Music of Tuva

Music of Tuva

Tuva is a part of Russia, inhabited by a Turkic people related to the nearby Mongolians. Tuvans are known abroad for "khoomei" ("xöömej"), a kind of throat singing.

Traditionally music from Tuva was only a solo effort. The musician's intention was usually to emphasize timbre and harmonics over rhythm. The performances were often in places of natural acoustics such as caves, cliffs, rivers, and so on. The performer would often take long pauses to allow nature its own chance to converse back. The modern music found today is often composed of ensembles of musicians playing multiple instruments and often is much more pulsatile than its traditional uses.

The history of Tuvan music was relatively peaceful and free until Russian influence in the 20th century. In the 1930s, before Tuva formally became part of the Soviet Union, instruments were burned and singing was banned. Music was finally allowed again with Tuva's induction into the Soviet Union, but was highly controlled. Instead of practicing traditional music, Tuvans sang the socialist national anthem, the Internationale, and newly composed songs about building roads and the glories of collectivization. Later came the pallid socialist realist-infused folklore of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. These were the only ways Tuvans could make music legally until 1992.


Tuvans are most known for "khoomei" ("xöömej"), a kind of throat singing, in which the throat is constricted and the mouth cavity is shaped to select overtones of the fundamental produced by the vocal folds, resulting in the simultaneous singing of multiple pitches.

There is debate as to the exact number of styles or techniques the Tuvans use in their throat singing. The three principal styles are "xöömej", "kargyraa", and "sygyt". Additional recognized styles include "borbangnadyr", "chylandyk", "dumchuktaar", "ezengileer", and "kanzyp". Some consider these additional styles to be variations or modifications of the three principal styles.

Richard Feynman, the physicist, became fascinated with Tuva throat singing and a trip was being planned to the remote province of the Soviet Union when he died in 1988. This is written about in the book "Tuva or Bust!" by Ralph Leighton.

The group Huun-Huur-Tu have helped to popularize "xöömej" style of throat singing abroad. Other Tuvan artists such as Kongar-ool Ondar, Alash, Chirgilchin, Yat-Kha, and [ Tyva Kyzy] also tour internationally. A list of current artists is on the Overtone singing page.

Traditional songs

Tuvans' belief in spirits is apparent in their musical practices. Praise songs and chants, called "algysh", and the rhythmically-chanted poetic couplets that precede breaths of throat-singing, address "cher eezi", or local-spirit masters with words. Throat signing is instead made to imitate sounds produced by the places or beings in which the spirit-masters dwell. Singers establish contact with the spirit-master by reproducing the sounds made and enter into conversation, whose aim is supplication, an expression of gratitude, or an appeal for protection. The same imitative or mimetic interaction with the natural sound world may also be meditated through the use of traditional musical instruments. Calm, mimetic singing in reproduction of the sounds of a certain place is believed to be the best possible offering to spirit-masters.

This region is also famous for its indigenous shaman population. Shamans commonly created music in order to call upon spirits, conjure ancestors, discover birthplaces, connect with natural surroundings, and to attract spirits for hunters.Shamans were not the only people to practice this type of communion between nature and song. Shepherds would also play music to herd animals and imitate galloping horses. Each song had a certain meaning according to where the musician was and whether or not the situation was work or relaxation. Early Tuva created sounds that don't fit in with Western musical theory but instead stand alone, existing for a certain way of being.

Traditional instruments

*Amygrga (horn used for hunting Maral)
*Byzaanchy (4-string spike fiddle)
*Chadagan (hammered dulcimer)
*Chanzy (2-string plucked lute)
**Bichii chanzy (small "chanzy" tuned one octave higher)
*Doshpuluur (3-string plucked lute)
*Dungur (flat drum used by shamans)
*Ediski (birch wood vibrated with the mouth to imitate birds)
*Igil (2-string bowed horsehead fiddle with skin-covered soundbox)
*Khomus (Jew's harp)
*Shoor (end blown flute used by shamans to attract spirits)
*Yat-kha (long zither similar to Korean "gayageum")
*Xapchyk (rattle made of a dried bull's scrotum filled with the knuckle bones from sheep)

External links

* [ The Art of Tuva Throat Singing, On Point Radio, aired January 13, 2006]
* [ Bejin'den]
* [ National Geographic World Music]


*Levin, Theodore and Valentina Suzukei. "Where Rivers and Mountains Sing". Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
*Miller, Bruce. "Tuva: National Geographic World Music." National Geographic Society. 2006. March 15, 2007. .

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