by Bruno Deschênes
Throat singing is a particular type of vocalizing that, in the West, was known almost exclusively by scholars, until quite recently. For the past 15 years, it has received the attention of a wider audience thanks to the growing number of CDs made available and to numerous concerts given all over the world. The best-known throat singers are Tibetan monks whose Buddhist chanting is now known worldwide. Ethnomusicologists and musicians have recently discovered that throat singing is more widespread than previously thought.
This essay aims to describe throat singing, and to present some of the peoples who have developed this vocal technique. In conclusion, two people are presented who promote throat singing through teaching concerts and festivals.
What is throat singing?
Throat singing differs greatly from normal singing in that a singer is able to produce 2 or more notes simultaneously or unusual textures/timbres by using special techniques. These high sounds are harmonics, similar to those produced on a guitar or a violin, for example, and which resonate above the lower tone, called the fundamental tone. At times, it can sound as if the tone is not produced by the singer but sounding above the heads. Throat singers can make sounds that resemble the whistle of a bird, the rhythm of a cantering horse, or even the breathing of a reindeer.
The throat singer applies tension to the vocal cords and the surrounding areas, and also uses various cavities around the throat, such as the ventricular folds (they are vibrating human tissues, situated above the vocal folds), mouth, sinuses, lungs and other body parts. For example, the throat can be made to resonate in a particular way by displacing the back of the tongue slightly, and thus amplifying the harmonics. The tongue plays a role in resonance, not in the production of vibratory modes. By changing the shape of the mouth or the position of the front part of the tongue, other harmonics can be amplified. Harmonics are produced at the vocal fold level, but they are amplified much more than the fundamental tone, thanks to proper positioning of the tongue, lips, soft palate, etc.
1) "Throat singing" refers to any technique of throat manipulation not used in normal singing. The peoples most known for this particular technique are the Tuvan, Mongolians, Tibetans and other peoples from surrounding regions.
2) "Harmonic singing" refers to any singing in which harmonic components can be discerned.
3) "Overtone singing" is the same as harmonic singing, with an intentional emphasis on the harmonics. There is also what some call "Western overtone singing" that uses vowels, different mouth shapes and the upper throat in producing sounds.
4) "Bi-, Di-, or Multiphonic Singing." These are terms used mainly by scholars and refer to any singing which produces two or more simultaneous sounds, regardless of the technique used.
5) There are also other types of throat singing that do not produce overtones per se. The Inuit of Northern Canada practise what they call "katajjaq", also practised by other peoples of Eastern Siberia and Northern Japan under other names.
Where is throat singing practised?
Throat singing is practised mainly in Asia, from India all the way north to Siberia, but also among peoples of South Africa, the Inuit of Northern Canada and Greenland, the Ainu of Northern Japan and peoples of Eastern Siberia. Here is a list of the different regions where throat singing has developed in one form or another.
Tibet: Tibetans were among the first to be acknowledged for their throat singing. Tibetan monks use it during Buddhist chanting ceremonies. They use only one type which produces one low tone (somewhere between 75-90 Hz), plus a second tone one octave above that (100Hz) and also one overtone drone, usually the fifth overtone of the low tone (around 300 Hz). In regular Tibetan folk singing, throat singing is not used.
Tuva: The Tuvan were able to develop five different styles of throat singing: khoomei, kargyraa, sygyt, borbangnadyr and ezengileer. Khoomei is the basic style and is soft sounding, producing two or more notes. Kargyraa is similar to Tibetan chanting, and produces low tones rich in harmonics. There are several styles of kargyraa. The most often used are mountain kargyraa and steppe kargyraa. Sygyt is the most particular style of throat singing. We hear a strong and piercing melody of harmonics. It has a flutelike tone. It is also the hardest to produce. Borbangnadyr and Ezengileer involve complex manipulations of the lips, tongue and throat to produce trills, vibrato, tremolo and other sounds. Throat singing is traditionally sung by men, although, women have now begun to learn it.
Mongolia, Khakkasia and Bashkortostan: Khakkasia is a republic east of Tuva whose people are of Mongolian descent (while the Tuvans are of Turkic origin). Bashkortostan is north-west of Tuva. It is believed that throat singing was first practised by the Mongolians. Throat singing is practised in the three regions, but mainly in the khoomei style of the Tuvan. In fact, the word "khoo" in the Tuvan means "throat." In Mongolia too, throat singing is traditionally sung by men.
Other Siberian Peoples: The Chukchi, an almost unknown people of the Russian Far North, above the Arctic Circle, also developed throat singing. They use it to represent the breathing of the reindeer in their folksongs. The guttural sounds are made by women. It is not known if they developed the technique on their own or if they were influenced by people further south. Several other Siberian peoples practise throat singing, though it is still unclear if they developed it on their own or imported it from neighboring countries. When the practice began is also unknown.
Xosa, South Africa: Xosa throat singing is practised by women. Two notes one tone apart are produced, while three overtones for each note are amplified, thus giving a 6-tone scale.
Inuit of Northern Canada, Ainu of Northern Japan: The Inuit of Northern Canada have developed a form of throat singing that does not produce overtones per se. Called kattajjaq, it is, in fact, a rhythmic throat game that women use to entertain children during the long winter months. Two women face each other and each uses the mouth of the other as a kind of resonating chamber. This type of singing is also found in a different form among the Ainu who live on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, on the Russian island of Sakhalin and in the Kuril Islands, as well as among a few Siberian peoples of Eastern Siberia, with slight variations.
