chuulga) in Ulaanbaatar and has now retired. He has  many pupils, among them Sengedorj, who is now with the Xoyd theatre, and Tserendavaa.

Najid Sengedorj has no formal musical education but joined Xovd theatre in 1975. He learned xöömii in Chandman’ at about age five, performed xöömii  in the tenth Festival of Young People and Students and has since travelled widely in Eastern Europe.

Ganbold, currently with the Ulaanbaatar Ensemble, is also from Chandman’ sum. He is able to perform a scale (gammalax) on more vowels than Sundui (Tserendavaa INc). Since he is still a young man, it is thought that he will become very good.

Tserendavaa is a truck driver and a skilled musician. He performs many types of song, including western Mongolian long songs (urtyn duu) and praise songs (magtaal, and plays the horse‑head fiddle (morin xuur) and two‑stringed plucked lute (tovshuur). Together with Badraa, he has identified seven types of xöömii (see below), teaches xöömii in the school in Chandman’ sum and has now begun to teach foreigners in Ulaanbaatar.

2 Training methods and transmission

Performers and teachers of xöömii in the West are largely unaware of the physical problems which its performance can precipitate, stressing only its potential beneficial effects. I was specifically requested by Mongol performers to alert practitioners to the dangers and to attempt to enlist scientific aid in understanding and counteracting the problems. In Mongolia, the performance of xöömii is surrounded by rules and regulations.

Learning and performance. Emic theories stress that the training period for the performance of xöömii should be lengthy, preferably beginning in childhood (Tserendavaa INb, Sengedorj IN). Childhood should be a period of “learning”, with “performance” reserved for one’s maturity. For instance, Tserendavaa began learning at age nine but did not “perform” until age 25. Traditionally, learning was by example and imitation. Tserendavaa recalled his first, childhood experience of xöömii, which was to have an enduring effect. The arrival of the xöömiich at his home had left a strong impression in his mind. One evening a “white‑haired, bearded old man rode up on a greyish horse which shone like silver (buural), looking for two lost horses.” The man, later discovered to be the xöömiich Chulutun, spent three nights in the family ger. During that time Tserendavaa listened to his xöömii and learned from him to play the horse‑head fiddle bought for Tserendavaa by his father. Tserendavaa became a xöömiich to repay his debt to this man. Since 1981 Tserendavaa has taught xöömii to children in Chandman’ secondary school. His method is to define which type of xöömii the pupil is naturally attempting, then to give individual advice according to this chosen type and the stage the child has reached. His main teaching method is demonstration. Tserendavaa pointed out that the difficulty in working with children is that they drift between different types. He emphasized the need to learn the general rules of performance and then choose the specific kind. Aids are sometimes used to acquire a “good xöömii voice”. For instance, a cup is held to the mouth to provide an echo,  (ayagaar devex; lit. to fan by means of a cup), or a pupil is made to xöömiilox against the wind (salkiny ogsuur xöömiilox).Once a “good xöömii voice” is acquired, these devices are no longer necessary. Traditionally xöömii has been performed only by men, but Tserendavaa has begun to teach women. The few women in Mongolia who can xöömiilox have all been taught by him.

Physical problems: Can you wrestle? Chuluun stressed that xöömii is a difficult art demanding self control, endurance and great strength. As an illustration of the strength needed, Tserendavaa described how the legendary Bazarsad’s hair used to stand on end when he performed. He compared the strength needed with that required for wrestling, pointing out that both Bazarsad and Sundui, the two most renowned xöömiich, were also famous wrestlers.The ideal age for wrestling is 25‑ the peak of male human strength. Unless the performer has this strength and the other qualities outlined by Chuluun, xöömii; performance is believed to be harmful for the body. Tserendavaa stressed that physical problems associated with xöömii performance needs to be the object of intense scientific research. His own experiences illustrate some of the problems which may occur. As a child, he injured his larynx (tovonx batsrax) while learning and couldn’t swallow for some time. He has also often broken blood vessels. He advised eating a good meal before performance. In 1982 Tserendavaa took part in a concert in Ulaaribaatar for the Twelfth Trade Union Congress and had not eaten. He felt hungry during the concert and, when he was producing high overtones, he lost consciousness. He needed an operation for broken blood vessels near his eyes and was advised to give up xöömii‑but he says that he is unable to do so. He is now 35 and has been “performing” for ten years. Over the last two years he has been performing more often and has begun to have more problems. Because of the strength and power demanded by its performance. xöömii becomes more difficult with age. After age 40, the technique may survive, but there is a loss of the necessary power. Tserendavaa stresses that achieving a “true xöömiii voice” requires overcoming many bad physical effects. His advice is that men should not perform it in advanced years.

