“World” music is a generally unpopular genre.
We tend to gravitate most towards things we understand and can easily relate to. It’s hard for many of us to sit down and actively listen to music in a foreign language because unless we can actually understand it, we can’t associate it with our own lives.
For most of us in “developed” countries with pop culture scenes that have adopted and adapted a lot of Western style music, it can be hard for us to break outside the rhythms and modes that we’re so accustomed to. We often find these sounds to be dissonant and alien and they can even cause negative reactions.
Most people don’t really notice it, but if you really stop and listen to a lot of popular music in a country like the US, you’ll start to realize that the songs are almost all the same.
They use the same chords. They use the same beat. They’re all in 4/4 time and they usually sing about the same overdone topics. Now I’m not saying there’s necessarily anything wrong with this. I’d be lost without my rock – infamous for only using 4 chords, but its the lack of familiarity that we hold with foreign music that, I think, so often drives us away and prevents us from expanding our horizons.
But for those of you looking for something different, something utterly unlike anything you’ll ever hear on your lite rock station, we look to the grassy, windswept steppes of Central Asia at the Tuvan; a nomadic people with a very long tradition of throat singing.
What is Throat Singing?
Throat singing can be kind of difficult to wrap your head around but the gist of it is that a throat singer can manipulate multiple pitches simultaneously, usually a lower or higher tone, that revolves around a central “normal” pitch called a drone note.
Throat singers manage to create these unique sounds by manipulating their vocal folds.
It just makes me cough.
The people of Tuva have been marginalized by the governments of Russia and the former USSR for decades and state efforts to preserve their culture and language have been minimal at best. With around a quarter of a million speakers, Tuvan is considered to be “at risk” of dying out, but is still doing fairly well considering.
Throat singing is meant to emulate the sounds of the geography of the Tuvan homelands.
The sounds resemble a musical interpretation of the winds on the steppes and in the mountains and thick forests that still cover much of Siberia.
Linguist K. David Harrison writes of the Tuvan that their language allows for an extraordinary deal of often untranslatable terms for directions and geographical features and their intimate knowledge of their homelands is reflected in their voices.
I’ve linked three of my favorite Tuvan throat singers or groups here for your enjoyment.
Examples of Tuvan Throat Singing
Probably my favorite example of Tuvan throat singing is this particular performance by traditional Tuvan folk music ensemble Huun Huur Tu.
They’re a little difficult to understand at times, but they explain and demonstrate examples of several different common styles of Tuvan throat singing such as Khoomei, Sygyt and Kargyraa.
This is a complete concert performed at Berkeley in 2008 and I highly recommend listening to all of it if you can find the time to do so. It’s quite the unique experience:
I’d love to get my hands on some of those instruments too.
You can find Huun Huur Tu’s albums on Amazon if you’re particularly taken by their sound and are interested in supporting efforts to bring endangered language music to the world.
Traditional folk music is all well and good, and should be practiced and maintained; but I genuinely feel that in order to preserve indigenous or minority languages, some degree of cultural integration must take place.
So if something a little bit less “traditional” is more your style, check out Tuvan performer Kuular cover Adele’s hit ‘Rolling in the Deep’
The throat singing starts around 1:00.
Kuular’s YouTube channel has several more similar covers including those of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You‘ and Linkin Park’s “Numb”.
Some of Kuular’s work can be found here on iTunes.
The late Kongar-ool Ondar was a master Tuvan throat singer who specialized in the style known as Sygyt. This video, featuring a performance of his alongside Bela Fleck and the Flecktones explains a little bit more thoroughly the differences between Sygyt, Khoomei and Kargyraa.
Sadly; Ondar passed away in 2013 but his legacy has remained and he is still considered to be one of the most prominent modern Tuvan musicians. His work can be found on iTunes as well.
Fun fact from this video: Kargyraa is the same style used to produce the voice for popular cartoon icon Popeye.
There is certainly something uplifting and calming about Tuvan music and I really hope that you find it as unique and mystifying as I do.
It sure beats the heck out a lot of popular music.
Please consider sharing these musicians’ videos and their music. Music appreciation gives us an intimate connection to the performer’s culture. It has a way of traveling from person to person and spreading awareness of endangered cultures faster and more effectively than academic papers and revitalization conferences chalk full of linguists ever will.
Tuvan stands a better chance of enduring as a language for many decades to come if the world shows it the interest it deserves and the Tuvan people’s unique singing style is a great way to bring it the recognition it needs.
So what are your thoughts on throat singing? Do you enjoy it or do you find it unpleasant? Leave a comment with your thoughts!
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