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Sarah Wallin: Tuvan Throat Singing and the Legend of the Horse Head Fiddle"

Sarah Wallin

Tuvan Throat Singing
and the Legend of the Horse Head Fiddle

At the geographical center of Asia, surrounded by the Altai-Sayan mountain system, lies the
country of Tuva. Fifty percent of its mountainous territory is covered with forests of firs, Siberian
larches, cedars, pines, and poplars. Four hundred lakes spot the region, many of which are glacial,
(though Tuva is also known for its warm, curative waters); and the Jenisej river, one of the longest
rivers of our planet, originates in the territory of Tuva and flows over two thousand miles north to
the Arctic Ocean. Additionally, more than 1,500 species of plants, 240 types of birds, and a large
variety of animal species (including the lynx, the glutton, the sable, the beaver, the yak, and the
camel) inhabit Tuva. (Geography 1) “Tuva is a country of great variety with almost every type of
landscape: luxuriant meadows, green taiga [or, forests], boundless steppes, medicinal springs,
beautiful lakes, rushing mountain rivers fed in spring by melting snows, dusty semi-desert and snowy
chains of mountains.” (Tuva 2)
There is archaeological evidence of tribal warfare and settlement in the Tuvan region since
the Paleolithic era, but in the year 1207 AD, when Genghis Khan swept through the area with his
troops, Tuva was brought under Mongolian rule and remained a state of Mongolia for the next five
centuries. Then, from the mid-eighteenth century until 1911, after the dissolve of the Mongolian
empire, the people came under the Chinese Ch’ing or Manchu dynasty. From 1914 to 1917, Tuva
was a Russian protectorate, and, in 1921, the independent Tuvinian People’s Republic, with the city
of Kyzyl as its capital, was established. Then, “[i]n 1944, Tuva was brought into the USSR as an
Autonomous Region of the RSFSR and in 1961 became the Tuvinian Autonomous Soviet Socialist
Republic (ASSR)” (Nomads, pg. 44). Today, Tuva remains a republic within the Russian Federation.
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 1
At 170,500 square kilometers, Tuva supports about 308,000 inhabitants, two-thirds of whom
are of Turkish decent and one-third of whom are of Russian decent (Tuvan/Mongolian 2). For eons,
the Tuvan people have remained sheltered within this natural reserve, nestled within the boundaries
of the mountains. Thus, due to its isolation from the great trade routes of old, to the Soviet Union’s
restriction of the area to the outside world for nearly half a century, and to the general inaccessibility
of the landscape, Tuvan culture has remained virtually untouched. (Tuva 4)
The economic-cultural way of life of the Tuvan people can be categorized into three distinct
types: the pastoralists of the steppe zone, the hunters and reindeer-herders of the taiga zone, and the
pastoralist hunters of the taiga-steppe zone. The steppe zone pastoralists base their existence on the
herding of cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and camels, supplemented by land cultivation and occasional
hunting, fishing, and gathering. The hunters and reindeer-herders base their economic life on hunting
for meat and fur, gathering, occasional fishing, and reindeer-breeding, which animals are used for
carrying loads, riding, milk, and, in cases of extreme necessity, meat. Finally, the pastoralist hunters
base their existence on both pastoralism and hunting, depending on the numbers of livestock
available. (Nomads, pg. 49-50) Whatever shape their economic culture takes, a majority of Tuvans
still follow a nomadic way of life, migrating their homes and property with the cycle of the seasons
in search of hunting grounds or pastures for their livestock.
