lifestyle travel

Khoomii: The Ancient Music of the Mongolian Mountains

As Victor Hugo said, ‘Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent’. Like food, through music you’re in direct touch with the soul of a civilization. Diphonic songs  – also known as overtone singing, throat singing or harmonic singing, have long been part of traditional music around the world. It is mainly in Upper Asia that we find several diphonic song types among the Mongols, the Tuvas, the Khakashs, the Bashkirs, the Altaiens and Tibetans, and more discreetly among the Sardinians of Italy, Rajasthan of India and the Xhosas of South Africa.  The Khoomii, also known as Khoomei and hoolin chor  “harmony of the throat”, is a Mongolian  ancestral diphonic singing that reproduces natural sounds such as the the galop of the horse, the flow of water, the wind blowing, the echo of mountains, the roar of thunder, the song of birds, etc.

This singing is characterized by a vocal technique that allows multiple notes to be produced simultaneously by means of a single vocal organ by combining various types of voices and various tongue or lip positions.

The Khoomii is original from the aïmag (an administrative division) of Khovd in the Altai Mountains (West of Mongolia), where the singing is used primarily in shamanic ceremonies. Today it’s also performed in festive times. The Khoomii has been inscribed in UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009 under the name of “Mongolian Traditional Art of Khoomei“.

Thus, the singer will use his throat to emit a continuous and deep drone, while using his tongue to control the air blowing, he will manage to modulate the resonance in higher harmonics. We often use the jew’s-harp as a reference, a small instrument that also produces different “voices”: the drone, the song, and the counter-song.

The performer must know and use precisely the different organs necessary for singing: pharynx, vocal cords, oral cavity, tongue, lips and nasal cavity. The good khoomii singers are able to change their frequencies by adopting their resonators, the volume of the oral cavity, the opening of the mouth and the position of the lips.

Below, a magnificent example of this cultural wonder:

Khoomii is a genre of overtone singing divided into 6 subgenres, the distinction being made at the level of the technique used: xamryn xöömi (nasal xöömi), bagalzuuryn xöömi (pharyngeal xömi), tseedznii xöömi (thoracic xöömi), kevliin xöömi (abdominal xöömi) ), xarkiraa xöömi (narrative xöömi with a very serious fundamental) and isgerex (the voice of the flute).

From the Altai Mountains, where one of the most famous singer of Khoomii, Sundui Jajaa, was born, the Khoomii has spread to other regions, sometimes far away. Four most famous singers in Mongolia: Sundui Jajaa, Tserendorj, Ganbold, Odsuren, all from the Khovd aïmag. Ganbold is also the sound operator who made the soundtrack for the famous Mongolian epic film, “Chinggis Khaan and the Manduhai Queen”

Mental Post-It: The “Manduhai Queen” the movie refers is Mandukhai Khatun (1449-1510), also known as Mandukhai Sechen Khatun. She was a kick-ass Mongolian Warrior Empress! The word “Khatun” is the female form of the word “Khan”. She adopted and later married the last living direct descendant of Genghis Khan, and named him “Dayan Kahn”, meaning “Great Khan” or “Khan of the whole universe”. She fought many battles with him, even while pregnant or their twins! So, if you’re a man and one of the 16 millions of Genghis Khan descendants, you can say thank you to Mandukhai.

Interested? In the cities of Ulan Bator and Khovd the demonstrations of the Khoomii are plenty, and local travel agencies can give you all the information you need. I also recommend inquiring Tour Radar, the platform I use most to book my travels.

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