Round the World in 80 Sounds: Five Tuvan Throat Singing Videos

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:

A Canadian in Beijing: Sing for Beijing

I was told that a gig that goes right, technically, is a rare occurrence in China. In fact, when my show was over tonight, people said: “you handled that well!” rather than “great show!” or “great songs!”

The situation they’re referring to is the fact that the guitar I borrowed had some pick-up problems that I wasn’t aware of until the gig began and it buzzed and squealed intermittently throughout the set. The only thing that would relieve it was yanking out the cord and plugging it back in. I got quite good at pausing, muting, yanking, plugging, un-muting all in time with the music and without stopping the lyrics, but I have to say that I was extremely distracted! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. In the end, I just had to use a microphone on the guitar (below) which forced me to stand very still!

Isn’t there a saying about a craftsman only being as good as his tools? (or “her” tools, in this case!) But I won’t blame my tools as per the other expression (“a poor craftsman blames [her] tools”) but I’ll simply say that I was challenged but persevered. And, I did sing rather well despite the cigarette smoke.
My set was followed by Hanggai, an amazing Mongolian folk band with throat singing and traditional instruments. I was able to leave all of my gig frustrations on the stage and instantly become an audience member and I thoroughly enjoyed their music. Sometimes haunting and angular and sometimes sweet and rich. It was beautiful.

The first shot shows me in the last song when I was loaned a guitar by the headlining artist, Ramona Cordova. I had to sit because it was a strapless guitar (!) but I was really appreciative nonetheless. Ramona’s music is gentle and sweet and his voice has amazing range. I sat back and took in his ethereal high notes and relaxed stage vibe.

I met some nice people, had some laughs, drank my free beer and returned back to Wudaokou with humility. Here is a picture of my two Australian friends, Sarah and Jenny, who were there cheering me on.

I’m now able to say that I played some songs on stage in China. Before I leave at the end of this three-month stay, I’m sure there will actually be an Ember Swift show. I still have lots of time and this experience of building a brand new music community is teaching me so much already. For instance, the next time I have a gig here with a working guitar, I will definitely not take that clear signal for granted! Maybe that’s a clear signal to me to simply appreciate what does work more often. A good attitude? My voice? My ability to make friends? My ears? All were in fine working order at Yugong Yishan last night.

No complaints.

Photos of me performing by: Sarah Keenan