Davaajav, a tseejiin xondiin/chest cavity xöömiich, noted that, although xöömii performers are generally also good singers, it becomes increasingly difficult to sing well because of physical changes which occur in the throat. From his own experience, he supports the view that the performance of xöömii affects the body, and he agrees that a person cannot perform xöömii over in extended period of years. Amateur xöömii performers are, he said, able to perform for longer because of the infrequency of performance.

Women. The performance of xöömii by women is a recent phenomenon. Those who do perform are young and are pupils of Tserendavaa.. Xöömii is considered particularly bad for women’s health, so there are strict rules associated with its performance (Badraa IN, Tserendavaa INc). Women should not begin to learn before the age of 17 or 18 and should only be active Xöömiich between the ages of 20 and 24. They may continue to perform until age 30 if they are not married. Once married, however, they should not continue, and after childbirth they are believed to be unable to perform well.

4 Mongolian classification of  xöömii

  1. Uyangiin xöömii/melodic or lyrical xöömii

Overtone singing styles vary in Mongolia according to historical period, ethnicity and the ability of the individual performer. For example, XaIxa xöömii styles differ from Kazak and Tuvan styles. Different yastan have their own ways of describing the same types of xöömii. For instance, the xelnii ug style referred to by the Bayad xöömiich Mangiljav as being the most popular in Tes sum when he was a child in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s is performed with the xöömii situated at the back of the tongue or in the throat (IN) and is called by the XaIxa bagalzuuryn xooloin xöömii / throat xöömii. Some yastan, however, have types of Xöömii peculiaronly to their group. Tseveen, a 40‑yearold Dörvöd from Olgii sum, demonstrated two such styles: the Urianxai style of xöömii known as xargia (Note31) in which he cupped his hand to his mouth, and shudniii xöömii/tooth xöömiii as performed by the Kazaks. Purev, a 34‑year‑old Tuvan from Bayan Olgii airnag, used the term xöömii to refer to the very low pitched biphonic sound which he produced, but when using melodic overtones deriving from a drone pitched in a higher register denied that it was xöömii. When demonstrating the sounds produced in “the old tme”, Purev growled impressively from deep in the chest, using the very low fundamental AA,(note32) and referred to it as xargaraa.(Note33)

The attempt by the Mongols to classify styles is fairly recent and has been completed most effectively in relation to the Xalxa of west Mongolia. The XaIxa  xöömiich Tserendavaa pointed out that until the folk music specialist Badraa came to Chandman’ sum in 1982 to produce a film called “Mongolian Xöömii”, he had realised that he used different positions of the tongue, lips and so on but had not conceptualised the differences. He subsequently held many discussions about xöömii classification with Badraa, and the conclusions they reached were incorporated into the film, which won a prize in the International Telefilm Festival. During a tour of England (note34) in 1988, Tserendavaa identified and demonstrated the different categories of Mongolian xöömii as follows.

  1. uyangiin xöömii /melodic or lyrical xöömii:
  2. uruulyn / labial xöömii
  3. tagnain /palatal xöömii
  4. xamryn/  nasal xöömii
  5. bagaIzuuryn, xooloin / glottal, throat xöömii
  6. tseejiin xondiin, xeviiin / chest cavity, stomach xöömii
  7. türlegt or xosmoljin xöömii / xöömii combined with long song (Note35)

The sixth type is a combination of speaking (xelex), singing (duulax), humming (ayalax), long song (urtyn duu) melodies and all five melodic types of xöömii. Tserendavaa developed this style, having heard that the legendary xöömiich Bazarsad could perform this combination, and calls it türlegt xöömii (note36). Researchers in Ulaaribaatar have named it xosmoljin xöömii. Tserendavaa, demonstrated the style by performing “Widespread Happiness” or Jargaltai Delger, (note37) using the more restricted range of the west XaIxa variant of the melody rather than that used by the central XaIxa.

