International Khoomei Festival '95

Being a vocalist, I am interested in various kinds of singing. One particular style that fascinates me is khoomei, which is a popular form of singing from Mongolia and in particular the Russian republic of Tuva, which lies just to the northwest of Mongolia. I was so charmed by its style of vocalism and its nostalgic melody line that I decided to go to Tuva's capital, Kyzyl, and participate in the 2nd International Khoomei Festival in June. Khoomei is a mysterious form of vocalism in which the singer sings with two voices simultaneously. That is, they resonate a low vibrato voice in their mouth, then keep it going while at the same time emphasizing a particular overtone to make a whistle-like high tone. They alter their musical sounds by making their mouth bigger or smaller. In English it is called simply throat singing. In the past only men sang khoomei style, but recently women have started singing it too. When I first heard this form of singing, I thought it would be difficult to master khoomei 's complex mechanism. Moreover, I thought there must be something more mysterious happening inside the vocalist's mouth and throat. Tuva is situated in the central part of the Asian continent, and is mostly in the Sayan mountain region. The rest is flat country that averages about 1,000 meters above sea level. Kyzyl is at the 800-meter level. The population of Tuva is approximately 310,000. The Tuvinians are basically equestrian people whose life centers around their horses and their vast pastures. Their culture is closely related to that of Mongolia's, but the Tuvinians recognize proudly that they are completely different from their neighboring Mongolians. The average Tuvinian's face is very Asiatic, similar to that of the Japanese. While strolling around Kyzyl, I noticed many familiar faces including some people who looked a lot like my Japanese friends. In turn, they might have thought that I was one of them just by looking at my face. Perhaps we felt something in common. We Japanese do not know much about Tuva. To get to there from Japan, I went first to Niigata and then flew to Irkutsk, with the flight taking about four and a half hours. I then took another plane, which can hold 36 passengers, to Kyzyl, covering the distance in an hour. If there were direct flights from Japan to Kyzyl, I could have made the trip in less than four hours. My first contact with Tuvinian music was when I heard a CD containing ethnic music, including various folk songs featuring khoomei-style singing. I didnŐt know how they could produce such beautiful sounds until I met some khoomei singers who came to perform in Japan last year. They taught me how to sing khoomei style, and I joined them in a concert. Although I couldnŐt pick up their techniques, I did manage to make an overtone. Then they told me about the khoomei music festival in Tuva. People ranging from musicians, singers and khoomei-crazy fans came from all over the world to participate in the festival, including those from France, Holland, Finland, Norway, Germany, the United States and neighboring countries like Mongolia. It rained on the first day. The opening ceremony started with a parade along the Yenisey River, beginning at a monument marking the central point of Asia. Khoomei singers riding on horses led the national delegations who followed on foot. I marched behind the Mongolian delegation, carrying a placard that read, YAPONIA(JAPAN). A children's concert was held following the opening ceremony. They sang beautifully. I couldnŐt believe that such young children could have mastered the complex vocalism of khoomei so well. That evening the program featured young singers, which included me. We were divided into various categories, including basic khoomei, sygyt (high tone), kargyraa (low tone), borbangnadyr and ezenggileer. I was spellbound by the kargyraa singers, who I thought sang beyond all human capability. It was just unbelievable! I took part in the sygyt division, which featured 90 contestants. Even four female singers participated. Although each contestant was given 3 minutes, 20 singers still had not performed when the dayŐs program ended at 1 a.m. They sang the next day. I listened to so much singing on the first day that it felt like the khoomei beat was constantly ringing in my ears. I attended a symposium the next day during which I was taught what influence Tuvinian culture has had on khoomei. That night, excellent professional singers entertained on the stage. An awards ceremony was held on the final day. TuvaŐs Munzuk Radion won the first prizeŃa horse. I received a special prize. The most remarkable foreign artist was San FranciscoŐs blind blues singer Paul Pena, whose blues tune sang kargyraa style brought down the house. The next contest will be held in 1998. I hope to compete again. But first I must master the Tuvinian language and understand the songs' lyrics and meanings so as to be able to sing khoomei more tenderly. by Koichi Makigami. *this article for Asahi weekly Vol.23/No.33 August 20,1995 Return