MYSTERIES OF THROAT SINGING
An enormous collection of singing styles share common elements - opera, jazz, country, blues, rock n roll, gospel, pop, funk, rap, soul, et al. They sing songs, songs with words, words which emphasise whole notes, duration of singing breaths mostly under 10 seconds, and usually within a restricted zone of medium frequencies. Throat singing has none of these parameters.
The many styles of throat singing don't need songs or words - vocals are instrumentalised rather than sung. Voices which can sound like piccolos, organ, didgeridoo and bagpipes. No need to sing just one note when 2-6 sounds are achievable with one voice - singers can sing in harmony with themselves, and focus on the fine tonal qualities within the fundamental note. No need to restrict frequency space - a broad range of frequencies are accessible and a singing breath which can last, for some, over a minute.
Little wonder throat singing inspires more questions than answers. Where and when did it start and by whom? There is consensus that the earliest accepted beginnings come from Mongolia, which doesn't explain how people in the jungles of Congo Africa, the highlands of Papua New Guinea, or the Andaman Islands began the practice. Perhaps the family tree of Mongolia with its paleolithic migrations grew branches in Tuva, Siberia, Canada, Japan, Nagaland, Taiwan, Sardinia, and Northern Europe while other indigenous peoples began the practice independently. Contemporary gene studies show common genetic linkage between Mongolians, Tuvan, Siberian Eskimos, and Native Americans.
Throat singing has been a sacred and shamanistic practice in many of the most isolated and remote communities in some of the coldest and hottest places of human habitation. With many unorthodox components, this exotic art is full misconceptions - both from the outside and the inside worlds. Allow me to attempt to elaborate on these.
MISCONCEPTIONS FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD
1) Many think it impossible that these sounds could come from the human voice - that the harmonics are actually being created by an instrument or electronic synthesizer. This is the easiest misconception to disprove.
2) Mainstream western ears, both popular and classical often perceive throat singing's sounds not to qualify as music. For them music requires a beat, rhythm, words and emphasis on whole notes. Each to their own beach.
3) Agents of superstition charge that throat singing's other-worldly qualities can somehow be threatening to the mainstream. This has resulted in persecution of indigenous peoples by authorities of Soviet Russia, Japan, Sweden (18th C), China, and beyond.
4) The most ridiculous yet damaging misconception - the evangelistic charge that throat singing is satanic. This has driven missionaries in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe to impose culturally genocidal policies upon indigenous peoples, including Canada where it was banned throughout the 20th century. Yet this madness still exists today - a Pentecostal Minster in Victoria, Australia recently banned and tried to obtain all copies of Sarah Hopkins' internationally renowned harmonic composition 'Past Life Melodies'. Yet if it were a threat to Christianity, Sardininian Catholic devotees would not have incorporated throat singing into their devotional songs.
MISCONCEPTIONS FROM WITHIN THROAT SINGING COMMUNITIES
5) The old misconception that women shouldn't sing harmonics - promoted by number of throat singing cultures even formerly in Tibet and Tuva. Yet among Canadian Inuits and the Xhosa tribe, women are the main throat singing practitioners. The common fear-tactic that women shouldn't throat sing lest they become pregnant or give birth to babies with two heads - has been widespread. In Australia the same fear-mongering is applied to women playing didgeridoo, leaving an uncomfortable vibe for women wanting to play.
6) There was once an old misconception among traditional throat singers that the vocal techniques were exclusive to them; that no one else could do it. This is not surprising given how isolated and protected they were from the outside world. As the world gets smaller and more modern this is being effectively debunked.
7) It is controversial to question the perception that harmonic overtone singing was invented by David Hykes. Indeed he did obtain a patent on 'harmonic chant' and grandly pioneered throat singing to the west, but it is hard to believe that the many overtone techniques, and the extraordinary purity of sounds had not been explored before the 1980's. Is harmonic overtone singing as modern as rap singing? I don't think so.
8) There is an unfortunate misconception by some throat singers that their intoxicating gift makes them a Jesus-like figure. Though mastering this art does extend boundaries of awareness these bounds are not an exclusive domain. There is not simply one master, there are many.
9) There is the questionable notion that harmonic overtone singing is not as authentic as known traditional throat singing. I think time will show this to be wrong.
10) That throat singing should be secret. I have struck purists who thought that overtone singing should be restricted to discreet presentations in sacred places and churches. Yet there is evidence that throat singing is in serious decline in many of its traditional grounds - the Ainu of Northern Japan most recently lost its last throat singer in 1976. Of the 23 or so traditional throat singing cultures it may be seriously endangered in 20 them. In the 13th century Tibetans incorporated throat singing into their prayers partly to make it unintelligible to the Chinese. But in a monumental major change of policy the Dalai Lama opened Tibetan throat singing to the west in a effort to help Tibetan culture survive. Despite a history of secretivity throat singing can no longer afford to be secret to survive.
Paradoxically the very things which have threatened throat singing are now its saviours; the west and technology. Recorded music, video, the internet, television, and the west are giving new life to throat singing in the 21st century.
On a personal note I appreciate the efforts and passion of champions of particular throat singing cultures like the Tuva-philes. While I am passionate about the interests and music of traditional throat singing cultures, I am excited by the broader and diverse application of throat singing. It is my belief that there are many more harmonic vocal techniques and sounds no longer practiced, therefore not recognised, and that there is much knowledge about the subject yet to be unearthed. This presents opportunities for exploratory artists to unearth many of these.
I'm looking to find out more on the effects overtone singing has neurologically, having been part of a pilot study which involved an EEG wired up to my brain. Preliminary results showed my left prefrontal cortex (the happy centre) lighting up during throat singing.
I'd like science to investigate the possibility that throat singing goes back to the origins of human language – in the first stages of learning to speak, harmonics are drawn out - indeed saying words slowly enough actually draws out the harmonics within speech. But despite impressions, this may actually not be not going back far enough. There may be an inter-species connection - a number of animals including monkeys, birds are reported to make sounds very similar to throat singing.
My enduring passion for harmonic overtone singing graduates beyond culture - for me it is about spirit, health, and musical issues - and knowledge about consciousness, evolutionary linguistics and many schools of science. It is also about fun and freedom.