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Monday, December 6, 2010

Good Vibrations

Once in a while my husband and I try to weird each other out by renting offbeat DVDs.  Usually we like them; sometimes we love them.  Genghis Blues was one we really loved.  The documentary is about a blind Creole blues musician’s sojourn to Tuva, where he competed in a national throat singing contest.    Recently I heard a clip of throat singing on the radio, which got me thinking about it again…

Throat singing is a where a singer manipulates the vibrations created by air coming from the lungs and through the vocal cords to create a melody.  By finessing the pharynx, larynx, then mouth, a voice can be amplified and made resonant, which allows a singer to construct more than one pitch at a time.  This involves controlling the vocal apparati, including the jaws and lips.  There are different methods to achieve various pitches, and many many styles of throat singing.

Mongolia is considered the most significant location of throat singing today.  Southern Siberia has, in addition to the Tuva, the Altai Republic and the state of Khakassi which perform a type of throat singing called khai; in Altai this is used mostly for epic poetry performance.  In the extreme northeast of Russia lies the Chukchi Peninsula whose people have a form of throat singing.  The oral poetry of Kazakhstan and the Uzbek area of Karakalpakstan sometimes includes it.  The Bashkirs of Bashkortostan had a form that almost died out.  There are prayers and ceremonies in Tibetan Buddhism that involve their form of chanting, a sub-genre of throat singing.

The Ainu of Japan had a form of throat singing which  was sung until the last practitioner died in 1976, although there are recordings available.  In this style two women faced each other, formed a tube with their hands, and chanted into one of their mouths, the recipient using her vocal tract to modulate the sound.

Ainu women

Related to the Ainu form is the Inuit.  Once a form of entertainment among Inuit women while their men were off hunting, it was considered more a game than a type of music.  Involving at least two people, the women used each others’ mouths to resonate, sometimes while swaying in a kind of dance.  Men occasionally engaged in this as well. 

                            Inuit throat singing

Tuvan throat singing has become the most well-known of all.  Once the domain of male herders, its history goes back to the mists of time, it has been associated by anthropologists with their ancient pastoral and animistic beliefs that see spirituality in sound as well as other natural objects.  An attempt to mimic nature’s sounds is thought to be the basis of Tuvan throat singing.  With the wide open spaces of their landscape sound travels well, thus location is a serious factor in Tuvan throat singing.

                                        Tuvan throat singing

While it seems that throat singing has been most popular in the coldest regions of the northern hemispheres, there are a couple of known variations further south.  In South Africa the Xhosa women have a style called eefing

Madlamini of Madlamini and Her Witchdoctors

On the island of Sardinia there is the canto de tenore, practiced by groups of four male singers, each with his own part. Traditionally one voice imitates the sound of the wind, another a sheep bleating, and a third a cow lowing.  The fourth enters with a vocal piece.  This sounds somewhat like a round (think “row, row, row your boat”) but with varying entry points for the different voices.  Each village has their own particular style which identifies them.  Today the canto a tenore is performed only by men, but women once performed it as well.   In 2005, the canto a tenore was classed as an intangible world heritage by UNESCO.

                                            Canto de Tenore

Most of us can and do hum.  In fact, humming is now touted as therapeutic,  most importantly slowing down heart rates and lowering blood pressure.  All the types of throat singing listed here must really be healthy, which is interesting when you consider some of these areas are known for the longevity of their natives.  Nothing enhances life like good vibes....


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