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  • From the Guest Editors
  • Charlotte D'Evelyn (bio), Robert O. Beahrs (bio), and Andrew Colwell (bio)

The eight contributors to this special issue of Asian Music, Transregional Politics of Throat-Singing as Cultural Heritage in Inner and Central Asia, investigate the dynamics of heritage in this complex region,1 focusing on a diverse range of multiphonic vocal practices known in English as "throat-singing" or "overtone singing" (see map A). Rooted among mobile hunter-pastoralist cultures of the Altai and Sayan Mountain ranges (see map B), this collection of styles, substyles, and techniques is known by scholars and practitioners variously as khöömei (used along with kargyraa and sygyt in the Tyva Republic of the Russian Federation), khöömii (used more commonly in Mongolia), kai (in the Altai Republic), kömei (in Kazakhstan), and khooloin tsuur (in Xinjiang), among many other regional labels. Local practitioners in Mongolia and Tyva largely consider khöömei not as a genre of singing at all but as a practice akin to "playing the throat" or "sounding the body as a vocal apparatus" (see Süzükei, Pegg, Colwell, Curtet, and Beahrs, this issue). Still other practitioners conceptualize their techniques as a form of singing, and many draw on the legacy of the Russian term gorlovoe penie, which translates directly as "throat-singing."2 Local communities across this region have conceived of these practices in various and evolving ways, sometimes associating a variety of styles together for cultural, political, aesthetic, and technical reasons, applying khöömei as a collective term. For the sake of the reader, we use the terms "throat-singing" and khöömei purely as discursive reference points for the admittedly complex questions raised in the six articles that make up this special issue.

The debate at the center of this special issue concerns the inscription of khöömei as an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) on the UNESCO lists for China (2009) and Mongolia (2010). The UNESCO framework—which inscribed khöömei as ICH in China and Mongolia but notably not in Russia—has dramatically affected the politics and perceptions of multiphonic vocal practices throughout the region, resulting in a host of resonances and dissonances that have not yet received in-depth attention in English-language ethnomusicology scholarship. We observe that contemporary heritage-making [End Page 3] in Inner and Central Asia is part of a long history of local practices such as khöömei becoming recognized and transformed by state institutions for the purposes of nation-building, beginning at the very latest with socialism during the twentieth century. Indeed, diverse local understandings of vocal sound-making practices contrast sharply with such attempts to transform khöömei into national heritage.

Our work follows a growing body of scholarship in critical heritage studies (Norton and Matsumoto 2018; Hafstein 2018; Stefano and Davis 2016; Foster and Gilman 2015; Bendix, Eggert, and Peselmann 2012; Howard 2012; Smith 2006) and studies of contested heritage in Asia (Yang, Dupre, and Xu 2020; Tsetsentsolmon 2012; Wu 2020; Stokes 2015; Jacquesson 2020). Approaching this topic from distinct and sometimes even conflicting perspectives, we ask: How do Indigenous, communal, or transregional senses of belonging interact with governmental or internationalized heritage-making initiatives related to khöömei? How do official or academic definitions of cultural heritage contrast with how practitioners understand khöömei? How does heritage not just "preserve" its object but also "reform" the relationship of practitioners, communities, and nations to the practice in question (Hafstein 2015, 148)? Accordingly, the contributors do not share a single notion or definition of heritage and instead underscore the perspectives, events, and meanings they have encountered over years of research.3

This journal issue is the first transregional and multiauthored Englishlanguage study of khöömei in the Altai-Sayan region of Inner Asia since Theodore Levin and Valentina Süzükei's seminal monograph Where Rivers and Mountains Sing (2006). It draws on two generations of scholars: three influential researchers (Valentina Süzükei, Carole Pegg, and Theodore Levin) who began work in this region in the 1980s and a cohort of scholars (Robert O. Beahrs, Andrew Colwell, Johanni Curtet, Saida Daukeyeva, and Charlotte D'Evelyn) who began their work in the 2000s...


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