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Xöömij

There is a special vocal technique which has developed in Mongolia called xöömij (throat). It is sometimes referred to as the « jaw’s harp voice » and it is done by men only. It is a unique in that one singer produces two « voices » simultaneously. One of them is a prolonged droning of a fundamental vocal tone above which another melodic line with a whistle like quality is produced in a high register. By making the vocal chords tense and pressing the air through them with great force, the funamental tone that gives an instrument-like effect is sounded. The higher tones are produced by varying the shape of the mouth cavity and making the air go through an aperture ressembling the jaw’s harp.

This style of singing has been thought to exist only in Eastern Mongolia. But recent research has shown that it is also found among other Central Asian and Siberian groups such as the Tuvinian, Oirats and Bashkirs who are neighbours of the Mongols both in and outside Mongolia, on the Soviet-Mongolian borders (Aksenov 1967). There is also a similar technique in Europe (Vargyas 1968 :71-72). In Yugoslavia epic chants, a man sings with « two voices from a single mouth ». This style of singing appears in German variants of the Ulinger ballad « « Lady Isabel and the Knight ») which was said to be sung by three voices. These examples seem to suggest similar techniques to xöömij.

The whistle-like high tones form a melodic line above the drone. Ronald Walcott analyzed xöömij with a Melograph Model C (1974). The high tones consist of harmonic overtones (partials) of the drone. The pitch vocabulary of the partials from which the melody tones are selected are the 6th to 13th partials excluding the 11th because physiological limitations prevent the singer from descending below the 6th or from ascending above the 13th partial. When the singer does xöömij, he always lowers the 7th partial a half tone and avoids the 11th and 13th partials (See Fig.1 and Fig.2). One interesting fact which becomes evident is the formation of the anhemitonic pentatonic scale (Fig.2) that is widespread in Mongolian music. The fact that Mongols adhere to this scale by lowering the 7th partial and avoiding the 11th and 13th partials seems to show how significant for them this scale is.

Then, why does such a vocal technique as xöömij exist in Mongolia ? In former times, men who could xöömijlöx (verb, xöömij) were said to have had contact with supernatural forces (Hamayon/Helffer 1973). It may be possible to connect xöömij with shamanism. But this suggestion was rejected by a Mongolian musician. My personal opinion is that the origin of xöömijlöx may have much to do with the musical preferences of the Mongols : i.e. they often apply onomatopoeia in theri musical performances. For example, the sound of the flute limbe is imitated with the nose, hooting owls are imitated by the shaman, and the player of the morin khuur imitates the sound of the horse’s neighing and hoof-beats. About this subject, the following discussion should be of value for reference.

Hoerburger said the general principle of instrumental imitation was world wide. There were three common reasons for it :
1. disguising the voice for magical purposes
2. replacement of an instrument by the voice
3. humorous imitation
He asked which of these applied in the case of the Mongolian examples. Vargyas replied that no reason has been supplied by the singers. It was taken quite seriously and certainly was not regarded as humorous. The style was well developed and the music was performed while riding horses in the desert. Regarding a suggestion by Montagu that it was an imitation of the sound of the Jew’s harp, because this instrument itself could not be played while riding on horseback, Vargyas said the Jew’s harp was indeed used by the Mongols, but he had no evidence to confirm such a supposition (Vargyas 1968 : 72).

What is the xöömij ? It is my tentative conclusion that the xöömij is also an imitative rreprresentation of the sound of the morin khuur. This hypothesis can be ascertained by the significance effect of the harmonic partials that are found both for the xöömij and the morin khuur. Or is the xöömij a pure artistic expression that has nothing to do with the conception of the instrument ?

Fig 1
Harmonics 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Notes DO Mib Fa Sol La Si Do Reb

Fig.2
Harmonics 6 7 8 9 10 12
Notes Do Re Fa Sol La Do

Fig.3
Harmonics 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Notes Fa Fa Do Fa La Do Mib Fa Sol La Si Do Reb Mib Mi Fa

The people in the Altain mountains made melodies of xöömij imitating the water’s murmur, echos and beautiful landscapes. In fact, the fast flow of the river from the mountain sounds like an elegant xöömij from a great distance. Those who do xöömij developed the melodies of xöömij and sing folksongs by xöömij too. This can be said to the te highest development of the throat’s elegant limbes.

One famous xöömijc who has done distinguished services, D. Sundui, can wonderfully xöömijlöx (verb xöömij) the works of well known composers in the world, e.g. Tschaikowsky), Bizet, etc….

BATZENGEL,
from "Asian Traditional Performing Arts november 25-30,1978,pp. 5-7, Tokyo, Japan.

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