Musicians like rapper T-Pain might have popularized the use of auto-tune in pop music, but he’s actually not the first to alter his voice in pursuit of a good tune. In fact, a tribe of nomadic herdsmen from Tuva, a province in the furthest wilds of Russia, have been practicing a curious form of vocal chord manipulation called throat singing as far back as anyone can remember.
This unique style of crooning, also known as overtone singing, is a practice in which the singer plays with the vocal chords, resulting in a sound that covers as many as four distinct notes at the same time. To put this in perspective, your average pop star can only sing in one. How’s that for amazing? This style of singing is actually used by a variety of cultures around the world, from Sardinia in Italy to the Inuit tribes of Canada to peoples of South Africa. But it is the people of Tuva, a small province in Southern Siberia, who have gained the greatest fame for their talent with this one-of-a-kind vocal skill.
Why did this strange form of music develop? And what does it sound like? Join us as Gadling’s new music feature Round the World in 80 Sounds takes a look at five of the best Tuvan Throat Singing videos. Keep reading below…
What is Tuvan Throat Singing?
It’s believed that the strange singing style of the Tuvans is a result of their land’s unique geography. The vast windswept terrain of Southern Siberia is endless in its size and its beauty. Thus Tuvan Throat Singing is the product of these two unique factors. On one hand, the residents of this environment needed their voices to carry long distances – the singing accomplishes this, providing the greatest possible reach.
One the other hand, the Tuvans are believers in Animism, a belief system strongly rooted in nature as the source of religion. Throat Singing draws inspiration from these Animist beliefs, using voices to symbolize the forces of nature, from the winds to the water to the animals that inhabit the Tuvans’ wild homeland.
What does it sound like?
Tuvan throat singing is composed of four main sounds: the Khorekteer (chest voice), the Khoomeii (wind swirling among rocks), Sygyt (birds whistling) and Kargyraa (howling winds). Rather than trying to explain what they sound like, the best way to understand is watch. Here’s five of our favorite Tuvan Throat Singers in action.
#1 – TV feature on Throat Singing
The following travel segment provides a good video introduction to the background, history and sounds of Throat Singing.
#2 – Kongar-ol Ondar on David Letterman
Singer Kongar-ol Ondar is regarded as one of the style’s most famous practitioners, often appearing on Western TV shows to perform. Here’s a clip of Ondar from 1999 on David Letterman:
#3 – The many tones of Throat Singing
Watch as this Throat Singer performs a few of the many different tones involved in the practice. You’ll hear the remarkable range of highs, lows and growls that this style can encompass:
#4 – Live performance of “Sygyt
In this live performance of Throat Singing from the Philadelphia Folk Festival, we see artist Huun Huur Tu as he demonstrates the style Sygyt, or “whistling,” mentioned above. The rhythm and tone is hypnotic and mesmerizing to hear:
#5 – Two Throat Singers Along an Icy River
Watch these two Tuvans as they howl away, set against the backdrop of an swift-moving river choked with chunks of ice. Much like the art of Tuvan Throat Singing it’s at once starkly beautiful, and wildly exotic: