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Oldest Form of Music Featured at Smithsonian's Folklife Festival - 2002-07-19

The Russian republic of Tuva, nestled in the mountains of southern Siberia, is known for wrestling, horseback riding and carnivorous appetites. But as VOA's Brent Hurd reports, this mysterious land has also preserved an unusual musical tradition that is gaining popularity worldwide.

The sound of throat-singing, one of the world's oldest forms of music, also known as the ancient art of hoomei, originated in southern Siberia and were featured recently at the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival in Washington.

Mark Van Tongeren has been studying throat singing for years. He says hoomei is more guttural than the western approach to singing.

"They have developed a different way of singing using pressure from the stomach onto the vocal cords ... and this produces a sound that is more like [this]," he demonstrates.

Throat-singing comes from the world of nomadic shepherds who emulate the sounds of the natural world found in the vast grasslands and mountain ranges of central Asia.

Throat-singers turn their respiratory systems into a human bagpipe, simultaneously producing two and sometimes three distinct tones; often an eerie drone mixed with melodic whistles. Nomadic bards enhanced their story-telling which often lasted many nights, using these melodies.

"Epic singing is an essential part of the music and the oral literature," explainis Mr. Van Tongeren. "It contains their histories, their customs, their habits ... The bards used to sing these epic songs with the guttural sounds. They were always very welcome wherever they traveled."

To practice this art, you need to learn proper breathing, Mr. Van Tongeren says, but warns that throat singing takes a lot of dedication.

"You need a lot of physical strength for the music," he emphasizes.

In addition to the physical demands, throat singers add a mystical dimension in describing their music. No one knows that better than Slava Kuchenov, a former Tuvan sculptor. He says he learned the ancient technique of hoomei in a dream where mountain spirits taught him the art of epic singing.

Suddenly he had a dream and a vision that he should become an epic singer," explains Mark Van Tongeren. "He is considered to be an epic singer with a special gift from above to do this kind of singing." Only in the last decade have western audiences begun to hear this phenomenon through the efforts of a handful of musicians and researchers.

One group that has successfully blended traditional throat-singing and modern song is the Kazakh rock band Roksonaki. At the Folklife Festival, the group performed a contemporary interpretation of an ancient shamanic song believed to invoke the spirits that bring rain.