By Tom Booth
Mongolian overtone throat singing or khöömii (meaning ‘throat’ in Monglian) is an extremely ancient musical performance that is a national and classical art form of Mongolia, Tuva and Siberia. This short blog post will provide a brief introduction to the musical performance of throat singing. First, this blog post will detail the history of throat singing in Mongolia; second, it will discuss how throat singing is performed and the different types of throat singing; third, it will elaborate on the cultural and spiritual importance of throat singing in Mongolian culture.
The Origins of Throat Singing
The origins of Mongolian throat singing are shrouded in mystery. Early travellers such as Marco Polo refer to musicians and singers in Mongolian court and at home, but the act of throat singing is never explicitly mentioned, nor does the word khöömii appear anywhere in his travel documents. The earliest reference to the musical performance of khöömii is found in Chinese documents translated in the sixteenth century by Jesuit missionaries.
For Mongolians, the origins of khöömii are mystical and legendary. Epic poems and stories recount fierce wrestlers and warriors who could channel wind through their chest and throat to create beautiful melodies that mimicked gusts of wind. Mongolian herders would use throat singing to call their yaks and sing their children to sleep.
In more recent times, throat singing has had a patterned history. Before the revolution in 1921 throat singing was not highly valued by society, partly due to its links to folk shamanistic religions, which was the national religion of Mongolia. However, under the Mongolian People’s Republic it was imbued with a special cultural power and was celebrated as representing the voice of the people. Although the People’s Republic collapsed in 1990, overtone singing continued to be a highly celebrated part of Mongolia’s cultural heritage. Since 2010 the Mongolian Traditional Art of Khöömii was added onto UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, showing the importance of throat singing not only in Mongolia but throughout the world.
The basis of throat singing is the superimposition of two or more simultaneous sounds with the mouth. The two main components are the fundamental tone ‘drone’ and the harmonic melody ‘overtones.’ The drone can reach an exceptionally low pitch, while the overtone has a flute-like quality.
Within the broad discipline of throat singing exist two main styles: the first is a deep khöömii or kharkhiraa khöömii and the whistle khöömii or isgeree khöömii. Different sounds are produced using the lips, palate of the mouth, the nose, the throat, and the chest cavity. These sounds are then combined with speaking, singing or humming to produce elaborate and complex pieces of music. The melody can be changed by changing the shape of the resonant cavity of the mouth and throat, and by manipulating the tongue and other muscles in the throat.
Check out this link if you’re interested in trying yourself!:
Cultural Significance of Khöömii
Historically, khöömii was only ever performed by men. This is in part due to shamanistic beliefs. The act of singing khöömii is often conducted with the utmost respect. A mantra is often read before the performance, as singing is considered an act of ethereal interconnectedness with the human spirit. Khöömii also often plays a significant role in the ritual performance of epic stories from Mongolian history.
The historic exclusivity of male performers is also related to physical strength required to reach the lowest and highest notes of the drone and melody. This physical aspect is why Mongolian wrestlers have historically been the most famous performers in Mongol society. However, in recent times the performance art has been opened up to Mongolian women as well.
This blog post only scratches the surface of the rich and varied culture of throat singing in Mongolia. Hopefully this may inspire more people to take an interest in this rich cultural heritage and to preserve it for future generations. The performance of throat singing is also not limited to Mongolia, but can be found in many different cultures along the Altai mountain range and elsewhere.
Currently throat singing is experiencing somewhat of a revival. Check out popular performers such as these, these and these on YouTube!