Tuvan throat singing: If Nature had a voice, this would be it. Sasha Semina takes us on a tour of this musical form from the steppes of Central Asia. Listen to Chatroom 17 here
Gayathri Vaidyanathan: This is Chatroom 17 – your bonus episode of Scrolls & Leaves. I’m Gayathri. In this episode, you’ll hear about a unique musical form that originated in Central Asia — if Nature had a voice, this is what she’d sound like. This episode is produced by Sasha Semina.
GV: And, a small request — if you’re liking what you hear, why not consider donating? Details on our website, https://scrollsandleaves.com
Sasha Semina: This is Tuvan throat singing.
SS: Tuva is a republic located in Siberia, smackdab in the center of Asia.
SS: The first time I heard throat singing, I was a kid. My parents, who are Russian, played recordings for me. It’s an unforgettable experience. I grew up constantly listening to music — I knew really young I wanted music to be my life. But hearing Tuvan music for the first time, that memory stands out.
SS: Can you hear it? She’s singing multiple notes at the same time.
SS: This is Saylyk Ommun, a Tuvan throat singer, composer, and one of the most mesmerizing and high-velocity performers I’ve ever watched and listened to. Her eclectic and energetic singing wanders through many genres, classical, rock, folk. Here she is singing the song Çavıdak. This clip she shared with us is courtesy of Äwenfestïvali. What you’ll hear is a rock song, and listen for the throat singing a few seconds into it…
SS: Tuvan throat singing is an ancient musical form, sung by nomads across the steppes of Central Asia and it’s directly inspired by nature. In this episode, you’ll hear from Saylyk, who was a member of Yat-Kha, a world-renowned band that mixes traditional Tuvan music and rock. She speaks in Russian, so we’ve translated for you.
Saylyk Ommun ACT: I remember that when I heard it- it was like pattern-breaking, brain explosion, it was a completely different music that I was not used to.
SS: She’ll tell us about Tuvan throat singing, what it is and its links with nature
Ommun ACT: Tuvans believe that everything that surrounds us has their own spirits, protectors. There are protector spirits of lakes, rivers, mountains, healing springs, natural wonders.
SS: You are listening to Chatroom 17: Nature’s Voice: Tuvan Throat Singing. I’m your host, Sasha Semina.. stay with me till the end to learn how throat singers manage to sing multiple notes at the same time!
SS: Saylyk’s passion for singing was nurtured by her mother from a young age.
Ommun ACT: I started singing at the age of 4, at first I sang children’s songs to myself, then my mother noticed it and began to show me how to diversify my singing. At the age of 6, my mother showed me how to add the second voice and we sang together in front of the guests.
SS: It wasn’t until much later that Saylyk began learning throat singing professionally, when she joined Yat-Kha. Here’s one of their songs, “Ahoi” Saylyk is the lead singer… and Albert Kuvezin, who’s a legendary throat singer and guitarist, is throat singing in the background.
Ommun ACT: My passionate work and my experimentation with throat singing occurred during the period when I worked with Yat-Kha. This was at the end of the 90s- beginning of 2000s. At that time I first got exposed to music by Sainkho Namtchylak, Huun-Huur-Tu, and Yat-Kha. I had these three records, and when I heard it- it was like pattern-breaking, brain explosion, it was a completely different music that I was not used to. If someone were to tell me at that time that soon I will be working with Yat-Kha, I wouldn’t believe them. But it happened and I started to work. We were touring a lot, sometimes for 3-4 months. I, of course, missed my home, but these were very bright, very intense, and very interesting times for me. During those times I saw a lot, visited various countries, met many great musicians, and worked in many cool studios and recorded my singing. I absorbed everything as a sponge, everything was new and exciting to me.
SS: Throat singing is practiced all over the world, by indigenous cultures such as the Thembu in South Africa, Sardinians in Italy, the Altai in Russia, and the Inuit of the Arctic. But the music we’re talking about today is from Tuva — a district in southern Siberia, just above Mongolia. It’s full of towering mountains, thousands of rivers, and vast lakes and endless, grassy steppes carved out by ancient glaciers. These awe-inspiring landscapes are teeming with musicality. Throat singers and musicians here imitate the sounds of their surroundings, partially to honor the natural and spiritual world.