Tserendavaa noted that the most difficult types of xöömii to perform are nasal xöömii and türlegt xöömii. Both of these are characterised by much -chinex ‑blood rushing to the face. Nasal xöömii is difficult, he said, because it is necessary to create a powerful flow of air by forcing it through a small channel. Since türlegt xöömii includes elements from all other kinds, it is also very difficult. He needed ten years to master türlegt xöömii, which he first demonstrated in the United States in 1987. In 1988 he won a gold medal at the National Folk Art Competition in Ulaaribaatar performing türlegt xöömii accompanying himself on the morin xuur (horse‑head fiddle).

  1. xarxiraa

Tserendavaa also identified a style of xöömii known as xarxiraa, which he compared to the sound of a “rippling waterfall” (note38) He was however unable to Demonstrate it, since it requires a deep, powerful voice.(note39) The  relationship between uyangiin (melodic) xöömii and xarxiraa has been the source of some dispute among Mongol performers and academics. Traditional music researcher Badraa and the xöömiich Tserendavaa classify them separately, a division which is maintained in categories of performance at folk art festivals (Bawden 1991 OS). Badraa (IN) suggested that xarxiraa lacks the overtone melody (uyangiin isgeree; lit. melodic whistle). Others, however, such as Sengedorj and Margad, both from Chandman’ sum, think that xarxiraa is the source of xöömii and that xöömii is founded on it. Margad sees xarxiraa not as a separate style but as the oldest form of xöömii and the background colour or tone (devsger ongo) out of which others developed. In his own performance of xarxiraa, Margad produces an overtone melody. Sengedorj’s argument was that since there is only one flow of air through the vocal tract, there can only be one type of xöömii.  He acknowledged a different technique for xarxiraa and xöömii, however, saying that if the throat is open (zadgai xooloi) the sound produced is called xarxiraa, whereas if it is “closed tightly” (xumix xooloi) then the sound is called xöömii. He also admitted that the stream of air goes through three places‑the nose, lips and throat‑and stated that this is how the terms xamryn (of the nose), amny xendii (of the mouth cavity) and xooloin xöömii (of the throat) have arisen. And he recognised that some people can only produce one type. Davaajav, who performs tseejiin xondiin xöömii and sometimes bagalzuuryn xöömii, agreed with the concept of different types of xöömii. As a xoomich he felt a difference between them but did not know how to explain. He opined that it is not possible for one person to perform all types.

5 The Four Siblings (ax duu): overtone singing, epics, long song and horse‑head fiddle

Tserendavaa likened the relationship of the four main types of traditional “art”‑xöömii/overtone singing, Tuul/’epics,  urtyn duu/long song and morin xuur/horse‑head fiddle‑to that of four ‑siblings‑ or “brothers and sisters”. A further instrument should be added to the above list which, possiibly because it is not XaIxa, was omitted by Tserendavaa. The tsuur, played by the Urianxai, Kazak and Tuvans in Bayan Olgii aimag, is a three_holed vertical flute through which the performer plays a melody whilst simultaneously producing  a low‑pitched vocal drone.

This ax duu relationship is significant partly in terms of the sounds produced, for the above traditional musical forms all comply with the Mongolian conceptualisation of traditional music, which involves the division of sound into a low drone above which is laid a high melody line. This division of sound has been discussed above in relation to xöömii. The sounds produced during xöömii are often related to those produced in xailax, the deep, declamatory, non melodic technique used for the performance of epics. Sengedorj, xöömiich and tsuur player with the Xovd theatre, proposed that xailax and xöömii originated from the same source but developed differently within the context of different yastan. Similarly, Byambadorj, assuming a relationship between epic and xöömii vocal techniques, used the presence of a strong epic tradition among the Bayad to validate his argument for the indigenous nature of Bayad xöömii. In neighbouring areas, epics and xöömii performance are more obviously related. For example, xai throat singing amongst the Khakassians usually accompanies epic recitation (Maslov and Chernov 1979‑80:86).(note40) Long songs consist of a highly ornamented, long drawn‑out single melody line but are usually accompanied by the horse‑head fiddle which echoes the vocal melodic line whilst simultaneously supplying the underlying drones. As noted above, turlegt xöömiii also combines long song with xöömii. Regarding the tsuur, the programme notes for xioomii performances at a folk art festival (Bawden 1991 OS) gave one category as “xarxiraa xöömii (aman tsuur)”, i.e., (mouth tsuur), thus making the connection between the sounds of one kind of xöömii and the tsuur.