True to the ways of other nomadic peoples, the horse remains a most cherished possession
for the Tuvans, and is of particular importance to their way of life. Aside from its primary role of
transportation and pack animal, the horse provides the nomadic herdsman with meat, milk, leather,
and hair. “It is quite logical, [then,] that the number of horses kept by a Tuvan herdsman [is] a direct
measure of his wealth.” (Nomads, pg. 65) More than a mere possession, the horse is accorded a high
place of honor beside its master, for the modern Tuvans still carry on the ancient nomadic custom
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 2
of burying a horse with its deceased rider, and, in epic Tuvan literature, the hero of the tale “does not
even bear a name until he acquires a horse.” (Nomads, pg. 66)
Dwelling in this natural haven, where their existence is dependent on the land and
surrounding animals, the Tuvans and, thus, “Tuvan pastoral music, [are] intimately connected to an
ancient tradition of animism, the belief that natural objects and phenomena have souls or are
inhabited by spirits . . . According to Tuvan animism, the spirituality of mountains and rivers is
manifested not only through their physical shape and location but also through the sounds they
produce or can be made to produce by human agency. The echo off a cliff, for example, may be
imbued with spiritual significance. Animals, too, are said to express spiritual power sonically.
Humans can assimilate this power by imitating their sounds” (Scientific American, pg 80-82).
Stemming from both this profound system of belief and the nomad’s love for his horse, the
Horse Head Fiddle is an important part of Tuvan pastoral music. According to ancient Mongolian
legend, this special fiddle was brought into existence by the desperate grief of a poor shepherd boy
named Suho. The tale says that when Suho was young, he lived with his grandmother and tended
their small flock of sheep. One evening, the boy was late in returning home, for he had come across
a newborn foal, abandoned and alone. For the next months and years, Suho cared for the beautiful
white horse, who became to him “as dear as his own life”. (Suho, pg. 8) Then, one spring, news
spread among the local shepherds that the governor (or, according to other versions, the khan) was
holding a big race in the city, promising the winner his daughter’s hand in marriage. Suho’s
comrades admired his horse very much and urged him to enter the race, which he did. Naturally,
Suho’s brilliant white horse out-raced the others and won, but the governor was unwilling to make
this poor shepherd his son by marriage. So, the governor offered Suho three pieces of silver for his
horse and demanded that he leave. But, when Suho adamantly refused, the governor then ordered
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 3
that Suho be beaten and his glorious horse confiscated! Suho’s comrades carried the broken and
unconscious boy home, where his grandmother tended his wounds. Meanwhile, proud of his new
possession, the governor attempted to ride the white horse in the sight of his noblemen; however, the
horse would not have it and bucked until the governor had fallen off. Swiftly, the horse galloped
away, but the irate governor commanded that the horse should not get away alive. His guards drew
their bows and shot relentlessly at the fleeing creature, yet the horse did not stop, though the arrows
struck its flanks and bristled from its back. Finally, the horse made its way to Suho’s loving home,
and, though Suho carefully watched over the ailing animal, the horse grew weaker
and soon died. Suho spent many sleepless nights, struck with grief, until one evening
when his beautiful white horse appeared to him in a dream. It spoke kindly to Suho
and told him that if he would take its bones, hide, and sinews “and use them to make
an instrument to play on . . . then [it would] be able to stay by [Suho’s] side forever”
and would always bring him peace and delight. (Suho, pg. 40) “The moment Suho awoke, he set
about making a new kind of musical instrument. He did just as the white horse had told him to do,
fashioning the instrument from the bones, sinews, hide, and hair of his beloved horse.” (Suho, pg.
42) When he finished his work, he ornamented his creation with a carving of a horse’s head, and,
when he played the instrument, he could sense the white horse beside him, listening.
According to Seth Augustus in his paraphrase of the liner notes from Huun-Huur-Tu's
recording, “60 Horses in My Herd”, there are only slight differences in the Tuvan version of the tale,
namely that a peasant named Oskus-ol in ancient Tuva “rescued a colt that was abandoned by a
wealthy landowner--a Noyon.” When the Noyon found that the horse could outrun all of his own
horses, he became jealous and had the horse put to death. Everything else in the legend from then
on is the same, except that, when Oskus-ol finally played his new instrument, “the clouds parted at
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 4
the top of a high mountain and the horse's double came charging down along with a whole herd of
horses just like it” (Igil 2), illustrating, again, the equivalence of many horses to
great wealth. Thus, even after the death of his horse, Oskus-ol was rewarded in his
grief with prosperity, perhaps equal or greater to that of the Noyon.
