Jump to content

TRAN QUANG HAI : Overtones in Central Asia and in South Africa

   (0 reviews)



The most well-known area for overtone singing is found in Central Asia, more specifically Western Tuva and Northwestern Mongolia. A great number of singers practice overtone singing, a tradition going back to the time of the Silk Road trade, according to some references in Tuvan songs. There is a rich culture of overtone singing, as demonstrated by many different styles, the great regional and even personal differences and the number of singers. In Tuva four basic styles exist: called kargyraa, borbannadyr, sygyt, and ezengileer. Borbannadyr was called in some regions, but the latter indicated in orther regions the general term for overtonesinging.

Nowadays, it still has this function, but xoomej can at the same time be the name for a separate style, apart from borbannadyr. In addition to these styles some sub styles exist, such as folk and middle sygyt, steppe and mountain kargyraa, and the "stil Oidupa". The latter is a substyle of kargyraa named after the singer who invented it , and it is considered as the first city style. The parametres for this emic - or folk classification, seem to be the melody of the fundamental, the melody of the overtones and the sound colour or over all sound.

The Mongols did not have a traditional, general classification of their styles of overtone singing. The late folklore specialis Badraa and the singer Tserendavaa attempted to make such a classification of Mongolian xoomij. Their results seem to be based on two criteria: the places of origin and the palce of resonance in the body when singing xoomii. they

cameup with six different styles: uruulyn (labial) xoomii, tagnain (palatal) xoomii, xamryn (nasal) xoomii, bagalzuuryn (glottal or throat) xoomii, tseejiin xondiin or xevliin (chest cavity or stomach) xoomii and xarxiraa. The latter style is somewhat controversial, since different singers have different opinions about what constitutes it, and whether or not it is xoomii.

In addition to Tuvan and Mongolian styles Khakassian "xaj" and Gorno-Altaian "kaj" overtone singing, usually accompanying epic songs, should be mentioned. while Tuvan and to a lesser extent Mongolian musicians travel around the world performing their xoomej, little is known about other Central Asian styles.

A special case is the "uzliau" or "tamak kurai" of Bashkirs, who live in the european part of Russia, some few thousand kilometers from Tuva. It is the name for their overtonesinging, with melodies similar to those of ordinary folksongs. The Baskirs are a Turkic people, who moved from Central Asia or Saiano Altai in the first millennium. Wainshtein advanced the opinion that they could have taken with them this peculiar singing style when moving westward from Central Asia. If this is so, he writes, then xoomej existed before their migration, i.e. in the second harl of the first millennium.

The Tuvan vocal phenomenon Khamei (literally Throat) since the last ten years has thrilled World music audiences around the world from the USA to Holland, from Canada to Germany, Sweden, from France, Spain to Japan, Australia.

In 1969,I started my overtone research with Mongolian xmij style which was very closed to Tuvan Sygyt style.Then, I wrote an article on my "discovery of this split-tone singing style" on the acoustical point of view, in cooperation with Denis Guillou in a book published by Japan Foundation in 1980. Another important article with Hugo Zemp on my experimental research on overtones was published in Geneva in 1991. The film the Song of Harmonics, made by Hugo Zemp in 1989 with me as co-author was released in 1989 in Paris.

Only in 1977 I heard the Tuvan overtones for the first time from the LP edited by Melodia GOCT 5289-68 "Pesni i Instrumental Nye Melodii Tuvy " (Songs and Instrumental Melodies of Tuva) with the cover notes by G. Tchourov.

Lebedinskij ,in 1948, wrote : "It is unnatural for a person to be able sing two notes at the same time. The timbre is alreasy unnatural, not to mention the principal notes and the harmonics, or overtones, and what is downright unnatural is the length of time the breath is sustained ".

Aksenov, the first Russian researcher, wrote an important article on Tuvin Folk music in 1964 (an English version was published in Asian Music Journal - New York, USA, in 1973).

Since the years of Perestroika and with the disparition of the USSR at the end of the '80s, Tuva has rebuilt the traditional music and Tibetan Buddhism. The "cultural rebirth" has started since. Competitions, Khamei Song Contests were organized in 1992 and 1995 in Kyzyl, capital of Republic of Tuva.By chance I was invited in Tuva in 1995 and was nominated as President of the 2nd International Symposium and Festival of Throat-Singers from 19 to 21June 1995.