In addition to the similarity in the sounds produced, Tserendavaa pointed out that these traditional musical forms relate as “brothers and sisters” in that their origins connect and harmonise with nature (baigal’) and the environment (orchin axui). He particularly stressed the relationship of the traditional musical forms to baigal’, noting that the performance of xöömii was not associated with culture (soyol) until the 1930s when Chuluun demonstrated it as a “folk art” (see above).


1 The magical sounds of overtone singing

The experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen tells how he was inspired in his vocal work “Stimmung’” ‑ the first major Western composition to be based entirely on the production of vocal harmonics‑by a range of Mexican gods and magical forces (D). Similarly, David Hykes relates the overtone sounds of his New York‑based “Harmonic Choir” to “solar winds”, “gravity waves”, “the flight of the sun” and so on (D). In England and America, the “caring 1990s” is said to be replacing the “Thatcherite materialistic 1980s”. The New Age movement, which embraces the beliefs of esoteric religions and a wide range of alternative healing techniques, is becoming increasingly popular as people seek to reinject a spiritual aspect into their lives. Perhaps because it is an exotic and strange sound, Mongolian overtone singing is being assimilated into this movement and is increasingly being promoted as a means of meditation and of alternative or magical healing. It is being linked with Tibetan overtone chanting and advertised as a means of spiritual and physical healing. Proliferating New Age gurus link overtone singing with both Buddhism and shamanism, assuming that its performance has beneficial effects on the body. For instance, “overtone chanting” influenced by “Mongolian and Tibetan shamanic techniques” has been advertised as a means of “sonic meditation”, as “chanting for psycho‑physical transformation” and as a “magical voice technique” (Purce 1991). In alternative healing it is claimed to be able to “reharmonise the patient’s energy field” (Cocker 1990 OS) and to cause “miraculous healings” (McGregor 1991 OS).

Little work has been done in the West on the potentially harmful physical effects of xöömii. The Vietnamese musicologist Tran Quang Hai does warn that it may be dangerous and suggests that practice should be limited to ten or fifteen minutes a day. As a performer himself, Tran also underwent a clinical examination which showed slight inflammation of the vocal chords and some wearing away of the lining of the nasal passages (Sauvage 1989:6). But he also shows a desire to popularise it, having elaborated a series of physical instructions to enable the production of a form of overtone singing to be accessible to all (1978:163‑4; 1989:15‑16) and collaborated on Zemp’s film which, as a cinematic technique, treats those watching the film as workshop members, encouraging them to try it for themselves (Zemp and TrAn 1989 F).

2 Acoustical and physiological analysis of sound

Spectral analysis and the sonogram have been used to analyse the sounds produced in xöömii in order to understand both the sounds themselves and the physiological processes which produce them. Spectral analysis was used initially to identify the range of partials from which the melody tones are selected, namely the 6th to 13th partials but excluding the 11 th (Walcott 1974:55‑9). My own experiments with Tserendavaa confirmed this. His use of the 7th and 11th partials as auxiliary rather than structural notes support the suggestion that tones were selected in accordance with the anhemitonic pentatonic scale typical of Mongolian traditional music (Huglies n.d.; Cross 1990 OS).

