The research on throat singing brings me to some pretty interesting finds – spiritual awakening, discovering the history of East Asia, Watergate, porn, and techno. Let me explain.
The transcendental feeling this type of singing represents has an incredibly high influence on me. In my efforts to find everything there is on this topic and understand my spirit better, I find myself once again on the path of digging through the wild corners of the internet.
Filtering through the information and trying it myself (which, spoiler alert, didn’t go that well), I bring you the summary of my throat-singing quest.
Throat-singing – Meaning
There are a lot of definitions out there, going into details about anatomy, music theory, and complicated technical terms.
But what I get from it all is that throat singing is when one person produces two or more vocal tones simultaneously, using specific vocal techniques. With their throat. And the lips, tongue, jaw, and velum. In harmony.
It is also called “overtone singing”, or “multiphonic singing” and it has quite a few styles and purposes.
What is the purpose of throat singing?
Finding a purpose for Mongolian throat-singing is why I began my journey of diving deep into the meaning of life (and mistakenly ending up on the XXX sites from time to time. By mistake, I repeat).
I wanted to know how this vocal technique can help me bring back to nature, my ancestors and how to use it for spiritual connection. To explain this we have to go a bit further back and understand the origin and history of this unique type of music.
Origin and history
The year is … sometime between 206 – 220 BC. Through the thick vail of snow in the high North of the Altai mountain, surrounded by Russia, Mongolia and China, you can hear the howling. In the distance, shadows appear. The fog is blurring your vision, but you can recognize human features.
The sounds are coming from them. The howling. The growling. The deep tones of the inner belly. You can feel it in your stomach. Your skin is overrun with unknown energy. Mysticism is on the rise.
What you’re witnessing is one of the Turko-Mongol tribes of southern Siberia and western Mongolia. (You know this because you have read this article, of course.)
Nomadic Mongolian tribes, specifically Tuvan shamans, were using throat-singing in the rituals to get the approval of the spirits protecting the lands they are temporarily inhabiting and to summon shamanic spirits. Also, by vibrations and multiphonic sounds, it helped them attract the animals, which was crucial to their survival.
By imitating the sounds of nature and animals, Tuvans developed the art of throat singing, that spread into the whole of Tuvan culture, and became a part of a larger singing folklore tradition, as well as used for spiritual and healing purposes.Matrenitsky & Friedman, 2012
Different styles of throat singing
This type of singing is practiced in many cultures around the world, and each one is unique in its own way. Mainly spread through Central Asia, but it is also practiced in northern Canada and South Africa.
The most famous ones are Tuvan, Inuit, and Mongolian throat singing, as well as Tibetan and Sardinian.
Tuvan throat singing
Tuvan throat-singing from Central Asia involves manipulating the resonances of the vocal tract to produce deep, drone-like sounds with multiple overtones.
3 main techniques are:
- Xöömei (or Khöömei) – this style is representing the element of water
- Kargyraa – representing the mountains
- Sygyt – representing the wind
Inuit throat singing
Inuit throat-singing, originating from the Arctic regions, features rapid, rhythmic exchanges between two singers, imitating the sounds of nature and animals.
Mongolian throat singing
Mongolian throat-singing, also known as Hoomii, characterized by its unique ornamentations, highlights a blend of guttural growls and harmonic overtones.
The 4 main techniques used would be:
- Kharkhiraa: producing a sound coming from the belly of the performer.
- Narmai Hoomii: sound generated from the nose.
- Shakhai: sound generated from the depths of one’s throat.
- Isgeree: a whistle generated from the mouth.
Why was throat-singing banned?
As with any other super awesome and cool masterpiece, throat singing suffered bans and prohibitions, aka it was “cancelled”.
Firstly, in the early 20th century Christian missionaries banned (among other things) this art form’s practices, believing it sounds satanic.
Years later, during the Soviet era in the 1930s, the Soviet government implemented policies aimed at consolidating and centralizing control over various regions. They viewed traditional practices, such as throat singing, as a potential threat to their authority and sought to suppress any cultural expressions that did not align with the Soviet ideology.
Consequently, along with other customs and languages, it was banned and deemed backward or harmful. This suppression lasted for several decades, leading to a decline in the transmission of throat-singing knowledge across generations.
Luckily, in the 1980s throat singing was once again established as a national art form in Mongolia, and Russia as well.
By the early 21st century, it was back! It was used again as lullabies, to lure wild animals, to help gain the favor of the spirit of the place, and summon shamanic spirits, and as a medium for epic-narrative performance.
You may call it “Westernisation”, but throat singing spread all over the world and now it exists in many different forms. After all, isn’t music all about experimenting?
Huun‐Huur‐Tu: Famous Tuvan acoustic quartet
Huun-Huur-Tu is a popular Tuvan band that combines ancient throat-singing techniques with contemporary elements, creating a spellbinding fusion of traditional Tuvan music and world sounds.
They are known for distinctive four-part vocal harmonies and playing traditional instruments, such as the igil (two-string instrument) and doshpuluur (long-necked Tuvan wooden lute).
Paul Pena: Throat-singing blues
Famous American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Paul Pena had his career take an unexpected turn when he discovered Tuvan throat-singing.
Pena spent years in Tuva, mastering his technique, through extensive self-study (unlike me). Later he connected with the renowned band Huun-Huur-Tu (just mentioned, wink wink).
A music documentary Genghis Blues from 1999 tells Pena’s story, of how a blind blues musician from America came to Tuva and how he got honored by the Tuvan people for celebrating their culture and language.
It’s safe to say that Paul Pena is a true Tuvan music ambassador.
The HU Band: Metal from the throat
Mongolian folk rock band The HU draws inspiration from ancient Mongolian culture and tradition, blending traditional throat singing with modern rock and metal elements.
Their lyrics often explore themes of Mongolian history, nature, and warrior spirit, creating an immersive experience (like the skin being overrun with unknown energy, as mentioned before).
With their visually striking music videos and energetic live performances, The HU has gained a massive international following, propelling Mongolian music onto the global rock/metal stage.
Ummet Ozcan: Mongolian techno throat singing
Umer Ozcan is a Dutch-Turkish electronic dance music producer and DJ. He got famous by going viral with his TikTok video of the song “Xanadu”, mixing Mongolian traditional music with techno.
Can you learn to throat-sing?
JK, sorry, I am just butt-hurt because it didn’t go that well for me. Practicing while smoking a pack a day was not a good combination. (Let’s take a moment to feel sorry for me while I cough my lung out. Thank you.)
Anyway, to get back to the topic.
Yes. Of course, you can learn to throat-sing. With a lot of practice, dedication, and guidance, I believe you can get there.
There are a lot of videos and tutorials explaining different techniques and approaches. You can find anything online nowadays, right? In case you’re not feeling like googling, let me do it for you.
What I learned from this
dee throat singing experience
Apart from revisiting the Watergate scandal and a few (unfortunate?) missteps during my research adventure, I learned a lot. Not to go into too much detail again, let’s note a few main lessons gained on this journey:
- Throat singing will always represent the mystical connection to nature;
- Preserving one’s culture and tradition is more important than ever;
- The evolution of music intertwines almost contradictory genres;
- No, I cannot throat-sing.