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The Transformational Power of Mongolian Khöömii (overtone singing) Part 1

You know when you are on the right track when simple yet profound events change your life. One of those moments was in London, August 1988 when I attended a concert of Mongolian music and dance. I already had an eclectic taste in the strangest of music but had not experienced its full transformational force until that day. A Mongolian Herdsman sang his Khöömii (overtone singing) to the audience, the power and sheer intensity of his voice plus the magical other sounds that emanated as if from another place resonated throughout my entire body, especially in my heart and chest area. At that moment it awoke something deep inside me yet at the same time my mind was trying to understand musically what on earth was going on.

            Inspired by this moment I eventually ended up in Mongolia in 1993 after giving up my job in computing and devoting my time and energy to music and overtone singing. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital I had hooked up with Gereltsogt a professional Khöömii singer working for the Tumen Ekh Ensemble in the small theatre located in the children's park. Through him and my translator Migmar I had two letters of introduction that flew with me to the province of Khovd in the west of Mongolia. One was to Gereltogt's brother in law, Buriat. He and his family kindly hosted me on the outskirts of Khovd city by the Buyant River. Buriat introduced me to Sengedorj one of Mongolia's senior Khöömiich (Khöömii singer) where I received informal lessons and showed him my “Anglii  Khöömii” (English overtone singing). Finally I travelled for two days pillion on Buriats motorbike to Chandman Sum (District), the place according to many is the homeland of Khöömii.

This is where I delivered my other letter of introduction to one of the most respected keepers of the tradition, Tserendavaa. To my amazement he was the singer who changed my life in 1988 five years before. A wonderful circle, reconnected and reaffirmed to me that this was my path.

            For the next month or so I lived with Tserendavaa and his family in their Ger (Mongolian felt tent) and had regular Khöömii lessons as well as experiencing a lifestyle as close to the elements as you can get. Learning Khöömii is not easy, it takes dedication and practise. However as  Tserendavaa has said, “once the training is done it will balance your body and mind and spirit”. I learnt a technique/style called Tagnain Khöömii which is best for beginners and singing melodies and this is the method that Tserendavaa and Gereltsogt blessed and bestowed me to teach.

            As many therapeutic sound practitioners have read, been taught or experienced, overtones are one of the fundamental elements of how sound is organised. The harmonic overtone series for the voice is the scale of the universe of sound, a quantum scale and for the Mongolian Khöömii singers of Chandman Sum the origin of these sounds arise from their relationship with the environment they inhabit on a physical, mythical and animistic level (There are many words for “Shaman” in Mongolia, the basic ones being Boo - male and Udgan – female). Tserendavaa has related various versions of one of the origin myths/legends/truths of Khöömii. I will paraphrase one he related to me.

            The area of Chandman Sum has a very specific and special geographical layout. The herds-people live on the vast flat plain. To the north is an immense fresh water lake, Khar Us Nuur (Black water lake) and to the west is a spur of the Altai Mountains called the Jargalant Altai. Tserendavaa said that on certain days a specific wind blew over Khar Us Nuur, the action of the wind upon the water created a special vibration or hum. This sound then travelled to the Jargalant Altai Mountains where it echoed and reverberated in the valleys and peaks for, according to the herds-people for anything up to three days. The sound coming off the mountain was imitated and this is how  Khöömii came into being.

             Khöömii is also associated with a mythical river Eev which according to Mongolian musicologist Badraa was on the Jargalant Altai. The sound of water running through rocks in a particular formation on the river Eev was another source of Khöömii.

            Tserendavaa has said that the legendary Khöömiich Bazarsad could call the water (Lus) and land (Savdag) spirits (Ongod). Listening to Khöömii is considered beneficial to ones vibrancy and well being, the water's of the River Eev were felt to be rejuvenating and revitalising. However much of this was kept secret during the communist/socialist period between 1924 to 1990.

             Khöömii is mainly a non-verbal form of singing and the herds-people of Mongolia have many non verbal sounds to call their animals in to milk, to help them while giving birth, to soothe fresh mounts to assist putting the bridle on, just like the horse whisperer. They are used to a sonic language that speaks beyond our human understanding.

            For Khöömii singers the power both physical and metaphysical of Khöömii is in the quality of the whole sound, not only the amazing pure and clear whistle like pitches of the harmonic overtones but also within the particular quality of the root voice from which the harmonics are isolated. This sound is related to the Khaylakh quality used in west Mongolia Epic (Tuul) and Praise (Magtaal) singing, the vocal timbre is very different to the other qualities used in all other Mongolian styles of singing and is considered to be imbued with supernatural ritual powers.

            Most therapeutic sound practitioners do not know how this quality of sound is produced and are losing out to the full potential of Mongolian overtone singing. It is important to stress that a clear and well structured teaching and learning period by an experienced teacher who has direct authentic learning from Mongolian Khöömii singers is required to safely negotiate and train the body to place the voice in this particular way. Once you have understood this you can, as Tserendavaa said, transform and balance your mind, body and spirit.

© Michael Ormiston

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