Physiological aspects of xooiii production have been investigated with the aid of X‑ray films. In the early 1970s X‑ray films were made in  Paris (note41) of  Tran Quang in Leningrad (note 42) of Tuvan throat singers and later, in 19?? , in Khahassia of  Khakassian throat singers (Maslov and Chernov 1979‑80).  More recently Tran Quang Hai underwent video examinations of his larynx and buccal cavities in Limoges (paller 1989: 11‑15) and had an X‑ray film recording made of his nose and throat whilst performing overtone  singing with sinlge and double buccal cavities as part of Zemp’s film, Le chant des harnoniques (Zemp and Tran 1989 F). This film also shows multi‑coloured sound spectra of  several types of Mongolian overtone singing  (as well as examples from Tuva, Africa and India) reproduced in synchronic sound and in real time using advanced technology of the DSP sona‑Graph Model 5500 which had been acquired by the Department of Ethnomusicology at the Musee de,l’homme.

The fascinating and informative sonograms used in the film have been impressively augmented by Zemp and Tran’s 1991 paper “Recherches experimentales sur le chant diphonique”, in which the physiological characteristics the recorded styles from Tuva, Tibet, Mongolia, Altai, Rajasthan and South Africa are compared with the aid of illustrative sonograms. The strength, range, and contours of bourdons and partials are clearly shown and, by using Tran Quang Hai’s imitative skill in reproducing the same contours, physiological data is provided on the use of different resonating cavities, muscular contractions and ornamentation techniques.

Following Stumpf’s work on the analysis of sung vowel sounds (1918), recent work has also been done on the association of vowel sounds and pitch. Tran Quang Hai (1980:163) elaborated on the way in which the pronunciation vowels produces a series of partials the range of which depends on the tone quality of the singer’s voice and windpipe, and David Hughes (1989) discusses, the use of vowel‑pitch solfege systems in different societies.

As a result of the above acoustical and physiological research, it is possible to give a broad outline of the factors which influence the range, selection and production of partials and which consequently determine the tonal colour xöömii. These include the following five, which overlap to some extent:

  1. a) the size of the buccal cavity, which may be separated from the pharyngeal cavity by the back of the tongue or divided into a front and rear cavity by

raising the tip of the tongue to the palate (Zemp and Tran 1991:31; Tran and Guillou 1980:171);

  1. b) the contraction of muscles in the stomach, neck, pharynx, the nasal passages and in the soft inner walls of the other cavities of the vocal tract ( (Winckel

1960; Gunji 1978:136; Zemp and TrAn 1991:39‑46);

  1. c)  the production of different vowel sounds (Stumpf 1918; Guriji 1978,Tran 1989; Hughes 1989);
  2. c) the pitch of the fundamental, which in part determinesthe frequency range within which partials are available for selection (Walcott 1974; Cross 1990

OS; Zemp and Tran 1991).

  1. d) manipulation of the muscles of the vocal tract as under point (b), in order to select as primary resonator either the buccal or the pharyngeal cavity, thus

emphasising respectively the second or first formant, the latter resulting in the Tuvan kargyraa (Hughes 1989).

Since it is not possible to illustrate adequately in the space available the depth of acoustical and physiological research that has been accomplished, and since the main thrust of this paper is to present the Mongolian viewpoint, it is hoped that the reader will examine the rich data now available through the sources cited.

3 Conceptualisalion of sound

only etic observers compare the sounds produced in overtone singing with those of the jew’s harp (aman xuur, that is, mouth harp). Since the French scientist Manuel Garcia pointed to a similarity between the Bashkirs’ uzIiau overtone singing and the sound produced by a “jew’s harp” in 1840, others have followed suit. For instance, Vargyas (1968:71) made the same comparison in relation to the Tuvans, and this has been echoed by others in relation to the Mongols (Hamayon 1973, Heiffer 1973,Guriji 1978:135). The techniques do have some similarities. In both cases the mouth is used as a resonator and the articulation of silent vowels produces harmonic overtones above a fundamental drone. In the case of the jew’s harp, however, the fundamental is generated by an extrasomatic source‑the tongue of the jew’s harp whilst in overtone singing it is generated by the vibrating vocal chords. Mongolian xöömii is also more diversified and expressive than the sounds produced by a “jew’s harp”, and the techniques used are far more complex. As shown above, the production of each type involves the use of different breathing techniques and changes in tension in the vocal cords, the pharynx, the nasal passages, the windpipe and so on. When Sundui was asked, during a seminar session in Japan, about the validity of the comparison between xöömii and the jew’s harp, he pointed out that whilst the control of the mouth cavity is quite similar, the control of the breath is quite different (Emmert and Minegishi 1980:48). During my fieldwork in Mongolia, xöömii performers in Chandman’ consistently denied any connection between overtone singing and the jew’s harp, insisting, as outlined above, on the interrelation ship of the sounds produced in xöömii with those of the other traditional musical forms and the connection which all of them have with nature.

