Throat Singers from Tuva:

Four virtuosos from the Siberian republic of Tuva astonished listeners with their overtone singing in this concert at the Freer Gallery. Each singer’s ability to produce multiple pitches at once draws on ancient pastoral music that invokes the rich sounds of nature, from waterfalls and babbling brooks to complex bird songs and the howling winds of the steppe. This live performance was recorded on the steps of the Freer Gallery of Art in 2002.



Kaigal-ol Khovalyg
Vocals (khöömei, sygyt, kargyraa), igil (two-string horse-head fiddle)

Anatoli Kuular
Vocals (barbang-nadyr), byzaanchi (four-string spike fiddle), xomus (wooden Jew’s harp)

Alexei Saryglar
Vocals (sygyt), tuyug (horse hooves), tungur (shaman drum), igil

Sayan Bapa
Vocals (kargyraa, khöömei), doshpuluur (three-string lute), guitar, igil

Recorded in concert at the Freer Gallery of Art on August 22, 2002.


Mörgül (Prayer) 0:00–2:50
Öske Cherde (In a Foreign Land) 3:05–5:55
Sygyt Solo 6:00–8:50
Performed by Alexei Saryglar
Köngürei (Khongor-oi) (Sixty Horses in My Herd) 15:10–20:10
Borbangnadyr Solo 20:20–23:05
Performed by Anatoli Kuular
Ching Söörtükchülerining Yryzy (Caravan Drivers’ Song) 23:10–30:31
Kargyraa Solo 30:48–34:25
Performed by Kaigal-ol Khovalyg
Övür Khadyp-Chydar-la Boor (It’s Probably Windy in Övür) 34:40–40:45
Ezir-Kara 41:00–45:50
Ödügen-Taiga 45:58–56:35
Aa-Shuu-Dekei-Oo 56:50–1:00:00
Encore: Eki-A’ttar (Good Horses) 1:00:30–1:02:50

Note on pronunciation: Kh is sometimes transliterated as x. The sound is equivalent to the ch in the Scottish loch or the German höch.


Tuvan Music

The Tuvans live primarily in Siberia in a constituent republic of the Russian Federation officially known as the Republic of Tyva. The 2010 Russian census counted some 250,000 ethnic Tuvans in Tuva itself. Considerably smaller groups of Tuvans live in western Mongolia and in the extreme northwest of China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Most Tuvans speak their own language, Tuvan (Tyvan), and they are typically conversant in Russian.

Tuvan music includes a variety of instrumental and vocal genres that range from onomatopoeic sounds and signals to formalized songs and tunes. No Tuvan word covers the same semantic field as “music.” (Xögzhüm, a loan word from Mongolian, broadly means “music” or “orchestra,” implying the use of musical instruments as opposed to voice alone.) Social functions, techniques of acoustical production, and formal styles are described by a range of specialized terms. These functions, techniques, and styles might best be understood as points along a continuum that ranges from “sound” to “song,” that is, from iconic imitation of natural sounds through stylized imitations of natural sounds to autonomous musical constructs. Examples of iconic imitation include vocalizations that Tuvans call ang-meng mal-magan-öttüneri (“imitation of wild and domestic animals”) and instruments, such as the ediski (a single reed made to imitate bird sounds), xirlee (a thin piece of wood that imitates the sound of wind when spun like a propeller on a tensed, twisted string), and amyrga (a hunting horn used to imitate an elk call). Stylized imitations of natural sounds are produced on instruments such as the xomus (Jew's harp) and igil (two-string fiddle) as well as, most famously, by the vocal technique known as xöömei, commonly translated as “throat-singing” or “overtone-singing.”

In xöömei, a single vocalist produces two, and occasionally three, distinct notes simultaneously by selectively intensifying vocally produced harmonics. Numerous legends about the origins of xöömei underscore the notion that humankind learned to sing in such a way by imitating natural sounds whose timbres are rich in harmonics. These sounds include waterfalls, burbling brooks, bird songs, and a strong wind exciting the strings of a zither, called chatagan, which Tuvan herders place on the roofs of their yurts to dry the instrument's gut strings. Performers of xöömei, called xöömeizhi, use harmonics both to extemporize melodies and to perform standardized tunes. In either case the use of harmonics is not simply naturalistic but conforms to a culturally determined notion of melodic mode. The strong propensity to pentatonicism in Tuvan music is reflected in the ubiquitous use of the sixth, eighth, ninth, tenth, and twelfth harmonics.

In Tuva, music scholars and performers alike divide xöömei into several styles, for example, sygyt, kargyraa, borbangnadyr, and xöömei (the name of a particular style as well as the general term for throat-singing), each characterized by a different type of vocal production. These core styles, however, are performed in highly individualized ways by different singers. Well-known throat-singers typically become identified not only with a particular manner of vocal production but also with a specific tune that serves as a personal musical signature. For example, “Kombu xöömei” is a musical item identified both by vocal style and melody as belonging to the singer Kombu.