Ommun ACT: Nature is a unique entity. All of us, people, all living beings, draw our energy of life and inspiration from nature. Tuvans believe that everything that surrounds us has their own spirits, protectors. There are protector spirits of lakes, rivers, mountains, healing springs, natural wonders. And we systematically pray, because we believe that this enormous world of invisible spirits protects us and gifts us wellbeing, happiness, health. This is an exchange of energy, this is an interaction with spirits. Humans also have souls. Shamans say “..”, human soul. Humans in addition to their physical bodies have a thin shell of spiritual energy. I think that when throat singers perform, they become charged with supernatural energy, because they receive this deep spiritual connection with nature. And this all is not without a reason, because in folklore, and in throat singing itself, nature is reflected in names, techniques, melodies, and sound imitation. This is a very tight connection.
SS: Until recently, Tuvan throat singing was primarily practiced by men. But that’s changing. There’s now an all-women folk ensemble called Tyva Kyzy, which means Daughters of Tuva, and is led by Choduraa Tumat. And Saylyk’s own throat singing practice, which merges with rock, definitely flouts tradition.
Ommun ACT: In general, in Tuva, throat singing is not thought of as a women’s occupation, it’s a male occupation, so women don’t throat sing. At least, did not throat sing. But of course now times are more modern, views have changed a bit, and young girls and women are now practicing throat singing as well, like me.
SS: To those who have never heard a vocalist sing more than one note at once, throat singing can be quite unexpected. Tuvan throat singers can carry four pitches at once. There are even more pitches present, but usually a maximum of three or four can be discerned by the human ear. For beginners, it is recommended to start from low to high.
Listen for the low drone…
SS: … then begin moving up in frequency to recognize and appreciate each unique tone.
SS: Not only are these tones varying in pitch, but they vary in timbre and loudness. Timbre can be thought of the quality or color of sound, basically everything that isn’t its pitch and its loudness. It’s what tells us that the note we hear is being played by a tuba, rather than a flute, for example. The timbre of a tone may be dark versus bright, thin, brassy, and so on. With this information, let me finish up our listening exercise.
SS: Finally, rather than separating the pitches in your mind, try to think of everything you’re hearing as one.
SS: There are many styles of throat singing. I’ll tell you about three, and Saylyk will demonstrate a couple for us. Vocalists say you should think about singing, your vocal tract, as an instrument, just like any other instrument you’d play, like a violin. Tuvan singers take this to a whole new level, and this’ll become more apparent during this style rundown. First, Saylyk performs Kargyraa, a low frequency style that sounds almost like a deep growl:
SS: So here’s how it works…Saylyk is somehow tensing and vibrating her false vocal folds. These are membranes in our throat, near our vocal cords that help us swallow. They are pretty static in most people… but Saylyk can make hers move… and this allows her to hit a lower note than normally possible, creating an “undertone.” I had never heard of an undertone before researching throat singing – and the first time I heard it, I was blown away! It’s a frequency lower than the fundamental frequency. Ok… I know I’m going into the weeds here, but I’ll be hardly a minute so stay with me. A fundamental frequency is the lowest possible pitch created by an object’s oscillation or movement. When you hit a C key on a piano, you’re primarily hearing the fundamental frequency, which is that C. But, on top of that frequency, there are tons of other notes here that you’re probably not hearing, which are called overtones. Maybe you’re wondering, okay, I think I would’ve noticed if there were other notes within the C note, which already sounds pretty strange, notes within a note. But the trick is, these overtones are usually much quieter than the fundamental frequency so you don’t pick up on them easily.
SS: Back to kargyraa. Maybe you’re now wondering.. If the lowest possible pitch is the fundamental frequency, and all those overtones are higher pitches… then how is Saylyk singing below the fundamental? In an undertone? Well, she’s engaging the false vocal folds in addition to her vocal cords. This creates a larger, vibrational system that can produce an undertone. In kargyraa, this undertone is an octave below the fundamental frequency.
So, bottom line, what I’m saying is, kargyraa is really really low-pitched. Let’s hear it again…
SS: When performing Kargyraa, in order to hit particular overtones, the singer changes vowel sounds, meaning they change the shape of their mouth. Pretend you’re saying “oo,” now shift to “ah,” “oh,” “ee,” you’ll notice how much your lips move. In addition to performing kargyraa, Saylyk has an incredible high, soprano range. I remember watching a clip of her performing and hearing her hit really high notes, then all of a sudden hearing this incredibly deep singing. I genuinely thought there was a backup singer I couldn’t see, or it’s just part of her backing track. Eventually, I realized, “Oh my God!”, she’s also singing that, and it blew my mind. Here’s that clip:
SS: Between her extreme highs and lows, Saylyk performs Xoomei, which is a middle range style.
