Published in the Ithaca Journal November 11, 2004

Huun-Huur-Tu: Tuvan Throat Singers

by Bill Chaisson

The Tuvan word for throat or overtone singing is khöömei (pronounced 'HOO-may'). A particularly nuanced form allows the singer to produce three notes at the same time:  a fundamental drone, a middle harmonic for rhythm and a high harmonic for the melody. The more common form is sygyt, which is the production of two notes at once. The traditional presentation of the music is by a solo performer, but in 1992 Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, Albert Kuvezin and brothers Alexander and Sayan Bapa formed an ensemble that eventually became Huun-Huur-Tu (pronounced 'HUN-hoor-too').

The journey of Tuvan throat singing from the central Asian steppe to the American concert stage began at the dining room table of physicist Richard Feynman. In 1977 Feynman was having dinner with his family and Ralph Leighton, who introduced Feynman's teen-age son to a geography game. They both began listing obscure countries, when suddenly Feynman spoke up, "What ever happened to Tannu Tuva?" Leighton had never heard of the country and challenged Feynman to locate it on a map. What they found was 'Tuvinskaya ASSR' nestled among the Altai Mountains between China and the Siberian part of Russia.

In 1987 while he was battling the cancer, Feynman attempted to fulfill a life-long dream of visiting Tannu Tuva. In his youth (he was born in 1918) he had collected the stamps of the central Asian country. They had fascinated him in part because of their unusual diamond and triangle shapes, but also because of the odd illustrations that were featured. A man on a camel racing a train.  A sheepherder looking up at a zeppelin. After Leighton had jarred his memory about the existence of the country, Feynman became curious about the culture. In the early 1980s Feynman sent a tape of an old record of Tuvan throat singing to ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin.

Levin was "blown away".  In 1987 he became the first American to do ethnographic fieldwork in the Soviet Autonomous Republic of Tuva. Levin soon organized tours of Tuvan traditional musicians. By 1993 Huun-Huur-Tu were collaborating with Frank Zappa, Ry Cooder, and the Chieftains.  After the popularity of the music grew, Alexander Bapa left the group to begin producing other Tuvan bands.  Kuzevin left to move away from strictly traditional music and focus on cross-overs to other genres.

In the ensemble setting khöömei singing is often accompanied by the doshpuluur, a two-stringed lute; the igil or byzaanchi, two-stringed violins; the limbi, a trapezoidal harmonic soundbox; the dymbra, a rattle drum, the homus, a mouth harp, and other instruments both exotic and familiar.  The instruments at times provide an echo and at other points serve as a counterpoint to the droning, guttural quavering and sharp bleats of the vocals.

The music of Huun-Huur-Tu is rooted in the shamanistic religious culture of Tuva, and in this sense it seems related to the throat singing of Tibetan monks. But khöömei is also an onomatopoetic response to the sounds of Nature that can be heard by lone sheep and reindeer herders in the 'silence' of steppes of Tuva.  In this way it is similar to the joiking of the Sami (Lapp) people of northern Scandinavia. The Tuvan singing seems to strike a deep chord in many people all around the world. Numerous singing societies have formed from Japan to Finland to the United States, filled with people either trying to master or who have mastered the vocal technique.

Feynman and Leighton tried valiantly to leap through the hoops of the Soviet bureaucracy just prior to the fall of 'the Wall', but in 1988 Feynman died before he ever got to see land of his childhood stamp collection and hear the overtone singing drifting over herds of sheep, while in the distance a man on a camel raced a train.

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Last revised:  May 11, 2005