Tuvan throat-singing
Republic of Tuva (Russian Federation)


One of the world’s oldest and most striking vocal traditions is xöömei (throat-singing), from the Republic of Tuva in Central Asia. Nothing in western vocal music resembles this ethereal and beautiful sound. Largely unknown beyond Tuva until the 1990s, Tuvan throat-singing expanded western conceptions of the capacities of the human voice, and quickly became an international sensation. The four-member ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu played a central role in bringing this tradition out of Asia and to stages worldwide.

Throat-singing is a style of overtone singing in which a single vocalist produces two, three, or even four pitches simultaneously, skillfully shaping a melody from harmonic tones arrayed over a continuous low drone. Tuva, a small country in the Russian Federation on Mongolia’s northern border, is a land of nomadic herdsmen. It is this natural world that throat-singing evokes: the wind whistling across the steppes, the deep lowing of the yak, and the high trill of birdsong, syncopated by the rhythm of trotting horses.

The members of Huun-Huur-Tu learned throat-singing from a young age. “In our culture, it’s like a childhood game,” explains founding member Sayan Bapa. “You listen around your uncles, your fathers, and you start to do it at four or five years old. Later on, as you grow up, your voice gets stronger and better.”

Several of Huun-Huur-Tu’s members began their musical careers before the dissolution of the Soviet Union; some of their earliest performances were with state-sponsored ensembles that offered contemporary interpretations of traditional music. Bapa, for instance, was a jazz-rock bassist. In 1992, Bapa and three other musicians decided to form a quartet that would revisit their musical roots. At the time, throat singers were beginning to tour the United States and Europe. Huun-Huur-Tu’s mesmerizing performances quickly put them at the forefront of this movement.

The group’s name comes from a Tuvan term for the vertical separation of light rays that can be seen on Central Asian grasslands just after sunrise or just before sunset. “It’s the whole spectrum of sunlight,” says Bapa—an appropriate inspiration for a group devoted to presenting the whole spectrum of Tuvan singing and traditional instrumentation. Each of the group’s four performers is an expert in a different style of throat-singing and accompanies himself on one or more indigenous instruments, such as the igil (two-stringed, horse-head fiddle), the doshpuluur (three-stringed, banjo-like lute), the byzaanchi (four-stringed instrument bowed like a cell), the khomus (Tuvan jaw harp), and the kengire (large, goatskin frame drum).

Recent years have found Bapa and his fellow members Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, Chanzy Radik Tyulyush, and Alexey Saryglar recording with a host of rock, jazz, and electronic music artists as well as singers from Africa and Bulgaria. But in live performance Huun-Huur-Tu remains committed to the centuries-old style of their homeland. After more than a quarter century together, Bapa explains the group maintains “a very interesting sound—very lively, very smooth, very warm. We have songs about nature, about our homeland, about love stories, sadness, and beautiful, deep songs about life.” Audiences at this year’s Richmond Folk Festival can expect to be transported from the banks of the James River to the flowing grasslands of Central Asia, and to emotional spaces that are universal to the human experience.