Photo: The HU/Facebook

How Mongolian Throat Singing Made It Onto the Billboard Charts

Music + Nightlife
by Alex Bresler Mar 16, 2020

I was in college the first time I heard throat singing. A friend, who was then enrolled at the Berklee College of Music, had learned of a bitonal chanting technique from Mongolia and spent months trying to master it before attempting a demonstration one night over dinner.

What resulted was a chorus of grunts sounding from a quickly reddening face. It was a far cry from the Youtube clip we pulled up after, which featured a throat singer belting guttural yet smooth, almost vibrational, harmonies into an empty steppe like a human didgeridoo. It was a sound unlike any I had heard a person produce, made up of notes I never even knew existed.

Overtone singing, or höömii as it’s called in Mongolia, enables vocalists to create multiple pitches at once by manipulating their mouths and throats. They’re then able to sustain these sounds for extended periods of time by using a circular breathing technique.

“If you sit down at a piano and play all the keys, they’re going to be tuned the same…that’s the harmony basically all Western music is based on,” says Andrew Colwell, who studied höömii in Mongolia for two years before getting his PhD in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan. “With throat singing, when you do that melodic overtone, it’s not based on the same tuning: It’s based on the harmonic series. So the intervals, the spaces between the notes that you can make, don’t exactly align with the notes on the piano.”

The effect is powerful, haunting even, yet I managed to forget about Mongolian throat singing after that night. Until, several years later, there it was in the mainstream.

In 2014, Mongolian folk band Altan Urag found a Western audience after featuring on the soundtrack for Netflix’s Marco Polo. That audience grew considerably last April when Mongolian metal band The Hu’s songs “Wolf Totem” and “Yuve Yuve Yu” debuted on Billboard. (“Yuve Yuve Yu” currently has more than 39 million views on Youtube, “Wolf Totem” over 27 million.)

Though bands like The Hu and Altan Urag, who wrote a song with Colwell in 2007, have helped familiarize international listeners with höömii techniques, early throat singing was a private, personal practice that originated among male herders in western Mongolia and southern Russian Siberia, around the Altai Mountains.

While distinct, höömii and khöömei, the predominant throat-singing style in the Russian republic of Tuva, use the same basic techniques. Both methods of communing with nature, they’re meant to mimic the surrounding landscape: whistling winds, howling wildlife, and babbling streams.

Overtone singing is believed to have originated in Central Asia, but throat-singing customs extend beyond the border of Mongolia and Russia. Notably, Inuk artists like Tanya Tagaq, whose 2014 album Animism beat out artists like Drake and Arcade Fire for Canada’s Polaris Prize, have also brought Inuit throat games into the limelight.

Unlike in Mongolia and Siberia, where throat singing was considered taboo for women, in northern Canada, traditional throat singing was performed exclusively by Inuit women, often in groups. Sessions were held while men were off hunting during winter, sometimes for weeks at a time, manifesting more like breathing games than singing exercises.

Now extinct, a similar sharp, breathy style of vocal games called rekkukara has also been linked to the Ainu people of Hokkaido in Japan. Elsewhere, the Xhosa people of Bantu origins in South Africa have their own overtone singing style called eefing.

Yet unlike rekkukara and Inuit vocal games, which were banned by Christian missionaries and only began making a comeback in the 1980s, Mongolian throat singing flourished in the 20th century, first under Soviet rule and later after the USSR fell.

Mongolia won its independence from China in 1921. Shortly after, it became the Soviet Union’s first satellite state and remained under Soviet control for 70 years. In that time, the USSR’s socialist movement targeted the “backwards” customs of the states within its sphere of influence, Mongolia among them. Restrictions were placed on cultural imports, including Western music, and Mongolian singers were sent to the Eastern Bloc to study opera.

Yet, ironically, in throat singing’s case, “socialism became one of the main reasons it was adapted to the stage and professionalized, and then promoted overseas,” says Colwell.

Beginning in the 1930s and ‘40s, höömii shifted from a herder’s practice into a national folk art. Then, in the 1950s, it “very quickly became a market of national culture.”

To promote its values, the Soviet Union would send cultural delegates from the states it controlled to international festivals, where they were expected to perform as proof of the USSR’s successful cultural development programs. In 1950, a vocalist named Tsedee became the first professional throat singer in Mongolia, performing höömii on stage for the first time in Ulaanbaatar four years later. The following year saw the first international höömii performance.

It was around the mid-century that höömii singers also started playing with folk melodies, which led to experimentation with international influences over the next couple of decades. Classical came first. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Sundui, a höömiich who author and ethnomusicologist Carole Pegg calls the founder of overtone singing’s “modern classical form,” studied the bel canto operatic style and tackled composers like Tchaikovsky.

Awareness of the vocal technique spread throughout Mongolia and Siberia in the first half of the 20th century. Then in the latter half, it headed West, crossing paths with even more genres.

Höömii first arrived on the international scene in the 1980s when vocalists began experimenting with the band format. In 1996, ethnomusicologist and Dartmouth professor Theodore Levin published a seminal text on Central Asian music stylings. A decade later, he followed it up with Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Soun, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva, which documented his time with members of the Tuvan band Huun-Huur-Tu, who also collaborated with Frank Zappa and other international artists in the early 1990s, not long after the Soviet Union dissolved.

By the turn of the millenium, Tuvan throat singing had solidified its place in Western pop culture’s periphery. A 1999 documentary entitled Genghis Blues, which follows American blues musician Paul Pena on his travels in Tuva, became an instant cult classic among musicologists. The film shows Pena, who penned the 1977 hit “Jet Airliner” for the Steve Miller Band and played with the likes of B.B. King, becoming the first American to participate in, and win, an annual Tuvan throat-singing competition. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000.

Thanks in part to a sizable expat community that formed in Germany after the fall of socialism, says Colwell, Mongolian höömii began gaining traction in its own right around 2000, paving the way for bands like The Hu to showcase their music heritage.

It’s tempting to say that traditional höömii has changed over the past century, but in reality, change has been a cornerstone of the practice ever since it was institutionalized. Because it started so individually, a practice shared loosely among herders, “the exemplars of what we call traditional höömii today are people like Sundui and the first people to perform on stage, who [were] themselves experimenting with techniques and genres,” says Colwell.

Adaptable and far-reaching, yes, höömii is nonetheless a proud Mongolian cultural export that the nation not only claims but is also prepared to defend. This was evidenced in 2009 when China registered throat singing with UNESCO as an example of its own Intangible Cultural Heritage, prompting outcry from both Mongolians and Tuvans. (UNESCO has since updated the inscription to reflect khöömei’s Mongolian origins.)

After a paradoxical century in which the Soviet socialist agenda helped preserve Mongolian heritage and UNESCO mistakenly discredited the originators of the practice, it remains to be seen what creative opportunities are in store for höömii in its post-Billboard era.

In a way, it’s difficult to conceive of a more fitting musical mashup than gruff, orchestral overtone vocals and heavy-metal instrumentals, as The Hu’s millions of viewers would likely attest to. But if the last 100 years have taught us anything about Mongolian music, it’s that we can all look forward to what the next hundred will inspire.

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