Meistersingers of the Steppe

John Cho

The voice is the most universal musical instrument. Singing plays a vital role in all human cultures and even in the social life of other species such as birds and whales. For some people, such as the Mbuti pygmies of Central Africa, communal singing is so extensive that virtually all activities from birth to marriage to death have an accompanying polyphonic soundtrack produced in real time by one's family, one's neighbors, one's friends, oneself. Other civilizations have gone through periods in which singing was elevated to such a high art form that even genital mutilation was deemed acceptable to produce singers with just the right quality of voice. Or a singer could become so beloved by her people, like Umm Kulthum of Egypt, that even Presidents dared not schedule a speech at the same time as her weekly radio concert.

But for all the emphasis placed on performance, either within a communal context or for public professional concerts, arguably the most technically virtuosic vocalists in the world are the herdsmen of Tuva who roam the grassy steppes on horseback alone, singing to themselves in the otherworldly multiple tones of the khoomei style, imitating the sounds of nature, now the Siberian northerly rustling the leaves of a larch tree, now the distant thunder of an approaching storm.

Tuva is an autonomous region within the Russian Federation with a population of 320,000. Its Turkic people have been ruled over the centuries by Mongolian warlords, Chinese emperors, Russian czars, and Soviet comrades. Besides its claim to being the ``center of Asia'' (a marker planted in the capital city of Kyzyl says so), Tuva has been primarily known for its prolific issuance in the 1930s of strangely shaped (diamond, triangle) stamps depicting local life, such as men on camels racing a train. Tuva received further publicity when the physics Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, fascinated by its utter obscurity, made a goal of visiting Tuva even though it was closed to foreigners under the Soviet regime. Feynman, an avid bongo player, was also aware of the unique Tuvan singing style in which up to three pitches could be generated simultaneously by one singer. Both his musical and scientific sides must have been piqued by this phenomenon. His quest is chronicled in the book, Tuva or Bust!, by Ralph Leighton.

Since the demise of the U.S.S.R., khoomei singing has been extensively documented and recorded by Western musicologists. One ensemble, Huun-Huur-Tu, has even conducted successful worldwide tours in recent years. Its musical leader, Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, a herdsman before turning pro, is a master singer and accomplished player of the igil (``horsehead fiddle'' with two strings) who, also accompanied by a conch shell, bells, a shamanic goat-skin drum, and a rattle made of sheep ankle bones in a bull testicle, sings of the legend of a faithful horse, the beauty of the vertical separation of the sun's rays just before it sets (the meaning of ``huun-huur-tuu''), the yearning for a faraway loved one.

The physics of khoomei is still not completely understood (if only Feynman had lived a while longer!), but its basic principles are known. Most natural sounds are composed of a base pitch (fundamental) plus many more tones at higher pitches (harmonics). Usually our ears zero in on the fundamental and that is the pitch that our mind assigns to the sound. The fewer the harmonics the ``purer'' the sound (e.g., a flute does not produce many harmonic tones), whereas the presence of more harmonics makes the sound ``richer.'' The human voice is notoriously rife with harmonics. By dividing the mouth into two cavities and adjusting the resonant pitches of each, the khoomei singer is able to suppress the fundamental and amplify one or two harmonics so that our mind begins to register them as separate tones rather than as one complex tone. (This is easier said than done, as I can attest from attempting to follow written instructions on how to learn khoomei.) The end result is quite unlike anything else, but might be said to resemble a talking whistle over a double-bass drone.

Khoomei is also practiced by neighboring Mongolians and a similar multi-tone technique is cultivated by Tibetan Gyuto monks. Neo-traditional groups like Huun-Huur-Tuu are stimulating interest in the technique in other parts of the world, and cross-fertilization projects are already taking place (Huun-Huur-Tuu is currently collaborating with a Bulgarian women's choir, whose vocal technique is also quite distinctive). The annual International Khoomei Festival was started in Kyzyl in 1994, and Sapporo, Japan boasts a society devoted to khoomei singing. Even Hollywood has stepped in, using the Tuvans on a soundtrack for a film about Geronimo.

No doubt, however, the best khoomei is still performed and appreciated by that lone shepherd, hunched over a campfire under the slowly spinning constellations, singing of the wild forests of Ezirlyyg, of the greenness of the grass after a rare rain, of the long-haired beauty whose skirts flap in the wind as she rides her chestnut mare across the steppe . . .

Huun-Huur-Tuu Discography:

60 Horses in My Herd (Shanachie)
The Orphan's Lament (Shanachie)

Copyright 1996, The San Juan Star

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