Sometime between 1946 and 1950, a Mongolian overtone singer named Chimiddorzh Ghanzhuryin stepped into a state-controlled recording studio and cut a few sides for preservation on a brittle, shellac 78-rpm record. Perhaps this opportunity came about after Ghanzhuryin had sung at a local festival, wowing crowds with his ability to sing a duet with himself diaphonically. Whatever the case, he left the world of recorded sound a much richer place with his pastoral, meditative vocals. One of his songs, "Gunan Kor", rereleased in 1996 on The Secret Museum of Mankind, Vol. 3, stands apart from the other 23 tracks on the disc, which come from every imaginable port on earth. The voice seems to lift out of the singer's body, soaring not unlike the eagles of his home country, surveying the landscape in patient, breathtaking groans or high-pitched plumes of pure expression. To hear it for the first time is to be stopped cold by recorded sound in a way not previously imagined.
The sounds Ghanzhuryin put to wax some half century ago had in fact been a part of life on the vast plateaus, where snow-capped mountains and huge lakes formed a constant backdrop. Shepherds and shamans of Mongolia, which lies in the heart of Central Asia, just above China, and its smaller northern neighbor, Tuva, had been singing in such a way for centuries. The style, known as "throat" singing, but, more precisely called overtone singingthe ability to single out and control overtones, phrasing them two or more at a timefinally became known to audiences outside of this rarely visited, steppe-locked place at the dawn of the 1990s, as the Soviet Union collapsed and Westerners flocked to find this music. While everyone has natural harmonics in his or her voice, the people of this remote region were able to hone in on one of these harmonics, or overtones, create a drone with one overtone and then, vocally, grab a higher pitch, which shapes a melody on top, allowing them to sing duets with themselves.
Tuvans divide various overtone styles into three major types, all of which use nature to describe the sounds. Sygyt, for example, is simply an imitation of singing birds or gentle breezes. Xoomei tends to suggest stronger winds, while kargyraa portends storms. In fact, listen to the Smithsonian Folkways releases Tuva: Voices From the Center of Asiaor Tuva, Among the Spirits and you will find imitations of horses, birds, water and wind. No doubt, people this connected to nature realized that in the birds and rivers and rocks were the spirits. Overtone singing, then, was used shamanically. There are mountains in the region that are able to "hold" winds for hours or days before releasing them into the valleys below. As this happens, the mountains make sounds, "warning" people of the coming torrents. Rivers and waterfalls also create sound patterns that vary according to the rocks they hit; supposedly, the rivers and their sounds contain the origins of overtone singing.
One fairly well known Texas musician who had vocal qualities akin to overtone singing was gospel guitarist Blind Willie Johnson. Much of his vocal work seems to be the gruntings of a man with a bad cold, but at the drop of a hat he could shift into a gentle lullaby. Though this isn't true overtone singing, it does give an idea of the timbres. Often, the voice is guttural and perhaps harsh at first listen. It almost seems to be the product of a dirge, perhaps even at home on an obscure heavy-metal record, but in a few more minutes it reveals its beauty.
Perhaps the music's best-known current practitioner is Huun-Huur-Tu's Kaigal-ool Khovalg. Because he and his quartet have been taking ancient Tuvan music across the globe for the past 13 years, he is largely responsible for its popularity. Albert Kuvezin, of Tuvan punk rockers Yat-Kha, is another. While his band cranks its music through massive amounts of electricity and doesn't think twice about injecting its sets with rock 'n' roll covers, traditional instruments and throat singing are always front and center.
Credit must also be given to the Western fanatics who helped promote this music. Thanks to the fanaticism of Ralph Leighton and ethnomusicologist Ted Levin, who wrote the liner notes on several early '90s Tuvan music collections, the West was able to listen for itself. Perhaps subconsciously, what makes overtone singing so fascinating is the fact that it has probably changed very little. It was simply the product of a people who learned to adapt and create in order to survive and as a result is a place where anthropology and ethnomusicology collide. Overtone singing is simply the sounds we all make, or are capable of making, to connect ourselves with nature. Perhaps this is why Chimiddorzh Ghanzhuryin's humble performance all those years ago is still so stunning now.