A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Track #38 on Thommy Ford’s Playlist
I first learned about throat-singing from a 1999 documentary called Ghengis Blues, an excellent film that’s partly about physicist Richard Feynman’s personal search for the lost Central Asian nation of Tuva, and partly about a blind blues singer from San Francisco who performs at a throat-singing symposium in Mongolia. I’ve had a bit of a passion for the style ever since.
Throat-singing puts an emphasis on the overtones that can be created by the human voice. The results can sound like a tuneful growl, a buzzing whistle, a gravelly hum, and can even create the impression of multiple notes being sung at once. Mongolia is it’s true homeland, but Beijing’s Hanggai are it’s most popular practitioners. The band is made up of both Chinese and Mongolian born musicians, and they are often billed as a kind punk-folk outfit—like the Gogol Bordello of Asia. While they are electrified and thoroughly modern in their production values, the punkishness of their sound is a bit over emphasized.
Take “Uruumdush,” for example. It features an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, an electric bass, and a drum kit of both Western style and traditional percussion. On top of that you have a mix of purely Mongolian instruments: an Amne Khuur, which is a type of mouth harp; a two stringed, plucked instrument called the Tobshur; and a Morin Khuur, or two stringed fiddle played with a bow. The band is able to coax a really lush, atmospheric sound out of these instruments, and while there’s an occasional burst of distorted guitar, it’s hardly punk rock.
If anything, it’s the unmistakable coolness of throat-singing, its rough, otherworldly tone, that makes the music feel like rock’n’ roll. On this particular track it’s Mongolian born Batubagen taking the vocal duties. Believe it or not, it is mostly one voice you’re hearing throughout the song. Batubagen does both the higher and lower pitched vocal growling you hear in the verses, as well as the buzzing, humming solo you hear at the 1:15 mark or so. The latter passage is particularly beautiful. You won’t be surprised when I tell you the lyrics are about a windy thunder storm in the mountains—that’s exactly what it all sounds like.
Stop by and pick-up our copy of Hanggai’s He Who Travels Far. For one, it will broaden your horizons; second, it will give you a totally new way to rock out.
aReview by Matthew