The extent of Mongolian contact with Tuva naturally gave Tuvan culture an
instrument of equivalent background and construction, though it is uncertain who
first influenced who. Called the igil (pronounced ih-GILL), this horse head fiddle
is Tuva’s version of the Mongolian morin khuur and dates back about one thousand
years. The slender, tear-shaped body is made from a soft wood (such as pine) and
skin, and supports two strings of horsehair. The bow is also of horsehair and wood,
and is not fixed to the strings. The neck is fret-less, and, when playing the
instrument, the player’s fingers or nails touch the strings without pressing down
onto the surface of the neck. With the use of specific bowing techniques, such as
“the galloping horse, the walking horse, the walking camel (kind of like the walking horse, but
slower)” (Brubeck 2), the igil can be “used to re-create equine sounds.” (Scientific American, pg 80)
According to Stefan Kamola, “the igil is used by singers to search for melodies, and the voice
of the instrument works along with the human voice to present khoomei [throat singing] not just as
song, but as a distinct and deeply meaningful type of sound.” (Music and Language 7) The igil,
therefore, is an integral part of Tuvan culture, and it is one of the several different instruments that
can accompany throat singing. “The Igil has a hauntingly beautiful sound and goes very well with
throat singing . . . as it is in a similar frequency range.” (Igil 1)
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 5
Throat singing, also commonly referred to as
overtone or harmonic singing, is a type of folk singing
whereby the singer may enunciate a series of specified
harmonics above a fundamental pitch, a drone. In the
pure nature of sound, any fundamental frequency, or
pitch, will inherently ring with a series of harmonics,
specifically lined up in ascending order above the
fundamental. “In normal speech and song, most of the
energy is concentrated at the fundamental frequency, and harmonics are perceived as elements of
timbre – the same quality that distinguishes the rich sound of a violin from the purer tones of a flute
– rather than as different pitches. In throat singing, however, a single harmonic gains such strength
that it is heard as a distinct, whistlelike pitch.” (Scientific American, pg. 84) In other words, the
throat singer, by careful maneuvering of
the vocal tract, tongue, lips, and jaw is able
to single out one of the many overtones
above this fundamental pitch: “[b]y
refining the resonant properties normally
used to articulate vowels”, the throat singer
can “strengthen the harmonics that align
with the narrow formant peak [or, the narrow region of frequency within a sound spectrum], while
simultaneously weakening the harmonics that lie outside this narrow peak. Thus, a single overtone
can project above the others.” (Scientific American, pg. 84) Additionally, when “[s]ingers draw on
organs [throughout the vocal tract] other than the vocal folds to generate a second raw sound,
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 6
typically at what seems like an impossibly low pitch” (Scientific American, pg. 84), they are able to
reinforce two separate harmonics at the same time, one above each of the two “fundamental pitches”
– in essence, singing in two voices, with the drones below them. As complex as this whole
phenomenon may seem, “[t]hroat-singing is not taught formally (as music often is) but rather picked
up, like a language.” (Scientific American, pg. 82)
“Variation in the character of throat singing styles is dictated by careful positioning and
movement of the tongue, lips, and jaw.” (How To’s 3) Though there is no widespread agreement,
due to discrepancies between the few studies that exist on the subject and the continuing
development of modern hybrids and variations, most scholars yet agree on three to five basic styles
of Tuvan throat singing: khoomei, kargyraa, sygyt, borbangnadyr, and ezengileer. At the heart of
every style is xorekteer, meaning “chest voice”, a harsh, bright tone of voice which is often used to
launch the singer into the khoomei and sygyt styles. While the term khoomei can be used to mean
Tuvan throat singing in general, it is also a style unto its own. It is “a soft-sounding style, with clear
but diffused-sounding harmonics above a fundamental usually within the low-mid to midrange of
the singer's voice. In Khoomei style, there are two or more notes clearly audible . . . The pitch of the
melodic harmonic is selected by moving the root of the tongue and the epiglottis.” (Types 3, after
intro) Kargyraa is distinctive for its heavy, croaking chest drone; the formation of this style is closely
linked to the shape of sung vowels, for both throat manipulations and the shape of the mouth cavity
affect the harmonic pitch. It is the style for which Paul Pena (of Genghis Blues fame) took first place
in the second international Khoomei Symposium and contest in Kyzyl, “and became known as
'Earthquake' for his amazingly deep voice.” (Pena 8).
