Saturday, March 14, 2009

Khoomi.....the sounds of Mongolia.


I
can't remember the first time I heard throat singing - probably on one of the National Geographic TV episodes my parents forced me to sit through when I was a child. It was a sound I never got out of my head. I didn't realize it was a Mongolian form of music until much later.

Known as khoomi, Mongolian throat singing is an ancient art form that is thought to have originated in Tuva which is now an autonomous republic of Russia that borders Mongolia. I'm sure way back in time, long before formal country borders were defined, Tuvans and Mongolias were the same peoples. Today, the art form of throat singing is practiced in Tuva, Mongolia as well as several Central Asian countries.

Throat singing definitely produces a very, very powerful and unusual sound. It's not very melodic but yet there is harmony to it. In fact, it's a bit harsh on the ears - not Sunday brunch music :-) But as you listen to the sound, it's hard to imagine that it comes from a human being - that's where the skill of the singer comes in. I've read and read and read and I still don't think I can explain the physics of how the throat singer actually produces the notes.

So exactly what is throat singing? Here's how it was described on one website:

The physics of Khoomi singing are still not completely understood, but it’s basic principles are known. Most natural sounds are composed of a base pitch (fundamental) plus many more tones at higher pitches (harmonics). Usually our ears zero in on the fundamental and that is the pitch that our mind assigns to the sound. The fewer the harmonics the “purer” the sound (e.g., a flute does not produce many harmonic tones), whereas the presence of more harmonics makes the sound “richer”. The human voice is rich with harmonics. By dividing the mouth into two cavities and modulating the resonant pitches of each, the Khoomi singer is able to suppress the fundamental or base pitch and amplify one or two harmonics so that our ears register them as separate tones rather than as one complex tone....... The end result is that you are hearing one person sing in what seems to be two or three different tones or notes at the same time. It is eerie, and beautiful. As the singer’s rich bass voice sings the words, there will be a whistling overtone and sometimes a humming mid tone.

Often, musical instruments will accompany the singer. They are pretty *crude* compared to instruments played in a *western style* folk music. Not much of a beat and pretty simple chord structure.

Okay....I hope you got that because I know I can't explain how the sound is produced and you'll probably wonder why, after you listen to it, why I'm so transfixed by it. There's just no explaining me or my interests :-)

Here are two videos so you just hear khoomi for yourself.

This is a performance by one of the more well known Mongolian throat singing groups, Huun Huur Tu at a folk festival in Philadelphia, PA in 2006.


....and this is a performance by Kongar-ol-Ondar, who is from Tuva, on the David Letterman Show.


Not surprisingly, because of the unique skills needed to master this type of venerated singing is rigorous, there are not very many throat singers. It's unlikely I'll ever see a live performance of khoomi in the US so I'm going to see if I can catch one, with singers dressed in traditional Mongolian garb, while I'm in Ulaan Baatar!!