Huun Huur Tu
Some cultures are known for their art more than anything else. These cultures would have little chance of being noticed by more than a handful of academic people, were it not for some unique art they possess and for some talented people carrying the art to the outside world. The first example that springs to mind is Tuva (aka Tyva) and the Tuvan (Tyvan) throat singing.
Tuva is a Russian autonomous republic in East Siberia on the Mongolian border. Tuvan is a Northeastern (or Siberian) Turkic language, spoken by 200,000 people in Tuva plus some in Mongolia and China. It is closely related to the Khakas and Altai languages. The Mongolian and Russian influences on it have been quite strong too. In the past, Tuvans used to write with Mongolian script. The Latin-based alphabet for Tuvan was devised in 1930 by a Buddhist monk, Mongush Lopsang-Chinmit. A few books and newspapers, including primers intended to teach adults to read, were printed using this writing system. But then Lopsang-Chinmit was executed in Stalinist purges on December 31, 1941. A new Cyrillic-based alphabet was introduced by decree in 1943 and is still in use.
It was not the writing system of Tuvan that particularly interested me, however, but the phonetic system, because I thought there must be something about the language itself that gave birth to the unique art of throat singing – a style of singing in which two or more pitches sound simultaneously over a fundamental, very low pitch, sound. This musical art is related to the overtone singing/chanting done in Tibet and Mongolia, especially by Buddhist monks, but the Tuvans have taken it further, to the point where some Tuvans can even produce three audible tones simultaneously.
At the root of throat singing is human mimicry of nature’s sounds. Tuvan tradition is that of herdsmen living in the steppe. The open landscape of Tuva allows for the sounds to carry a great distance. Often, singers will travel far into the countryside looking for the right river, or will go up to the steppes of the mountainside to create the proper environment for throat singing.
I went to the concert of the most internationally known Tuvan music group called Huun Huur Tu here in Perm in July this year. The Opera House, where they were performing, was packed despite the 35 degree heat outside and no air conditioning inside. These musicians have a lot of devoted fans across the world and they are almost always on tour.
A little skeptical at first, I was glad to discover that it was more than just a circus trick. It was real art. The musicians combine throat singing with other types of singing, and their voices and instruments blend to produce a mesmerizing effect. I was soon carried away to another reality. During one particularly sound-rich song, I closed my eyes and experienced a sort of trance. I saw huge black birds darting overhead, animals rushing wildly across the steppe, I heard a waterfall rumbling in the distance… A grandiose shamanic ritual was taking place by the riverside, the shaman and his people performing a weird dance. I saw it all vividly like in a movie. That’s one healthy way to get high!
Anyway, it’s better to see once, so here is a bit of their performance at the 2006 Philadelphia Folk Festival. It is not the same song that entranced me at the concert but still a great one. (Nor does it demonstrate the whole gamut of possibilities of throat singing, but search Youtube to hear more).
What about the phonetics of the language then? Is the language itself responsible for the appearance of this genre of singing? Here is what I have found out.
Vowels in Tuvan exist in three varieties: short, long and short with low pitch. Contrastive low pitch may occur on short vowels, and when it does, it causes them to increase in duration by at least one-half. When using low pitch, Tuvan speakers employ a pitch that is at the very low end of their modal voice pitch. For some speakers, it is even lower and they use what is phonetically known as ‘creaky voice’. When a vowel in a monosyllabic word has low pitch, speakers apply low pitch only to the first half of that vowel. This is followed by a noticeable pitch rise in the second half of the vowel. The acoustic impression is similar to that of a rising tone in Mandarin, although the Tuvan pitch begins much lower. Despite the similarity, Tuvan is considered a pitch accent language with contrastive low pitch instead of a tonal language. These low pitch vowels were previously referred to in the literature as either kargyraa or pharyngealized vowels.
So it seems that the language itself trains Tuvans to combine various pitch levels and makes them capable throat singers. But it does require special talent to take this trick to the level of art, and that is why I admire Huun Huur Tu. Between the songs, they also tell their audiences about Tuvans, their language and traditions. They have done a lot to make their small nation with its wonderful culture known to the world.
P.S. Curiously, while googling for throat singing I discovered that another ethnic group famous for such skill is Inuits of Canada. And their performers are usually women!