Sygyt “is usually based on a mid-range fundamental. It is characterized by a strong, even
piercing, harmonic or complex of harmonics above the ‘fundamental,’ and can be used to perform
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 7
complex and very distinct melodies, with a tone similar to a flute.” (Types 11, after intro) The
formation of this style is akin to that of khoomei, with a drastic increase in tension. To filter out
unwanted harmonics and gain that desired clean, piercing tone, the tongue must rise around the gums
and completely seal off the mouth cavity, save for a small hole left open on one side of the mouth
or the other, behind the molars, which then sends the sound between the teeth, producing the
sharpening effect. The technique for changing the pitch is the same as that for khoomei, “and in
sygyt, it is possible to nearly remove the fundamental.” (Types 12, after intro)
It is debatable whether borbangnadyr and ezengileer are two more distinct styles, or merely
enhanced versions of the previous three. Borbangnadyr consists of a combination of wide trills and
warbling effects on, most often, the Sygyt style (the result being termed Sygyttyng Borbangnadyr),
though it has been applied to the lower-pitched styles as well. “Ezengileer comes from a word
meaning ‘stirrup,’ and features rhythmic harmonic oscillations intended to mimic the sound of metal
stirrups clinking to the beat of a galloping horse. The most common element is the ‘horse-rhythm’
of the harmonics, produced by a rhythmic opening-and-closing of the velum.” (Types 14, after intro)
“The popularity of throat singing among Tuvan herders seems to have arisen from a
coincidence of culture and geography: on the one hand, the animistic sensitivity to the subtleties of
sound, especially its timbre, and on the other, the ability of reinforced harmonics to project over the
broad open landscape of the steppe.” (Scientific American, pg. 82) The true origins of Tuvan throat
singing remain obscure; however, “legends . . . assert that humankind learned to sing in such a way
long ago. The very first throat-singers, it is said, sought to duplicate natural sounds whose timbres,
or tonal colors, are rich in harmonics, such as gurgling water and swishing winds.” (Scientific
American, pg. 82) And, according to Tom Vitale, reporter for the National Public Radio station, “It
is said to have begun with a monk hearing overtones produced by a waterfall in a particularly
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 8
acoustic canyon in Western Mongolia.” (Tuva or Bust!, pg. 66)
While, according to Scientific American, many male herders can and do throat sing, though
“not everyone is tuneful” (Scientific American, pg. 82), there is a taboo within Tuvan society
concerning throat singing and women. It is strongly believed that if a woman engages in throat
“[She] is unhappy and brings misfortune of various kinds. Her khoomei may affect her brothers, her
husband and her father who may fall ill or be deprived of material well-being. She gets problems in
her abdomen or she will encounter great difficulties when she gives birth to a child. The child of a
female khoomei singer itself isn't any better off either as it can fall ill of her singing khoomei. The
most common concern about female throat singers, however, is that they may become infertile. In the
worst case scenario her khoomei leads to the death of her male relatives.” (Overtone Singing, pg. 110)
In spite of continual verbal warnings of these dangers, from men and women alike – Tuvans
who instinctively feel that women and khoomei are an unnatural combination – women may have
actually been throat singing for their own personal enjoyment behind the men’s backs, for many
years now. Afterall, “every epoch has its female throat singers that were
considered as exceptions to the rule that women cannot and do not sing
khoomei.” (Overtone Singing, pg. 110) Aylangma Dambyrang – a member
of the first and, so far only, all-women’s group of traditional Tuvan folk
music and throat singing – was born to a family of herdsmen and has been
throat singing since childhood. “In the morning or evening she pulled the
blankets over her head, so that nobody would hear her, and sang for
herself.” (Overtone Singing, pg. 110, quote from Choduraa Tumat) Some, like the former
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 9
Khunashtaar-ool Oor-zhak, a master throat singer and teacher, proclaim that women were actually
the first to sing khoomei. Indeed, true to the nature of a nomadic society, the men’s place is out in
the wilderness, the forests and the steppes, while the women are left to tend domestic affairs in the
yurt or aal (nomadic dwellings). “This age-old division of labour maintained marked differences in
a male and a female world, each with secrets of their own for the opposite sex.” (Overtone Singing,
pg. 110).
