Khöömii - Mongolian Overtone Singing

‘Khöömii’, literally meaning pharynx, refers to the vocal technique in which one person intentionally superimposes multiple and simultaneous sounds with his/her voice, where appear two distinct partials: a harmonic melody ‘overtones’ over a fundamental tone ‘drone’, accompanied by many resonances.

Practiced by the Mongolian and Turkic peoples throughout the area of Altai mountain chain (at national level in Mongolia; the regions of Altai Republic, Khakassia and Tuva in Russia, as well as the north of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia in China), khöömii is an ancestral vocal technique. Its origins are difficult to date precisely. Legends say that khöömii comes from the imitation of the sound of the wind, the water, and birds singing. It is practiced by men in most cases, but also by women since two generations. A living and dynamic tradition, khöömii is a rich and multifaceted cultural heritage of the Mongols.

Regarding the technical aspect of khöömii, emitted from the vocal drone, the overtones are produced by a simultaneous pressure of the pharynx and diaphragm. To perform a melody, the performer of khöömii or ‘khöömiich’ modulates his/her lips or tongue. Depending on the modulation, the height of the drone and the pressure on the throat, found a number of khöömii techniques, identifiable by the vocal timbre variations. They are grouped under two main styles: kharkhiraa khöömii (deep khöömii) and isgeree khöömii (whistle khöömii).

  • Performance of the kharkhiraa khöömii: the khöömiich makes a drone in a throaty voice, and then by pressing simultaneously on the throat, abdomen and diaphragm, after taking a deep breath, he/she produces a deep sound that vibrates one octave lower than the fundamental tone. The khöömiich vibrates his/her ventricular band (or false vocal cords) in addition to the vocal cords. This deep and hoarse sound appears in the foreground characterizes the kharkhiraa style. Over this double-bass, the khöömiich makes a high melody of overtones.

  • Performance of the isgeree khöömii: the khöömiich makes a drone in a throaty voice, and then by pressing simultaneously on the throat, abdomen and diaphragm, after taking a deep breath, he/she produces an overtone whistle that can vibrate one to several octaves above the fundamental tone. This is how a melody of very high overtones is produced. Isgeree khöömii is also called nariin khöömii (acute khöömii), uyangyn khöömii (melodious khöömii) and Altain shingen khöömii (high khöömii of Altai).

In both cases, for kharkhiraa khöömii and isgeree khöömii, the way to make overtones is common. The melody is created by the modulation of the oral cavity, by opening and closing the lips, or moving the tongue back and forth, while keeping its tip stuck to the palate, or by moving the central part of the tongue back and forth, while keeping its tip placed against the lower teeth.

In addition to that, there are several techniques to enrich vocal timbre, or the ones of ornamental character. They can be used in combination as well. Among more than twenty existing techniques, we can mention bagalzuuryn khöömii (throat khöömii), tsuurai khöömii (echo khöömii), khamryn khöömii (nasal khöömii) and dangildakh khöömii (syllabic khöömii), to name but a few. The khöömiich also uses the shakhaa vocal emission to sing the magtaal praises, retaining a guttural timbre close to the khöömii installation phase.

In Mongolia, practiced in the pastoral nomadic context of the western regions, following its spectacularization and recordings from the 1950s, khöömii started to be widely diffused. Thus, by the cultural policy of the Soviet period, it became one of the emblems of the Mongolian national music, reinforced by its regular participation in international tours from the 1960s.

Since the democratic revolution of 1990, through the opening of Mongolia and academisation of khöömii, this oral tradition is in dynamic evolution with increase of styles and techniques, expansion of the repertory and development of formal transmissions. Nowadays, khöömii is practiced nationwide in Mongolia and abroad. The wide spread of khöömii not only helped to raise public awareness on this art and increase the number of practitioners, but also to develop the khöömii studies worldwide. Many academic works on khöömii were produced by researchers from Mongolia, Russia, USA, France, Japan, Germany and Canada etc. in the disciplines of anthropology, ethnomusicology, acoustics, phonology and medicine. Despite these efforts, there is a significant gap in the coherence and exchanges between the work of foreign and Mongolian researchers.

Since 2010, the Mongolian Traditional Art of Khöömii is on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity at UNESCO. Researches of Dr. Johanni Curtet and records published by Routes Nomades have contributed among others, to document the nomination of khöömiito UNESCO.

Among the khöömiich that Routes Nomades invites, N. Sengedorj, B. Odsüren, R. Davaajav, D. Tserendavaa, E. Toivgoo and B. Papizan are included in the main actors of the development of khöömii, while N. Ganzorig, B. Amartüvshin, Ts. Tsogtgerel, D. Batsükh and P. Ösökhjargal represent the younger generation of professional musicians with more recent vocal experiments.