Face Music - Traditional vocal technique & repertoire of the Khakas people

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

more information about Traditional Singing technique of the Khakass people - text available in German

Traditional vocal technique:

- Khai

Khai is the traditional form of throat singing from the Sayan-Altai region, closely related to Altaian and Shor (kai). Using only the lowest and highest register. It's a traditional men's singing technique (singer and storyteller) for native epic. It is an important part of Khakas cultural heritage, inextricably linked with their epic storytelling and therefore in high esteem. It is considered the noblest way of performing.

Overtone singing and throat singing is a common feature of all southern Siberian Turkic, many Mongolian, as well as some Kazakh tribes. Overtone singing or throat singing can also be heard from Turkic-speaking tribes in disparate parts of central Asia. The Bashkir musicians from the Ural Mountains, for instance, call their style of overtone singing uzlyau. Overtone singing is a special technique in which a single vocalist produces two distinct tones simultaneously. In its clearest form (Tuvan, Mongolian) one tone is a low, sustained fundamental pitch (a kind of drone) and the second is a series of flutelike harmonics, which resonate high above this drone. Who masters this singing technique may even make the overtone sound louder then the fundamental pitch, so the drone is not audible anymore. A different technique often used by overtone singers combines a normal glottal pitch with the low frequency, pulselike vibration known as vocal fry. The Turkic tribes in the Sayan-Altai region use to sing their texts in such a low vocal fry register of about 25-20 Hz.

The Khakas, Altai and Shor people in the northern part of the Sayan-Altai region, unlike the Tuvans and Mongolians, do not bring out the overtones much in their throat singing (khai, kai). Khai traditionally is largely a male vocal technique though women are known to have performed and to perform it, as well. It is produced by generating a fundamental tone while pressing the diaphragm and squinting the vocal cords. This way a hoarse sound arises, accompanied by soft overtones that change with the vowels of the recited text, and that create a many-layered sound hovering above the basic drone. In Khakas tradition the overtones are rarely used to make a melody. Khai is not used to show virtuosity but to convey text in a convincing way, and is therefore rarely performed independently.

Khai is inseparable from alyptygh nymakh (heroic storytelling). A storyteller who performs heroic stories with khai and an accompanying string instrument is called khaidzhi. He recites part of the story on a single, repeated fundamental tone, with temporary shifts to a higher or lower tone. By using the technique of khai, he clearly distinguishes the words but at the same time makes overtones subtly resonate above the recited text. The overtones reinforce the story’s text, as they create an extraordinary timbral texture that brings about the supernatural time-space in which the epic world comes to life. Such a performance may last up to several nights. Storytellers used this powerful vocal technique also for their songs, a use singers later adopted.

Khai is both the term for the Khakas technique of throat singing in general, and for one of its styles. It is performed in three styles: kharghyra or ulugh chon khai, küveler or küülep (or khai), and syghyrtyp.

- Kharghyra
or Ulugh chon khai
Kharghyra or Ulugh chon khai (“khai of respected elders”) is the lowest sound a human voice can emanate, related to Tuvan kargyraa. It must rise from the deepest part of the windpipe and resonate in the chest. It is used for alyptygh nymakh storytelling.
- Küveler or Küülep Küveler or Küülep means “to buzz”. It sounds an octave higher than kharghyra or ulugh chon khai. It is related to Tuvan khöömei (the Altain komei and the Mongolian höömij) but focuses less on producing a discernable overtone. It is the main style used for alyptygh nymakh storytelling. It is often just called “khai” because it is the only style that continued throughout the Soviet period.
- Sygyr Syghyrtyp means “to whistle” and is related to Tuvan sygyt (the Altain komei and the Mongolian höömij). It is the highest, brightest style of overtone singing, in which the highest register of the voice is used. (In nature every sound has overtones, even the whistling of the wind has its harmonics). Syghyrtyp deviates from the other Khakas styles as the singer emphasizes the overtones and creates short melodies out of them. It is based on küveler or küülep but involves the mouth cavity, pharynx, and tongue. It is used at the end of phrases recited in küveler or küülep style.

Besides heroic epics, the Khakas people perform stories in prose, like sacred myths about the origin of the world, creator spirits, spirit-owners and other spirits; true stories and legends about historical heroes, shamans, group ancestors and genealogies; humorous tales and children's folk tales; cradle songs and laments; sung or recited poems like fixed canonical songs and short improvised songs; proverbs, sayings, wise phrases and puzzles; prayers, requests, thanksgivings and blessings; and many more.

Traditional Repertoire:

- Nymakh
- Nartpakh-tar
- Alyptygh nymakh
Heroische Epen und
- Attygh nymakh
- Chazagh nymakh
- Kip chookh

The Khakas have two main types of song: takhpakh and yr or saryn. Both takhpakh and saryn/yr often praise nature or are wellwishings for nature or homeland.

- Takhpakh Improvisationen
- Chakassische
- Saryn und Yr Are multi-verse songs with a more or less fixed (canonized) text and often a more elaborate melody than takhpakh. The northern Khakas tribes call it “yr”, the southern ones “saryn”.
- Ayan – Aydïm
- Alghys
Beschwichtigung von Geister.
- Kanonischen

Barden – Kaichi (Khaigee – Khaidji)

- Shunu
(Ashina – "Wolf")
- Amyr-sana
- Galdan-Oirot

Quellen sind aus unveröffentlichten Manuskripten des Ethnograph und Musikwissenschaftlers A. Anokhin, der mehr als 20 Jahre im Altai verbracht.
Eine Reihe epische Geschichten zeigen Ähnlichkeiten, in Identität zu Geschichten von Altaihelden, so von Dschingis Khan oder die mongolischburjatische Version der Geser Geschichten (Epen).

Revised by Hermelinde Steiner and Liesbet Nyssen 2013