The Tuvan singers generally use overtones from 6th to 13th. Renowned singers can reach overtone 18. During the Russian domination, throat singing was not encouraged by the Soviet authorities, but it survived. In the ancient time, overtone singers specialized in a single style or two related styles. Nowadays, it is frequent to see singers perform several styles arranged in short segments.If an overtone singer cannot master the five basic styles (khoomei, sygyt, borbannadyr, ezengileer, kargyraa ), he is not considered a good singer. Young singers like combining throat singing with rock, pop, punk and disco music.

National Khoomei competititons have been taking place for severel years, in which often more than thirty to forty singers take part. Young talent is discovered like the 11year old Schaktar Schulban has taught himself throat singing by listening to Khoomei singers on radio and Television since he was five. He can sing kargyraa style with 70Hz as fundamental pitch and changes to sygyt style (H1=240Hz) during the same song and raises his overtones to H12= 2880Hz (it is very difficult for an adult throat singer to reach that overtone pitch). Onda Mongun-Ool (17 years old) is a virtuoso of sygyt style, and Bujan Dondak (20 years old) is a specialist of kargyraa style.



It is necessary to have a clear idea about the five basic vocal styles of Tuvan overtone singing before analyzing the different items recorded in these 2 compact discs reviewed in this paper.

Khoomei is a vocal style which enables the singer to produce two sometimes three simultaneous voices: one fundamental with low sound considered as a drone, and the other(s) with overtones giving one or two formantic melody (ies).

In acoustics, harmonics are sounds the frequencies of which are integral multiples. If the singer sings the fundamental pitch of 200Hz (written H1=200Hz), harmonics 2 (written H2) will be 400Hz, H3=600Hz, etc...In this paper, whenever I mention H2, H3, that means overtone 2, overtone 3.

Khoomei is the common term for overtone singing, the origin of all styles. It means literally "throat, pharynx". It is considered as the oldest style by many Tuvan singers. It sounds like the sygyt style with high pitch fundamental, but less tension, softer overtones in the mouth. The use of rhythmic ornamentation accentuates the beat of the song. Nowadays khoomei is often faster and louder. Grace notes become tremolos as in borbannadyr style (after Mark Van Tongeren) Sygyt (also written Sigit ) is a high overtone singing sounding like a flute, a whistle, mostly combined with text. The term sygyt means "whistle". Songs in sygyt style start without overtones. At the end of a line, the melody ends with a sustained fundamental on which the singer surimposes a second melody with overtones (generally H9,H10 and H12, sometimes with H8,H9,H10,H12,H13). The best singers in Sygyt are Mongush Mergen, Tumat Kara-ool, Chuldum-ool Andrej Borbannadyr is sung from a fundamental in bass or baritone range. It is characterized by a pulsating asymmetrical rhythm and is not normally sung with text. The term is derived from the verb borbanna (to roll over). The singer employs the tremolo of overtones, and can create the triphonic effect with the fundamental , the first overtone level in fifth parallel (harmonic 3 : one octave + a fifth higher), and the second overtone level which gives the melody. This style is sung in a higher register than the one used in kargyraa with more nasal resonance. Mikhail Dopchun, Tumat Kara-ool, Anatolii Kuular are the best exponents of this style.

Ezengileer is produced by rapid vibrations of the lips, and is sung over a low fundamental. It creates soft shimmering overtone melodies.Both the high (nasal) and low (throat) sounds are important. The alternation of the two different sounds seem to define the style. It is characterized by a pulsating galloping asymmetrical rhythm which suggests riding on horseback.

Ezengi means strirrup the metal parts of a bridle. Songs in ezengileer style were usually sung when riding on horseback. To-day the ezengileer style is rarely performed and is considered rather difficult. Mongush Mergen and Ondar Marzhymal are the best singers of this style.

Kargyraa is a very low overtone, singing with long breath and open vowels (u, o, a ) used in songs in which texts are sung. The term kargyraa is a homonym of the onomatopoetic verb kargyraa which means "to expectorate". The pitch of the fundamental varies from 55 Hz to 65 Hz.

Apart from the five main styles, we can find other sub-categories:

Opei-khoomei is a lullaby khoomei, similar to the rhythm of rocking a baby to sleep. It is sometimes called tаnmes khoomei (never ending khoomei).

Khovu-kargyraa is a steppe kargyraa practised when riding a horse on the steppe with the wind blowing at the right angle into the mouth with lips curled. The wind amplifies overtones.(this style can be heard in the compact disc Tuva - Voices from the Center of Asia - Smithsonian Folkways

CD SF 40017, track 1)

Dag-kargyraa is a mountain kargyraa, practised in the mountains, producing an echo and singing with it. Tempo and timbre have a different rhythm than khovu-kargyraa.

