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.
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.