Throat singing in the Western World
Only a few Western musicians have learned throat singing or have developed their own way of using overtones in their singing. The most well known of these is David Hykes, founder of the Harmonic Choir. There are also Tran Quang Hai, Jonathan Goldman, Jill Purce, Rollin Rachele, Steve Sklar and Bernard Dubreuil. Steve Sklar specializes in Tuvan throat singing, while Bernard Dubreuil has been trained in Tibetan throat singing.
Moreover, almost all these musicians give workshops and lectures on throat singing. It is a fascinating and quite unusual experience, and everyone is able to do it. I had the great pleasure of taking a class on throat singing with Steve Sklar during the 2001 First Montreal Throat Singing Festival, organized by Bernard Dubreuil. Of course, a single class in insufficient to master the techniques involved, and some techniques do take longer than others, like the Tuvan technique taught by Steve Sklar. No matter, with patience one can learn an art that is absolutely worth the effort.
Sklar and Dubreuil believe throat singing can be learned by everyone, which perhaps explains why it is attracting so much general public attention. Indeed, Bernard Dubreuil was able to organize the First Montreal Throat Singing Festival in 2001.
Steve Sklar became interested in throat singing when he first heard the Tibetan monks. He tried to imitate their technique without success. In 1993, he heard Mongolian singing and Tuvan throat singing by the group Huun-Huur-Tu, after which he was able to develop a kind of overtone singing. He met Huun-Huur-Tu and decided to pursue these Tuvan singing techniques. In 1995 he visited Tuva and participated in the International Symposium on Throat Singing, interviewing many singers and learning to develop his skills at the same time.
Steve first began teaching in 1997, with the encouragement of Huun-Huur-Tu members. They were quite taken with his progress in understanding HOW khoomei is sung, saying they'd heard nothing like it in their travels. Since then, Steve has worked to deconstruct khoomei into minute elements, allowing him to develop more effective teaching techniques. In the coming months, he will be working on a book-CD project about Khoomei/Tuvan music with Kaigal-ool Khovalyg and Sayan Bapa of Huun-Huur-Tu. He has taught in the USA, Canada and Finland, and has mentored many singers via the WWW, especially via the Yahoo Tuvan Throat singing Club (http://clubs.yahoo.com/clubs/tuvanthroatsinging). He also maintains a throat singing site at http://www.atech.org/khoomei/khoomei.html (soon moving to www.khoomei.com). In addition to teaching, he performs khoomei (and play lead guitar) with the band Big Sky (www.bigskyrocks.com) and his group, the Overtone Orchestra (khoomei, didgeridoo, flutes, drones and percussion), in addition to guest performances with other artists and ensembles.
As for Bernard Dubreuil, he started learning throat singing with Tran Quang Hai in 1986. Tran Quang Hai is an ethnomusicologist who not only analyzed and explained Mongolian throat singing, but also learned it on his own and taught it to thousands of students over the past 30 years. Bernard also took workshops with David Hykes, Michael Vetter and Rollin Rachele. He has studied khoomei with two Tuvan masters, Vladimir Mongush and Gennadi Tumat, as well as Tibetan chanting with Umdzey Ngowong Tashi of the Drepung Loseling monastery. As of 1987, he started giving workshops in France, Canada, Switzerland and the United States.
In 1998, he founded Globe-Glotters, a group which presents throat singing from all around the world, in particular from Mongolia, Tuva, Tibet, Nunavut, as well as new creations and fusions of styles. Globe-Glotters is surely the most creative, innovative and original throat singing group so far.
Throat singing is not a fad. It is an unsurpassed and amazing experience that sheds a whole new light on singing and on the potential of the human voice.
The Bulgarian Voices, Angelite & Huun-Huur-Tu, Fly, Fly My Sadness (1996, Shanachie)
Huun-Huur-Tu, Orphan's Lament (1994, Shanachie)
Chirgilchin, The Wolf & the Kid (1996, Shanachie)
Egschiglen, Sounds of Mongolia (2001, Arc Music)
Namdziliin Norovbanzad, Urtiin Duu (1995, JVC)
Air Mail Music: Mongolia (1998)
"What is Khoomei?", Web site on throat singing by Steve Sklar (www.atch.org/khoomei/whatis.html).
"Categories of Tuvan Singing Styles/Techniques", Web site on throat singing by Steve Sklar (www.atch.org/khoomei/cats.html).
"Overtones in Central Asia and in South Africa", Trân Quang Hai, Excerpts, Web site on throat singing by Steve Sklar (www.atch.org/khoomei/whatis.html).
"The Throat Singers of Tuva", Theodore C. Levin and Michael E. Edgerton, Scientific American, September 1999 (www.sciam.com/1999/0999issue/0999levin.html).
" The Rekkukara of the Ainu (Japan) and the Katajjaq of the Inuit (Canada): A Comparison", Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Le monde de la musique 2/1983.
"Russian Far North: The Chukchi", Cécile Gueunoun, CD, Playasound, PS 65189.
© 2002-2004 Bruno Deschênes. Tous droits réservés.
Design de Kwok Minh Tran. Gravures japonaises de Shizuko Matsunaga.
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