SS: Xoomei is a specific style, but it can also mean Tuvan throat singing more generally. The style involves the drone of a fundamental frequency plus overtones.
SS: It’s often used to imitate wind.
SS: Finally, the Sygyt style cuts the loudness of the fundamental and amplifies the overtones, resulting in a whistling, high pitched sound. This sample is courtesy of Imre Peemot from his album Breath of Wind.
SS: Isn’t it like birdsong?
SS: So, let’s recap — Kargyraa; Xoomei; and Sygyt.
Two vocal techniques used to embellish these styles include Borbangnadyr, an added trilling effect using tongue. These samples are also sung by Imre Peemot on Breath of Wind.
SS: Borbangnadyr can mimic birds and streams…
SS: Then, there’s Ezenggileer, an added pulsating rhythm. Ezenggileer can sound like the trotting or gallop of a horse.
SS: Here is a sample of Xoomei using both techniques at once.
SS: Your intuition might lead you to believe the singer is choosing each pitch wilfully to assemble a song…. But what’s amazing is the singer is actually sculpting sound. They have an incredible number of pitches in their range, and they chip away other sounds to highlight a particular note. Tuvan throat singing is such an astonishing practice that it was only last year that scientists fully discovered how it was physically possible within the human body.
SS: This is Saylyk’s song, Ezir-Kara, which is inspired by nature. Like nature, music has many layers. Of pitch, certainly, but also of timbre. This is unlike Western music, which is preoccupied with melody and “pure” tones… notes defined by a single pitch.
SS: To many Tuvan musicians, a pure tone is boring.
SS: By infusing humming, buzzing, and overtones within each musical moment, the music becomes much richer. One sliver, just one second of music can contain a dazzling, vast world of sound.
SS: Valentina Suzukei, a leading ethnomusicologist in Tuva, compares the two musical practices to making and throwing snowballs in her book with Theodore Levin, Where Rivers and Mountains Sing. Here’s an excerpt—
Alexa Stanger: “In European music, sound is packed compactly into discrete pitches, with the fundamental frequency and overtones all perceived as one. But Tuvan music is like loose snow, and overtones are like the snow spray.”
SS: This timbral abundance allows singers to fill a space, and when they’re outdoors, the music can echo across the steppes and mountains. Many Tuvan instruments, such as the igil, also celebrate timbre. For Saylyk, this was the background music of her childhood. Just as her mother was a catalyst for her musical passions, her grandmother inspired her as well. Music can honor not only nature, but her family, the women that came before her.
Ommun ACT: To choose a single favorite folk song from all traditional Tuvan songs is really difficult, because each one in its own way is beautiful, original, and has its own character. I will be guided by what I heard in my childhood from my grandmother. She rarely sang, but every time, for me, it was a really special, bright event. Out of the songs she performed, I especially remember this one.
SS: I write music, but I never pay much attention to sounds around me, the complexities, the variances, and I’m trying to change that. To be able to pay such amazing attention and care to these sounds, it shows a great love and appreciation for the world around you. It’s really breathtaking to hear the sound of a fluttering stream in a human voice, to hear nature where you don’t expect it. I think many people that hear Tuvan throat singing don’t realize its connections to nature. Birds and frogs can create multiple pitches at once, too. It’s lovely to think that even as we listen to them, they might be listening to us, imitating us, singing with us. Rather than thinking of nature as background noise, think of it as your musical partner.
GV: You were listening to Saylyk Ommun and Sasha Semina on Scrolls & Leaves. You can hear Sasha’s music on soundcloud at sasquatchsasha.
SS: Thank you to Anya Lomsadze for voicing the translations, and to Elena Semina for translating from Russian to English. And to Saylyk Ommun for sharing her music and chatting with me, and to Imre Peemot for sharing samples of his wonderful singing as well.
GV: For more information and other episodes, visit scrollsandleaves.com, or follow us on Twitter at scrollsleaves, or on Instagram at scrolls and leaves, or like us on Facebook. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another chatroom. See you then!