V Conclusion

Although there is evidence that xöömii was used in secular contexts in Mongolia, there are also indications that it had religious or magical connotations. For instance, the legends of origin of xöömii outlined above link the sounds which inspired xöömii with beneficial effects on living creatures: the horses and cattle in Chandman’ sum are extra fine because they exist beneath the “musical communication” set up between mountain and lake, the people living by the River Eev are fine singers and also beautiful, the call of the crane is a portent of long life and so on. These sounds are both natural‑in that they emanate from natural phenomena such as mountains, lakes, rivers and birds‑and supernatural in the effects which they have. Although there is no firm evidence of a link with shamanism, pause for thought is given by the stress laid upon “nature” as the origin of xöömii in a people whose folk religion was based on communication with spirits located in natural phenomena. Clearly if the combination of mountains and lakes was the only necessary inspiration, overtone singing would be more geographically widespread. My experiences in western Mongolia showed that the belief in spirits of the mountains did not die during the years of Communist rule. Hunters who five on Mount  Jargalant continue to make libations of fermented mare’s milk (airag) and to burn juniper leaves (arts) and incense (xuj) before setting out on a hunting trip, requesting that the mountain should bestow game upon them that day. And when a tyre burst on my jeep, the former lama who accompanied me knelt in the direction of the mountain and prayed. It would be surprising, therefore, if strange sounds which had the dual function of warning of impending danger and enabling everything beneath it to flourish and which emanated from within the mountain where a spirit was thought to dwell had not, in former days, been interpreted as communication from that spirit. Mongolian traditional music researcher Badraa (IN) also links xöömii with religious belief when he categorises it as a form of whistling, which he believes is one of the earliest noises made by man in imitation of nature; until recently whistling was used to call up the god of the wind.(note43) Similarly, the legendary xöömiich Bazarsad’s performance of tiirlegt xöömii was said to attract the earth and water spirits. Such references to spirits and gods are not insignificant given that at the time of my field trips the Mongols had not reached the degree of openness and freedom of speech and belief which they are now able to enjoy.

There is, then, some basis from the evidence within Mongolia for the belief that these sounds are related to religious belief and particularly to natural phenomena. It is perhaps partly because of a former religious association that the Mongols surround xöömii performance with rules and regulations. But it is also related to the fact that performance of the more difficult types of xöömii may cause physical damage while sustained performance of less difficult types cause physical changes which may also have adverse effects. Whilst an argument could be made that those listening to overtone singing may be effected beneficially (as those hearing the xöömii‑type sounds of mountain, water and birds in Mongolia), the evidence from Mongolia contradicts the idea that those producingxöömii  sounds will also automatically benefit‑suggesting, in fact, that xöömii performance may cause considerable physical problems. At a minimum, those people who are teaching the production of those sounds should be aware of this and also aware, as Tserendavaa pointed out, that beginners may “drift between types”, thereby doing themselves unwitting harm.

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Carole PEGG: Mongolian conceptualizations of overtone singing (xöömii)

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Original Articles

Mongolian conceptualizations of overtone singing (xöömii)

Pages 31-54 | Published online: 31 May 2008

Based on field work in western Mongolia during 1989 and 1990, this paper relates Mongolian xöömii or overtone singing to its social context and to the cognitive world of the performers. It looks at secular performance contexts, theories of origin, legendary/historical development, recent transformation into an art form, traditional training methods and transmission, Mongolian classification of xöömii, and its relationship with nature and shamanism. A brief overview is given of previous non‐Mongolian perspectives, which have either concentrated on acoustical and physiological analysis of the sounds themselves or have made claims that overtone singing is a “magical voice technique” causing spiritual and physical healing. The latter is contrasted with the Mongolian belief that, although consumption of the sounds may be beneficial, the production of xöömii is potentially harmful to the body.