Tuvan Throat Singing

The performance of Huun Huur Tu starts with the soft sounds of strumming strings. They mimic the cadence of galloping horses. The same sounds are graciously decorated by other sounds that resemble grains dropping in a glass jar. At this moment, the mind is full of memories of the melodic peacefulness of a rocky spring when almost approaching its moment to become a river. A surprise follows a short pause: the performers start singing a prolonged single tone each. They are not singing in unison. Each one of their voices can be heard as a layer. And although each of those layers is unique, each one of them interacts with each other. They merge their tunes only to go solo at the same time, following a few notes.

If I could describe their sounds as moving images, they would be like fallen autumn leaves dancing independently but together when caught by a whirlwind. If I could compare their music to classical music, I would compare it to a string quartet playing Pachebel’s Canone in D, where the instruments seem to be having a lively conversation with other other. This is the same interpretation that the Tuvans make when hearing the sound of wind travelling back and forwards through the mountains they live in. It is like the elements are talking to each other. The singers’ voices are coarse and come straight from their throats. They are harsh like their own natural environment.

Tuvan Throat Singing produces a curious contrast. It is something that resembles a prayer or the OM mantra emitted by a Yogi. But instead of fading away as the air empties from their lungs, it suddenly stops and starts again at the next breath. While the coarseness reminds me of sounds from Aboriginal Didgeridoos, the new cadence is closer to Native American songs.

This is where the underlining theme becomes clear. Nomadism is one aspect that Tuvans have in common in their lives with Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals. They are mobile like the wind. The same wind that is made of air, the same air whose tiny molecules move around, crash into each other, vibrate and hit our eardrums, enabling us to hear the music. Music, having air as its main component, would not exist without the movement. It is movement that makes music alive: the movement of travelling musicians, who share their sounds wherever they go and assimilate other sounds wherever they stop. The movement of the vibrating air molecules captured by radio waves and transmitted to radio, TV sets and through the Internet connections of sedentary homes across the world.

As we sit in front of our TV or besides our radio, or even browsing through YouTube, purchasing songs from iTunes, surrounded by the stillness of things we think we possess, but that in reality possess us and keep us captive to a single place, we long for a time when we moved around following the herds, hearing the elements breaking on the shore or passing through leaves and mountains. In an open concert hall somewhere in an American University, while watching a live performance of Tuvan music, people gather out of curiosity. Some might feel bemused. Many might not understand and leave earlier. The length of the performance makes a challenge sitting down in a chair for its entire duration. But this should not be totally unusual. Operas can be just as long and repetitive. Perhaps to really enjoy Tuvan music, the same formality of western concerts should be replaced by a more laid back approach, such as being able to sit down in the grass. While the eyes are closed, the mind travels freely through the same mountains that inspired the Tuvans.


Thanks to the work of the ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin in the 1980’s, the world came to know about the tradition of Tuvan Throat Singing. Tuva is an area located in the Russian Federation, just northwest of Mongolia. Tuvans are pastoralist nomads living in yurts and using horses to move around the cold and rocky mountainous regious. The myths about the origins of Tuvan Throat singing is closely linked to the environment they live in. It is believed that several centuries ago, an unknown individual, tried to imitate the resonance of the sound of the wind on a lake. This experience developed into a Tradition that evolved through time, to include sounds of birds and wind passing through mountains.

In his book “Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond”, written in 2006, Theodore Levin describes his experiences with Tuvan throat-singing music. He includes details on how Tuvan music reproduces the sounds and actions of the animals and environment their people related to and live in.

Sun Propeller

TheTuvan music group Huun Huur Tu was formed in 1992. Huun Huur Tu translates as sunbeans or sunpropeller. Its first album Sixty Horses In My Herd was released in 1993.

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