Chelbig-kargyraa is a fan kargyraa, sung while continuously moving a fan in front of the mouth. The air circulation produced by the fan genereates different kargyraa effects.

Sygytting borbannadyr is sygyt singing in borbannadyr style, also known as the Gennadi Tumat style because he has developed it.

Chilandyk is a combination of sygyt and kargyraa alternating between high and low registers. It is named after the chilandyk (cricket) which produces the same sound.

Dumchuktaar (from the nose) means khoomei singing through the nose, with mouth almost or completely closed. It can be combined with other styles such as kargyraa, sygyt, khoomei with nasal character.

Kangzyp is a special kind of overtone singing for someone who is depressed or sad. The word kangzyp is probably derived from the verb kangzyyr which means "to wail" (like a dog) or figuratively " to annoy".

Xаrekteer (xаrek means breast). It refers to singing with the breast of the melody before or in between actual overtone singing style. It is sung with words. If it is sung in the lower register, it is called xаrekteer. Gennadi Tumat has sung it.



Also famous for its mysterious harmnoic sounds are some Tibetan monasteries, namely those of Gyuto and Gyume, where "tantras" (Buddhist scriptures) are intoned in such a way that two or more harmonics are audible. Probably this technique was introduced by Je Tzong-khapa in the 15th century A.D. The words of these tantras cannot be logically understood, since they do not contain ordinary Tibetan language. Rather, they carry symbolic meanings, and the multiplicity of their words gives them a magical character. this magical character is reinforced by the overtones by means of this special singing technique. Here, overtones can in a very real way be seen as an extension of language, since they are uttered only when the tantras are sung, and thus they becom associated with the magical meaning of the words.

The style these monks sing to some extent resembles Tuvan "borbanndyr" on account of its sound and mouth position. The use and function of their singing is yet so different from that of the Central Aisan nomads, that it is unclear to this moment whether or not they shared a common tradition.



The South African case demands special attention, since it stands alone in the African continent, and at the same time shows a highly evolved and unique culture of overtone music. The peoples in question are the Xhosa, living in the South-Eastern part of the Republic of South Africa, where the musicologist Dave Dargie undertook intensive research. All material concerning the Xhosa can be found in his book "Xhosa Music" (1988).

Listening to instrumental music of South Africa and adjacent countries the number and diversity of instruemnts producing strong overtones are striking. Of course there is the Jew's harp, among the Xhosa called "isitolotolo" using the same principles as the Tuvan "xomus", but played in a very rhythmical fashion. An equivalent of the Tuvan "igil" or Mongolian "morin xuur" can be found in Namibia and Botswana. A wealth of other chordophones exist, using harmonics as basic melodic material, such as a gut pluriarc from Botswana and the friction bow "chizmabi from Zimbawe. A more universal instrument is the Xhosa mouth bow umrubhe, bowed with a stick while being held against the mouth. By changing the shape of the mouth cavity, overtones are resonated, and the performer may whistle at the same time. Until the beginning of this century such an instrument, called "ca" (bow) could be found in Tuva as well.

Besides some similarities in instrumental music, Xhosa and Tuvan music have overtone singing in common. In 1980 Dave Dargie discovered this remarkable way of singing by Xhosa women, with a sound quality somewhat similar to the Tuvan "kargiraa". It is called "umngqokolo" (the q standing for a typical African clicksound made with the tongue) and the overtones are purposely produced with any of four different fundamentals (F,G,D,F). This general style does not resonate the harmonics very clear, but one Xhosa woman, Mrs. NoWayyilethi Mbizweni, has a very clear personal style, that she claims to have found all by herself. Her singing, called "umngqokolo ngomqangi" strongly reminds one of the sounds of the umrubhe mouthbow. she claims to have been inspired by the playing of an "umqangi" beetle, though. Boys pin this beetle down on a thorn, hold the buzzing insect in front of their mouth, and resonate the overtones with their mouth cavity.

As far as is known now, this technique is not widespread in Africa. there is at least one other area in South Africa where overtone singing is performed, but it has not yet been sufficiently investigated.

Last but not least, overtone singing may occur while singers do not really know that they produce harmonics. The scientists "etic" or analytical evaluation may speak of overtone singing, while the singers themselves are not conscious of this feature of their singing. Hopefully fieldwork will give us a deeper insight in the conceptions and psychoacoustical experiences of these singers.

Trаn Quang Hai (National Center for Scientific Research, UMR 9957, Paris, France).

Bibliography and discography




* Bibliography and discography


  Report Articles


User Feedback

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.


  • Create New...