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  • Khöömei—Ambassador to the World:An Afterword
  • Valentina Süzükei (bio)
    Translated by Sean Quirk (bio)

Since my earliest childhood, the sound of khöömei has been an intrinsic part of my life. It has defined my journey as a researcher, scholar, and Tyvan person living in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As a young girl, my father, who bore no formal title of musician or khöömeizhi, used to soothe me to sleep with the sounds of his khöömei and kargyraa. Growing up in Bai-Taiga (western Tyva), I heard the sounds of my people's beautiful music not only in my own home but in the homes and yurts of many families in our district.

In my early 20s I left for the Moscow State Institute of Culture, where I was trained in the theories and practices of Western European academic music and musicology. Armed with this knowledge, I returned to my native Tyva, setting out to become a pedagogue of this discipline in my own right. In those years, however, my interest was inexorably drawn toward the music of my people, and I picked up a tape recorder and notebook and embarked on a series of field expeditions to all corners of Tyva, hoping to document and describe the fascinating music of my ancestors.

In my early fieldwork, I was continually frustrated by my inability to find a common "language" with my informants, even though we were all speaking Tyvan. For instance, when asking about notes and tunings and rhythms, musicians such as Idamchap Khomushku and Marzhymal Ondar would ignore my musical terminology and instead direct me to look at how the colors of the mountains changed from the near to far distance and at the play of light and shadow upon them. We simultaneously listened to the sounds of birds, beasts, and livestock and inhaled the smells of herding camp and taiga.

Over the course of these monthly expeditions, I eventually came to realize that Tyvan music could not be understood within the academic framework for which I had been trained in Moscow and that had been presented to me as the one true way of understanding all music. Rather, for these musicians, Tyvan music was a completely coherent and complex system that possessed its own unique sound world based on its own fully fledged theoretical drone-overtone complex and represented by the inextricable weaving of a holistic perception of nature with instrumental and vocal music. The crown jewel in this musical [End Page 209] tradition, of course, is the inimitable arts of khöömei, sygyt, kargyraa—known to the world as Tuvan throat-singing.

Since then I have worked ceaselessly on my publications to further understanding among academics, musicians, and music lovers about the theory of drone-overtone multiphony and all its attendant features. At times the task has seemed Sisyphean, especially in the face of ingrained Eurocentrism from the old guard of academia, but over the years these theories have begun to take root, notably with the publication of the book that I coauthored with Theodore Levin, When Rivers and Mountains Sing (2006), which was the first major English-language publication to elucidate this view of Tyvan music and is now used as a foundational text for the study of khöömei and Inner Asian music.

My journey as a Tyvan academic toward greater understanding of Tyvan music and the raising of its awareness as a fully fledged art form has been roughly coeval with the rise of the music's own popularity on the global stage. Beginning in the 1990s, Tyvan khöömei suddenly and unexpectedly broke onto the world-music scene, shocking listeners with its puzzling, magical sounds, as first perceived by many Europeans and American audiences. I saw how the popularity of Tyvan khöömei led to the global distribution of misleading terminology and categories used to translate and understand the practice.

The origin of the term gorlovoe peniye in the Russian-language scientific literature and its analogous English term, "throat-singing," arises from the fact that those who first observed this art were unfamiliar with the unusual sounds produced in the throat area of a performer...


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pp. 209-216
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