A Beginner’s Guide to Tuvan Throat Singing

To a lot of Westerners, perhaps Americans the most, throat singing is something of a joke. It’s so strange and alien relative to the music we typically consume, it can be easy to think about is as something less than music.

Throat singing, a type of singing in which resonance is manipulated as air travels from the lungs to produce an overtone, is practiced in various parts of the world. Cultures from Greenland to Italy to Tibet have each developed styles of throat singing.

Tuvan throat singing, also referred to as Mongolian throat singing, is the style most people think of upon hearing mention of the practice. It certainly does tend to stray from the conventions of Western popular music, but that doesn’t mean there’s absolutely no intersection.

For the uninitiated, (or anyone looking to learn more about it), these are three albums to get you into Tuvan throat singing.

Mamer – “Eagle”

(via Real World Records)

Released via Real World Records in 2009, “Eagle” is admittedly not a throat singing album, but it might be the best of the three for an absolute beginner. Hailing from China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, a land teeming with various ethnic minorities and languages, Mamer puts a contemporary twist on Turkic folk music.

Although guitar, bass, and drums serve as the foundation of most of the work on “Eagle”, traditional elements of Kazakh and Chinese folk music can be heard throughout. At the center of the record is Mamer’s dombra playing,

And of course, underneath his low, resonant vocals is Tuvan throat singing. The throat singing never takes the forefront, except for a very brief moment in “Proverbs“, but it serves an integral role on the record as a contrast to Mamer’s smooth voice.

Take, for example, the track “Man”. It has one of the sweetest instrumental tracks on the album, but it would feel empty without the buzzing and cavernous throat sung vocals to fill in the low end.

Oidupaa Vladimir Oiun – “Divine Music From a Jail”

(via Friends Records)

Even for a Tuvan throat singing record, this one is pretty enigmatic. Oiun, born in a central Asian region of the USSR. He was trained in traditional Tuvan throat singing. although he would come to develop his own eponymous style.

Imprisoned for life on three counts of murder and one count of youth corruption, charges some many still say were unfairly levied on him due to political differences with authorities, Oiun turned to Christianity in prison, and reflecting on his penitence, he recorded the songs that would become “Divine Music From a Jail” in 1999 via Friends Records.

Imprisoned for 33 years until the collapse of the USSR, Oiun only had access to an archaic bayan accordion and a microphone, hence the intensely stripped-back nature of the record. Many tracks use the same chord progressions. But the soulful sense of longing in his vocals transcend how bare the songs are.

Despite the mesmerizing viscera in Oiun’s vocals, they still feel very foreign. In a simple, one-line review from Rate Your Music user YLoveY says: “think of the oddest thing you can and your still [nowhere] close.”

The emotional impact of “Divine Music From a Jail” is something that can be understood by anyone. Even through barriers of language and highly unconventional vocals, the feeling of anguish and melancholy is apparent.

Davaasuren Bayarbaatar – The Art of Mongolian Khöömii

(via ARC Music)

Released in 2015 via ARC Music, “The Art of Mongolian Khöömii” displays not only the most accurate representation of traditional Mongolian throat singing of the three records selected, but also the most intricacy with the sound.

Vocal rhythms on songs like “Ih Khaanii Duulal” are so impressive, not only because they clearly take so much effort, but because they’re so external. The way the jaw harp is used on “Hulsan Huur” displays excellent control over the instrument, as well as even more vocal prowess, as the two are used at the same time. Even if it might not sound pleasant to some listeners, it would be hard not to find it astonishing.

This record, especially compared to the other two, is the least Westernized by far.

Several tracks near the end of the album, such as “Buurul Aav” can be very difficult. The throat sung vocals, totally unaccompanied, feel atonal at times. The emptiness of the song forces listeners to get up close and personal with the sheer abnormality.

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