With a modern, growing openness toward women, however, and the general lightening of
women’s household loads, more and more women are performing in public. The aforementioned
women’s performing group, Tyva-Kyzy (“Daughters of Tuva”), was established in 1998 and, to
many, “their appearance on the stage was a brave step of delicate women . . . The group has been
valued for the originality of its repertoire and instrumentation. They have recently been recognized
as the best players of national instruments”. (Tyva-Kyzy 8)
Another notable Tuvan throat singer is Sainkho Namtchylak, a
woman born to a Tuvan family of nomadic ancestry. According to Yu
Sen-lun, reporter for the Taipei Times, “Namtchylak grew up singing and
later studied vocals in Moscow. Apart from classical training, she also
learned traditional Tuvan throat singing (khoomei) and Tibetan Buddhist singing. In 1989, she first
crossed into the European avant-garde improvisatory music scene, dedicating herself to expanding
the potential of throat singing in combination with various musical styles. The same year she worked
and toured with former Soviet Union avant-garde jazz band Tri-O.” (Taipei 6) Namtchylak is known
for her “unique throat singing technique and her experimental spirit” (Taipei 2); however, her own
people do not appreciate her incomparable sound, and instead view her as a traitor to their longstanding
traditions. In 1997, “Namtchylak was physically assaulted and hospitalized in Moscow by
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 10
a group of people claiming to be Tuvans. The 2001 album ‘Time Out’ was released after her
rehabilitation from the assault. She wrote in the CD that the album is dedicated to Tuva and its
people. ‘I hope one day my fellow countrymen can understand, that I am an artist belonging to the
whole world. The music I create has no boundaries,’ she said.” (Taipei 12-14)
A final important figure in the world of women and khoomei
is Moon Heart, a female Tuvan shaman, born to a celestial shamanwoman
and a horse thief. Moon Heart’s mother passed away when she
was only a child, and she was given unto the care of relatives who did
not understand nor appreciate the girl’s shamanic gift. When this gift
began revealing itself to her at an early age through persistent voices and visions, Moon Heart’s
relatives punished her by locking her in a cellar. Prior to Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika economic
reform in Russia of 1987, atheism was the established “religion” of the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist
totalitarian state, and “the shamans were persecuted, considered charlatans, drunkards, seen like the
scum of the society” (Moon Heart 3). After trying to “heal” Moon Heart of this gift passed down
from her mother, to no avail, the family had her committed to a psychiatric hospital. This proved
useless, however, “and Moon Heart started to foretell events, to diagnose diseases, and in some cases
she foresaw the death of her relatives. At this point, they accused her of being a witch and . . . sent
her to Moscow.” (Moon Heart 5) With the voices constantly harassing her and the spirits revealing
themselves to her, Moon Heart felt neglected and alone in Moscow; however, she did meet her
husband during her time there, and, when Perestroika was instituted, Moon Heart and her new
family returned to the capital city of Kyzyl in Tuva, where she still works today as a serious shaman.
Moon Heart’s story is intriguing, as is this whole other dimension to the Tuvan connection
with animism: shamanism. As with everything else in Tuva, shamanism has been preserved in its
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 11
original form, and the people still strongly respect the traditions and ancient rituals.
