Khoomei (Overtone singing, also known as overtone chanting, or harmonic singing) is a magical art of singing created by Mongolians: The singer can create two pitches at the same time, simply using his vocal organ. The basic structure of the relationship between pitches in Khoomei is a frequent low-pitch together with the melody flowing. Khoomei can be divided into “overtone Khoomii”, “tremolo Khoomei” and “compound Khoomei”. It is unparalleled among all Chinese folk songs. Khoomei is practiced today among Mongolian communities in several countries, especially in Inner Mongolia in northern China, western Mongolia and the Tuva Republic of Russia. On Sep 30th 2009, Khoomei was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO.
History of Khoomei
According to the records, the history of Khoomei dates from Hun’s time. The art of Khoomei was created by the time Mongolian nation formed at the latest. The ancestors living in the Mongolian plateau imitated the sound from the nature piously when they were hunting and herding. They believed that it was an important way to communicate and get along harmoniously with the nature and the universe. Thus, some substantial of the human vocal organs was developed, allowing one person to create “harmony” when he was imitating the sound of waterfalls, mountains, forests and animals, which was the embryo of Khoomei. There is not abundant repertoire of Khoomei, limited by its specific singing techniques. The first basic category is the singing of the beauty of nature. The second one is the conveying and mimicking the lovely images of wild animals, such as Cuckoo which retains the music played during the hunting age. The third category is the praising of fine horses and grasslands.
The main musical style of Khoomei is short-tune songs; however, a few brief long-tune songs are available. Judging from the story about its origin and the subject matter of repertoire, the throat-singing is believed to be an outcome of the hunting culture of the Mongolians.
The singing of Khoomei is developed under special regional, productive and living circumstances. Its way of giving off sound and feature of voice is uncommon, which is different from the famous Mongolian long tone singing. Experts in vocal music describe the singing of Khoomei as “as high as the sky; as low as the bottom of the ocean; as wide as the whole world.” The principle of the way of giving off sound in Khoomei is special. The vocal cord sometimes vibrates and sometimes does not, making an echo using the breath from inside the cavity. With special vocal technique, one person can create two pitches at the same time. The singer stops breathing and lets the breath strike the vocal cord fiercely, and then the bubble sound is created, forming the low-pitched voice part. On this basis, the singer controls the echoes of his mouth ingeniously, emphasizing and centralizing the overtone to create a clear high-pitched voice part with mental sound, gaining a wonderful vocal effect.
As a special form of folk singing, Khoomei is the splendid creation of Mongolian nation. It displays Mongolian’s deep philosophical thoughts and feeling toward the universe and everything, expressing Mongolian ’s pursuit of the concept of living and developing harmoniously, as well as a healthy and optimistic appreciation.
Heritage and Present Situation
Khoomei is one of the oldest art forms of Mongolian nation, remaining more factors of ancient singing. It is an echo from the nation’s deep memory. Khoomei is closely related to Mongolian history and culture, contributing a lot to anthropology, ethnicity and folklore. Thus, inheriting and popularizing the art of Khoomei does not only make a hit to international music, but also draws much attention from experts in folk music and vocal music. Lv Yi, the honorary chairman of Chinese Musicians Association said: “The Mongolian people can sing a kind of song in which one person can create two pitches at the same time. This is unimaginable to us and we should study on it seriously.” Khoomei is the oldest musical heritage with highest antique value. Being a living fossil, it is one of the musical heritages with highest scientific and acknowledge value among all the heritages of all kinds of human races and nations ever discovered.
Khoomei has been lost on the Inner Mongolia Grassland for more than 100 years. It has bordered on the exyincyion even among the Mongolian people living in Alta region (in Xinjiang). Thus, reviving and exploring this cultural heritage which used to belong to the Chinese nation is an emergency with immeasurable practical significance and profound historical influence. Salvaging and protecting the magical singing art of Khoomei is important and urgent.