Vocal genres other than xöömei include most notably the lyrical uzun yry, literally, “long song,” so called because of its melismatic style in which syllables are melodically extended over long durations, and kozhamyk, a light-hearted refrain song often sung antiphonally by two groups of singers in an undeclared competition. Both of these genres represent strophic song forms, yet many of the ways in which Tuvans traditionally use sound and music represent more of a technology than an art, that is, sound is used to achieve a specific goal, such as calming animals, communicating across a river, or appeasing spirits.

During the Soviet era, official musical life in Tuva was centered on pan-Soviet cultural institutions, such as the Composers’ Union, the House of Culture system, and the Philharmonia Society, which organized and provided artistic direction for professional ensembles performing folkloric and popular music. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, state-sponsored ensembles largely evolved into groups initiated by musicians themselves, several of which have become well known outside Tuva for their arrangements of throat-singing and other musical genres.

–  Adapted from Ted Levin (2001), “Tuvan Music,” Oxford Music Online, used by permission of the author (accessed April 3, 2020)


Mörgül (Prayer)


In the name of my people, I ask God to strengthen the spirit of my people and make my land fruitful. Let my herds not suffer from sickness.

Sayan Bapa, a member of Huun-Huur-Tu, said of this song,
“Tibetan Buddhist monks came to Tuva in the sixteenth century, and Buddhism was strong there until Tuva became a part of the Soviet Union. We didn’t hear Buddhist chanting when we were growing up, but recently we’ve heard Tibetan monks several times: in Kyzyl (Tuva), in Mongolia, and on a recording that Mickey Hart played for us when we were in California. We have a different musical tradition than the Tibetans, and we didn’t want to do exactly what they did. But the idea of a prayer performed in choral style was interesting. We added high overtones. In our version, it sounds very Tuvan. The text was obtained by Zoya Kyrgyz, a Tuvan musicologist.”

Öske Cherde (In a Foreign Land)


It’s so far to the foreign land, it’s so far. The women here are not like my wife. I miss my family, my wife.

Sygyt Solo

Performed by Alexei Saryglar

Sygyt (literally “whistling”) is one of the principal styles of Tuvan throat-singing. By manipulating the vocal apparatus precisely, singers amplify selected harmonic overtones of a fundamental drone pitch.

Chyraa-Khoor (The Yellow Trotter)


In the middle of the yellow steppe, Chyraa-Khoor
We rest underneath a lone birch tree, Chyraa-Khoor
The cool wind brings the aroma of juniper, Chyraa-Khoor
I’m a traveler and my spirit is joyful, Chyraa-Khoor


These lyrics draw on a long story familiar to Tuvan audiences. An orphan who herded sheep on lands belonging to a certain feudal lord (noyon) had nothing except his beautiful, strong, and fast horse, Chyraa-Khoor. The noyon grew jealous and wanted to take it away. The orphan herder fled to other lands with his horse. In this song he describes his journey, from the upper regions of the Khemchik River in Bai-Taiga toward Tandi. He gives his own poetic names to the natural sights he sees along the way.

Köngürei (Khongor-oi) (Sixty Horses in My Herd)

Kaigal-ol Khovalyg learned this song from Tuvan expatriots who were living in Outer Mongolia yearning for their native land.

Where are the sixty horses in my herd?
Where is the aal [settlement] of my tribe?
Where is the hitching post where I can tie my horse?
Where are the seven kojuun [regions] of my homeland?

Borbangnadyr Solo

Performed by Anatoli Kuular 

Borbangnadyr derives from the verb borbangnaar, which means “to roll” or “to flow.” This style of throat-singing imitates the sound of something rolling or flowing. In this example, singer Anatoli Kuular emulates the rhythmic, melodic, and timbral flow of water over rocks in a stream.

Ching Söörtükchülerining Yryzy (Caravan Drivers’ Song)


Since I left Beijing, fifty to sixty days have passed.
And now I’m on my way back, carrying my load on fifty camels.

Since I left my homeland, sixty to seventy days have passed.
Carrying my load on fifty camels, I’m coming back.

Since I left my home, sixty to seventy days have passed.
Having left my load of fifty camels, I’m going home.

As soon as I remember my sweetheart Shuuzhar,
I don’t need my goods of sixty camels any more.

The moment I remember my sweetheart Shuuzhar
My load of sixty camels becomes of no need to me.

An old man is lying by the aptara.* Can it be that my darling has become his housemaid?
Burning artysh** for him, my sweetheart won’t forget me, I think.

Maybe she’s thinking of me, maybe he has given her patterned boots as a gift
And told her to forget me.

I know that my dear won’t forget me, maybe she misses me,
Maybe he gave her a gay-colored shawl and asked her to leave me.

As soon as I remember my sweetheart, food becomes tasteless.
When I think of my sweetheart, I become very sad.

*Aptara is a storage trunk included in the furnishings of a yurt.
** Artysh is a species of juniper used to purify a yurt.

Kargyraa Solo

Performed by Kaigal-ol Khovalyg

A man riding his horse far away from his own lands sings this kargyraa.

Don’t be sad, my Ulug-Doru [name of his horse]. Soon we’ll be home.
Don’t be sad, my wife, I’ll sing for you without end.
Longer and longer, I’ll sing my khoomei.
Don’t be sad, my wife.