“The Tuvan shamans have various lineages: there are the celestial shamans, those who come from the
mermaid of the steppe, or the taiga, there are the shamans who come from the waters and those who
derive from the spirits of the demons. All of them have a common task: to help the people. In order
to [achieve] this, they use the secret language of the animals, of the khoomei, throat singing, of the
drum and the trance, of the fumigation with the junip er of the taiga, artish. Every Tuvan shaman
considers himself the continuation of the life of his own fathers and grandfathers.” (Tradition 3)
According to Moon Heart:
"In order to cure and in order to calm a person or in order to recall the positive spirits, I use
the khoomei and the drum. The contact with the spirits happens mentally, in an altered state of
consciousness, through the use of the voice. We believe that the narration and the music have a
magical force; in fact the spirits of the mountain love music and the stories and listen to us gladly .
. .” (Moon Heart 8) “To get in touch with the spirits of the mountains and to soothe them, we use our
traditional throat singing chants whose melodies derive from our contemplation of life, of the sound
of nature, of the birds, of the whistling of the steppe wind, of the mountain's draft." (Women of Power
Here, we discover another interesting facet of the Tuvan tradition of
throat singing. For one, Moon Heart, though she be a woman, she is also a
shaman, one who is deeply in tune with the spirits; so, who can possibly
bring any taboos against her for her throat singing, which she uses to help her own people? For
another, connected to the spiritual power running through Nature around them, the Tuvan shamans
utilize khoomei in reaching the plane where contact with those spirits happens.
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 12
As Moon Heart stated in the quote above, the shaman’s drum also plays a vital role in the
ancient ceremonies. To most Siberian shamans, the drum is a horse and the drumstick is a whip to
drive that horse forward. (Tuva or Bust!, pg. 140) In one ceremony, as the shaman falls into an
otherworldly trance, his beating of the drum becomes faster and more rhythmic, and the shaman may
begin roaming violently about, “flushing out evil spirits . . . yelling at them while beating his drum”,
until he has corralled them into his drum and wrestled them into submission before utterly destroying
them. (Tuva or Bust!, pg. 140)
In conclusion, the people of Tuva, secluded in a natural haven in the center of Asia, have an
intimate, multi-faceted relationship with their environment. According to Scientific American,
“Sound mimicry, the cultural basis of Tuvan music, reaches its culmination in throat singing . . . [It
is] one of the many ways the pastoralists can interact with and represent their secluded aural
environment . . . [It is] the quintessential achievement of their mimesis, the revered element of an
expressive language that begins where verbal language ends. For the herders, it expresses feelings
of exultation and independence that words cannot.” (pg. 80, 87)
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 13
< Allione, Costanzo. “Geography & History”.
< Sklar, Steve. “Types of Throat-Singing”.
< Vainshtein, Sevyan. Nomads of South Siberia: The Pastoral Economies of Tuva.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
< “Tuva - Introduction”.
< Dunnick, Jamie. “Tuvan and Mongolian Throat Singing”.
< Levin, Theodore C. and Edgerton, Michael E. “The Throat Singers of Tuva”. Scientific
American. September 1999: 80-87.
< Augustus, Seth. “The Igil”.
< Otsuka, Yuzo. Suho and The White Horse. New York: The Viking Press, 1981.
< Kamola, Stefan. “Brubeck, Subodai, and the Wine Dark Sea”.
< Kamola, Stefan. “Music and Language”.
< Emory, Michael. “Khoomei - How To's And Why's”.
< “Paul Pena: Biography”. http://www.paulpena.com/bio.html
< van Tongeren, Mark. Overtone Singing - Physics and Metaphysics of Harmonics in East
and West. Amsterdam: Fusica, 2002.
< Leighton, Ralph. Tuva or Bust!. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.
< “Tyva-Kyzy: History . . .”. http://www.tyvakyzy.com/history.html
< Sen-lun, Yu. “The voice that crosses all boundaries”. Taipei Times.
© 2005 Sarah Wallin 14
< Allione, Costanzo. “Ai-Tchourek Ojun (Moon Heart)”.
< Allione, Costanzo. “Tradition and Godliness”.
< Allione, Costanzo. “Women of Power: Moon Heart”.

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