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Overtone Singing – Nomadic Origins and Culture

Overtone singing is an innovative enhancement of tonality and resonance in your vocals that a singer can create in their throat, to add what are called overtones. These overtones are harmonic, and when I say these or harmonic, I do mean multiple tones at the same time from one person’s throat! Never heard of this before? Well, time to check it out! This vocal technique’s origin is ancient, with this style and its variations seen across almost all continents in the world. In this piece, we talk about Overtone singing, and where we’ve seen it across the globe.

Tracing Overtone Singing
Overtone singing is said to have been developed in southwestern Mongolia, today’s Khovd Province and Govi Altai regions in the country. Britannica’s dictionary accounts for its origins being from Turko-Mongol tribes of the Altai and Sayan mountains of southern Siberia and western Mongolia. The country of Mongolia is, still today, one of the most common places where overtone singing is practiced in the world. There are several styles under each of these practices too, and they aren’t limited to Mongolia. This most common singing style is Tuvan throat singing, Khöömii or Khoomei (Mongolian Cyrillic: Хөөмий) and is further divided into many sub-categories. It is most commonly performed and practiced in the regions of Tuva, Mongolia and Siberia. This form of throat singing has been included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO in 2009. Sygyt, Kargyraa and their variations are also some more popular forms of throat singing. According to a more western interpretation of the musicality, these melodies in throat singing were created using 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 13th and sometimes 16th harmonics, forming what we call a pentatonic scale, so the 7th and 11th harmonics are carefully skipped.

It is important to note that these mostly nomadic people practicing the art were influenced by their location and regions majorly. Long pastures and open fields would carry sound through quite a distance, sometimes treading over mountains and stretches of land led them to travel more. Since many Tuvans and Mongols were believers in animism, they would pay close attention to every detail, sound, and even their words, as they felt it all held spiritual power. Mimicking animal and bird sounds from nature could probably be seen as one of the factors laying the foundation to throat singing. If we were all birds, we’d probably think the Mongolian throat singers were like the Australian Lyre bird! Since there’s much to cover, more details on the different styles of Tuvan throat singing here. I wasn’t able to find a traditional video that covers all styles since they are practiced by different peoples of various regions in and around Mongolia, Tuva, and parts of Russia. This should suffice to explain the types for now.

 


There are regions in Russia too where this culture flourished in a way. The Altai and Khakassia regions were neighbouring Tuva, and developed a type of throat singing called ‘kai’, used in epic poetry recitals along with the traditional three-stringed instrument Topshur. There are five variations of the
kai as well. The practice travelled to the very far eastern region of Russia called the Chukchi Peninsula too. 

Other Parts of Asia and the World
We are familiar with Tibetan monks using throat singing for chanting, as it was a branch of Khoomei. Tibetan Buddhists included the low frequency throat singing in their religious ceremonies, with multiple monks chanting at the same time. There are three subcategories of throat singing even in Tibet, ranging from very very low to higher frequencies. Here’s a video to bring on some of that Tibetan chanting! The chanting starts at 3:00 min:

 

 

It would take three more articles to fully explain how nomadic culture, the foundations of certain civilizations, and niche practices played a huge role in the retention of this practice over the ages. A huge portion of the Eurasian area fostered this vocal style for many centuries, spreading it to different parts of Europe, South Asia and parts of the Middle East. Exiled Tibetan monks and people carried this tradition to different parts of Bhutan, India, and Nepal, all around the Himalayas. From the oral poetry recited by the residents of Karakalpakstan, a territory geographically located in Uzbekistan, to the plains of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Iran, the legacy remained predominantly a practice of the nomadic man. 

In Pakistan, many people are familiar with the Balochi Nur Sur, which sounds more like the traditional Khoomei style. It is incorporated in folk songs in the Baloch region of Pakistan, mainly shepherds and nomads. You may have seen it in an episode of the original Pakistani Coke Studio:

A genre of music in Kurdistan called Dengbêj is said to be the music of storytellers, where tales are sung. The Bardic or Kurdish ancestors of the region were unable to put down stories or publish them at the time, so many tales were passed down via this oral tradition. It has the most unique style of overtone singing, observed in the chants. One place that struggled to retain this tradition was Japan. The Ainu people once residing in the Northernmost island of Japan called Hokkaido practiced what is cited as Rekhukara, a now extinct form of overtone singing. However, here’s a video that mixes some traditional Japanese folk singing and a few overtone singing parts. The singing technique is similar to the bardic Dengbêj singers but scales differ.

 

The island of Sardinia in Italy, the Sami people of Northern European regions like Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and parts of Russia practice yoik, a vocal genre, but not as a primary singing technique. Cante Jondo flamenco vocal style, untouched and unspoiled, and a part of Andalusian folk music. It is another form of music that incorporates the rhythm of birds and natural music, and is one of three forms of flamenco, Cante Jondo being the most serious one. The Andalusians are an autonomous community of Southern Spain, and they have retained as much of their oriental influence as possible. Singers would often end a note using overtones, which would maybe serve as a facilitator to sustain notes. The use of the technique may also be the origin of the vibrato, this being purely speculative and not proven. If we go far west, the Inuit people practised a form of throat singing, and slowly, the complete Inuit culture is being revived in Canada.

Overtone Singing Today
There are many artists across the world who are now bringing back the culture of overtone singing through their music, films, and live performances. The Yobidashi or announcer in sumo wrestling matches always announces the wrestler or rikishi’s name in overtone singing, while holding a traditional Japanese hand fan. Almash is one of the most popular traditional Mongolian singing acts in the world. There are other artists like The Hu who fuse this Mongolian tradition with heavier forms of music.

 

 

If you’re interested in learning any of these vocal styles, there are hundreds of videos on the internet, with all the different subcategories and types of overtone singing you can learn. We hope this article was interesting and gives you some insight into the origins and continued traditions of overtone singing. We also hope each culture has the ability to retain this rich, and very unique vocal practice and its variations across the world. 

 

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About Authors

A singer, rapper and musician from Mumbai, India and host at Ticket Fairy (India), I've worked in the music business for over 7 years now, specialising in music marketing, public relations, social media, event management, hospitality and stage management.

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