Guttural Hymns: The Art of Khoomei

Guttural Hymns: The Art of Khoomei

(Guest Post by MJ Choo)

Khoomei, the generic term used to designate all throat singing techniques in the region of Siberia and Tuva, is a form of traditional vocal singing characterised mostly by guttural humming and sharp, drawn-out whistles. Steeped in traditional pagan beliefs, Khoomei draws its inspiration from the animistic worldview of the region: the identification of the spirituality of objects in nature, not just in their shape or location, but in their sound as well. Thus, human mimicry of nature’s sounds is seen as the root of throat singing. However, Tuvan throat singing can also be split into four distinctive categories.

  • Khorekteer. The “chest voice”, is the voice throat-singers often use before launching into the other categories of throat singing.
  • Khoomei. The most popular style of Tuvan throat singing, Khoomei is characterised by softer sounds and more melodious tune, when compared to the other voices. Made to imitate the sound of steppe winds swirling amongst rocks, the pitch of Khoomei is manipulated by a combination of movements of the lips, throat, tongue or jaw.
  • Sygyt. Characterized by strong, flute-like or rather piercing harmonics, Sygyt (literally “whistling”) utilises a midrange fundamental to produce a clear sound. Directing the sound to the teeth, Sygyt is an attempt to imitate the gentle breezes of summer, and the song of birds.
  • Kargryaa. The more deep sounding style of throat singing, Kargyraa has a deep, almost growling sound to it and is technically related to Sardinian bass singing in Canto a Tenore choirs, and also to Tibetan Buddhist chants and has some similarities with the way Popeye’s cartoon voice was created.

Listen here.

Known and recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Khoomei definitely sounds like its roots: resounding and strong. In fact, some say Khoomei reminds its audience of Mother Earth. But the majority of traditional art forms have been on a slow decline through the years, perhaps as a result of the the influx or popularity of pop culture, and Khoomei is no exception. Will traditional art forms persist or endure in the decades or even centuries to come? Or are they mere sitting ducks, a casualty of globalisation? It seems that traditional practitioners understand and are beginning to accept the changes that are necessary for Khoomei to continue to exist and appeal to a new audience–take a listen to the form infused with pop music, presented on a variety show.

Watch here.