The vocal practise known as khoomei comes from the Mongolian word for throat. It is a form of singing that was developed centuries ago by nomads in a region called Tuva: an independent republic between Mongolia and Siberia. Throat singing is also practised in the Altai region of western Mongolia.
The most distinctive feature of throat singing is the guttural voice. It is different to the most common types of voices employed in singing: which are usually represented by chest and head registers. Tuvan throat singers can produce two to four pitches simultaneously. The effect of such a technique has been compared a bagpipe.
The singer usually begins with a low drone. By subtly manipulating his vocal tract, he breaks up the sound by amplifying one or more overtones so that they can be heard as additional pitches while the low drone continues.
The songs that are sung by throat singers are inspired by the natural sounds of the Tuvan landscape. They mimic the soundscape of the region; for instance, the trickling streams and the howling winds. The tradition of throat singing has its roots in the belief in animism. All life is inhibited by a spiritual force and by mimicking these sounds, humans can tap into the powers of these spirits.
The Khoomei is traditionally performed during ritual ceremonies. They are songs that express respect and praise for the natural world, for the ancestors and for the great heroes. Throat singing is also performed for special events and group activities such as: archery, wrestling and banquets. The Khoomei is a central element of Mongolian culture and remains a strong symbol of national and ethnic identity.
Tuva is one of the few places in the world where shamanism in its original form has been preserved and continues to be practised. Shamanistic practises are based upon the belief that good and evil spirits inhabit the natural world as well as the heavens and the underworld.
The mediator between mankind and the spirits is the shaman. It is believed that with the help of spirits, the shaman is able to heal illness as well as predict the future.