Kaigal-ol Khovalyg composed this melody to lyrics by Sayan Sandangmaa, a legendary Tuvan horseman who was killed during the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s.

When you tie it to a rope,
It shakes its head, my Ezir-Kara [name of his horse].
At the Naadym festival,
It always comes in first, my Ezir-Kara.

When prepared for the race,
It gallops like an arrow, my Ezir-Kara.
When I go someplace and ride it,
It runs tirelessly, my Ezir-Kara.

When I saddle it and ride,
It moves like a wind, my Ezir-Kara,
At the Naadym in Erzin-Tes,
It always comes in first, my Ezir-Kara.

On the sandy land of Erzin-Tes,
It gallops very quickly.
You have become a friend, Ezir-Kara,
Of your master, Sandangmaa.


This song comes from Todja in the east of Tuva, an area covered with the ancient Siberian coniferous forest called taiga. A reindeer herder sings about the forest and about being so much at one with the taiga that its aroma is alive in him.


In this humorous song, the singer explains, for example, “When I ride my horse, the fog lifts before me. When I speak with my girl, I don’t notice how the Big Bear appears in the night sky.”


Eki-A’ttar (Good Horses)

On the head of my galloping horse, the bit sounds like shingur, shingur
When I think about my girlfriend, my heart sounds like shimirt, shimirt
My girlfriend has beads in her braids that sound like chayir, chayir
I ride along the river, and when I return in the evening, my girl smiles at me playfully.

– Lyrics in English provided by Sean Quirk (Kyzyl, Republic of Tyva). Notes on the songs adapted from liner notes by Ted Levin of Dartmouth College from recordings of Huun-Huur-Tu’s music on the Shanachie label. Used with permission of the author.



Kaigal-ol Khovalyg
Vocals (khöömei, sygyt, kargyraa), igil (two-string horse-head fiddle)

Anatoli Kuular
Vocals (barbang-nadyr), byzaanchi (four-string spike fiddle), xomus (wooden Jew's harp)

Alexei Saryglar
Vocals (sygyt), tuyug (horse hooves), tungur (shaman drum), igil

Sayan Bapa
Vocals (kargyraa, khöömei), doshpuluur (three-string lute), guitar, igil

Huun-Huur-Tu is a musical ensemble from Tuva, located in southern Siberia, that emerged in the 1990s as the pre-eminent international representative of Tuva's musical culture. The name (Tuvan xün xürtü) means literally “sun propeller” and refers to the vertical separation of light rays that in Tuva often occurs just after sunrise or just before sunset. For the members of Huun-Huur-Tu, the refraction of light that produces these rays seems analogous to the “refraction” of sound that produces articulated harmonics in Tuvan overtone singing.

Original members of Huun-Huur-Tu (founded in 1992) included Kaigal-ool Khovalyg (born 1960), Albert Kuvezin (born 1965), Sayan Bapa (born 1962), and Aleksandr Bapa (born 1958). Later, Kuvezin and Aleksandr Bapa formed their own ensembles and were replaced by Anatoli Kuular (born 1967) and Alexei Saryglar (born 1966). Huun-Huur-Tu’s song arrangements and performance style were shaped by its members’ experience in ensembles organized under the aegis of the Soviet Ministry of Culture to perform Tuvan “national” music in pop-inspired forms. Huun-Huur-Tu, however, differs in important ways from its Soviet predecessors. Eschewing the standard Soviet template for “national” music ensembles of electric guitars, bass, and drum kit combined with amplified traditional instruments and pop-style vocals, Huun-Huur-Tu emerged as a folk music group much like revivalist folk groups in the West. While all of the members of Huun-Huur-Tu have direct experience of Tuva’s pastoral way of life, they learned most of their repertory from recordings, song collections, and fieldwork expeditions rather than through oral transmission from family or neighbors. Huun-Huur-Tu’s hallmark musical style is characterized by a seamless mixture of overtone-singing (xöömei), lyrical “long songs” (uzun yry), and instrumental accompaniment on the igil, byzaanchi, and doshpuluur, arranged for stage performance.

Huun-Huur-Tu released the first of the group’s many albums in 1993. Since then, the group has collaborated in recordings and performance with a wide range of artists, including Frank Zappa, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Kodo drummers, Moscow Art Trio, Kronos Quartet, the Chieftains, the Bulgarian women’s choir Angelite, electronic musician Carmen Rizzo, and the blues band Hazmat Modine. Their music was used in season three of the FX series Fargo (2017).

– Adapted from Ted Levin (2001), “Huun-Huur-Tu,” Oxford Music Online, used by permission of the author (accessed April 3, 2020)


This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by Andy Finch. Audio engineering by SuMo Productions. Web production by Gio Camozzi and Torie Castiello Ketcham. Copy editing by Nancy Eickel. Photography by Neil Greentree. Thanks to Ted Levin (Dartmouth College)  and Sean Quirk (Kyzyl, Republic Of Tyva) for consulting on the podcast. Special thanks to the musicians for granting permission to share their performance at the Freer Gallery of Art.

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