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Tuvan Throat-Singers Perform Feats of Harmonic Acrobatics

The Washington Post, Monday, January 15, 1996, page A5
Science / Ethnomusicology

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
KOK-TESKI PLOK, Tuva, Russia

It's April and the snow is gone, but it isn't spring. The measureless steppe of southern Siberia is trampled and brown. The low northern sun halos the horses in their winter coats of fur.

A four-room wooden house and shed sit alone on an open plain. Two families, tied by blood and animals, live here half the year, until summer liberates them to wander with their horses, sheep and cattle. They are a Turkic people, and their land is called Tuva.

For generations, Tuvan herdsmen have survived on the grasslands of Central Asia. They have been the subjects of Chinese emperors, Mongol warlords, Russian czars and Soviet commissars. Now, they inhabit the twilight zone of ``autonomy'' in the Russian federation -- economically dependent, politically intimidated, and struggling to recover a culture nearly extirpated by Joseph Stalin and his successors.

Inside the house, one of Tuva's most treasured cultural creations commences after a feast of steamed mutton, which followed an afternoon of breaking horses to bit and saddle. Three men sing folk songs about beautiful steeds killed by cruel feudal lords, about long sojourns tending herds far from home. They accompany themselves on a variety of bowed and plucked instruments. Between verse come sounds that seem unlikely for either voice or string.

They are high and whistling, like bird calls. Sometimes they are croaking, down toward the nether reaches of detectable pitch. Sometimes they have a pulsing, rolling quality sustained for lung-aching duration, sounds that seem to capture the essence of ever-flowing water and ever-blowing wind.

Were this not obviously an acoustic performance in a place with no tricks, one would thing there must be an electronic synthesizer somewhere. Or at least some very strange horns and penny-whistles.

All the sound, however, comes out of the nearly motionless mouths of the performers, a band called Huun-Huur-Tu. The name denotes a particular play of light through grass that occurs on the steppes just before sunrise or after sunset. The sound Huun-Huur-Tu's members make is khoomei, which roughly translates ``throat-singing.''

Throat-singing is a vocal technique found in several Asian cultures. Its practitioners produce two, and sometimes three, distinct tones by manipulating the acoustical phenomena known as harmonics produced normally in speech and singing. A throat-singer seems paradoxically to sing more than one pitch at once. Often the loudest tone is lacking entirely the familiar, root quality of vibrating vocal cords one detects even in the most refined singing in the West.

Called variously biphonic singing, harmonic singing and overtone singing, this techniques also is practiced by a few groups of Tibetan monks. It is a venerable tradition among the herdsmen of Mongolia. Perhaps nowhere, however, has it reached such full flowering and ramification as in Tuva.

Unlike shamanism and Buddhism, which were each victims of Stalinist Russification policies and only now are making a comeback in Tuva, throat singing has existed as an unbroken tradition in this country of 320,000 people. The demise of the Soviet Union, however, has given it new life and a wider exposure.

The acoustics and physiology of throat-singing are complex, and not entirely understood.

A sung tone consists of a ``fundamental'' of specific pitch (frequency, in the language of physics), and a series of ``harmonics.'' the latter are pitches with frequencies that are whole multiples (two times, three times, four times, etc.) of the fundamental.

A tone has groupings of harmonics that are more intense than others. These groupings are known as ``formants.'' Throat-singers emphasize one or two formants and suppress the others to create their multiple-pitch effects.

Anthony Jahn, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon, and Anat Keidar, a voice scientist and speech pathologist, together have studied how this is accomplished. At Vox Humana Voice La, which is affiliated with Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, they used a fiber optic endoscope, placed through the nose into the throat, to see what throat-singers actually did.

These researchers found that singers used anatomical structures, such as the false vocal cords and the aryepiglottic folds, as well as the tongue to create distinct but interconnected resonating chambers capable of accentuating or dampening harmonics.

They also found evidence of swelling, blood vessel growth, and even a form of chronic inflammation that can lead to cancer, in the throats of some singers.

Undaunted by occupational risks, and making the most of Russia's new capitalism, Huun-Huur-Tu exemplifies the evolution of throat-singing in Tuva.

The group's virtuoso leader, Kaygal-ool Hovalyg, is from a remote part of western Tuva. He taught himself the technique when he was 12 after listening to older people. His great-grandfather had been a famous throat-singer recorded by musicologists from Moscow in the 1930s. Hovalyg's parents were herdsmen, and he was too, after finishing school. The second member, Anatoly Kuular, also heard throat-singing as a child. He has relatives who are nomads. This winter camp about 30 miles from Tuva's capital, Kyzyl, belongs to his cousins. He, however, has led a more urban life.

The third member, Sayan Bapa, half-Russian and half-Tuvan, came to the technique through a love of traditional music, and only recently learned to perform it. Since the early 1990s, the group has mad a half-dozen trips to Europe and North America and even recorded with such well-known musicians as Ry Cooder.

This is something new for the ancient tradition.

``The thing about throat-singing is that it was never really a public art,'' says Valentina Suzukei, a Tuvan musicologist. ``Usually it was done by a herder or hunter wandering on his own. Or they would sing in Yurts [traditional felt-covered tents] to their family and friends. Before, it was purely inspiration, it was an internal need. They never, ever thought they would be paid for this.''

Often throat-singing is used as a sort of instrumental break in a song with text. Two of the five common Tuvan styles, however, normally are performed without text, and aren't used to create songs as a Westerner would think of them. Many singers supplement throat-singing with other vocalizations (some employing small reed instruments) that help them mimic every thing from animal calls to ambulance sirens. Instead of being an end in itself, traditional Tuvan throat-singing is one tool in a larger effort to ``map'' and interpret the singer's environment.

The less melodious styles ``might well represent vestiges of a proto-musical sound world in which man sought through mimesis [imitation] to link himself to the beings and forces that most concerned him,'' wrote Ted Levin, an ethnomusicologist at Dartmouth College, who is the West's foremost expert on throat-singing. ``In the case of the Tuvans, [this was] domestic animals, the physical environment of mountains and grasslands, and the elemental energies of wind, water and light.''

Levin led a recording expedition to Tuva in 1987 which produced, among other things, a Smithsonian Folkways recording called ``Tuva: Voices From the Center of Asia.'' To hear a sample of singing by a man named Tumat Kara-ool (born in 1935) from that recording, see the instructions that follow.

(To hear a free Sound Bite of throat-singing, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 2224.)


[Color photo by David Brown: Throat-singers Anatoly Kuular, Kaygal-ool Hovalyg and Sayan Bapa.]

[Color maps showing Russia and Tuva, and color diagrams on throat-singing from ``Musical Voices of Asia,'' edited by R. Emmert and Y. Minegishi. Maps and diagrams by John Anderson.]