Face Music - Traditional vocal technique and repertory of the Khakas people

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

more information about traditional vocal technique and repertory of the Khakas people - text available in German

Traditional vocal technique:

- Khai (throat singing – guttural singing)

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. This is a traditional vocal technique (singer and storyteller) for native epics, performed by men. It constitutes an important part of the Khakas cultural heritage, inextricably linked with their epic forms and 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 people, 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 simultaneously two distinct tones. In its clearest form (Tuvan and Mongolian) one tone is a low, sustained fundamental pitch (a kind of drone – bordun), and the second is a series of flutelike harmonics, which resonate high above this drone. Those who master this singing technique may even make the overtone sound louder than the fundamental pitch (bordun), so the drone is not audible anymore. A different technique often used by overtone singers combines a normal glottal pitch with the low frequency, pulse-like 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 Shor and the Khakas people do not usually sing their texts in such a fundamental pitch, as they use kharygha more sparingly.

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, khöömöi, khöömei and khöömii). Khai is traditionally largely a male vocal technique, though women are known to have performed and to perform as well. It is produced by generating a fundamental tone while pressing the diaphragm and squinting the vocal cords. In this way a hoarse sound arises, accompanied by soft overtones that change with the vowels of the recited text, which will then create a many-layered sound hovering above the basic drone. In the Khakas tradition the overtones are rarely used to make a melody. Khai is not used to show virtuosity but rather to convey text in a convincing way, and it 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 Kaichi (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 timbre 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 as well as for one of its styles. It is performed in three styles:

- Kharygha
or ulugh chon khai
Kharghyra or ulugh chon khai (“khai of respected elders”) is the lowest sound a human voice can emanate, related to the Tuvan kargyraa. It must rise from the deepest part of the windpipe and resonate in the chest. It is used for alyptygh nymakh (storytelling).
- Küülîp or Küveler Küülîp or Küveler means “to buzz”. It sounds an octave higher than kharygha or ulugh chon khai. It is related to the Tuvan khöömei (the Altain khöömöi and the Mongolian khöömii) but focuses less on producing a discernible overtone. It is the main style used for alyptygh nymakh (storytelling). It is often just called “khai” because it is the only style that has continued beyond the end of the Soviet period.
- Syghyrtyp Syghyrtyp means “to whistle” and is related to the Tuvan sygyt. 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 küülîp but involves the mouth cavity, pharynx, and tongue. It is used at the end of phrases recited in küveler or küülîp style.

The old performers mostly used küülîp to perform stories and songs. Performers today use khai (overtone) mainly for songs and, to a smaller extent, for prayers. Kharygha and syghyrtyp are as frequently used as küülîp.

Besides heroic epics, the Khakas people perform stories in prose, like sacred myths about the origin of the world, creator spirits, spiritowners 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.

- see more information in the web under: Traditional music and instruments of the Mongolian peopleTraditional Instruments of the Altai people and Traditional vocal technique of the Altai people

Traditional Repertory:

- Nymakh
– general designation of an epic, wherein there is normally designated a heroic epic (alyptygh nymakh).
- Nartpakh
the general name for an epic, as used by certain Khakas sub-groups settling in the southwest.

- Alyptygh nymakh
– heroic epics and heroic sagas; these represent the national cultural heritage of the Khakas people; they are recited using khai (throat singing) and in accompaniment of melodies (kögler) played on the chatkhan (box zither) or the khomys (lute).

In the beginning, there is the creation, following which there is given a description of the origin and the growing-up of the main hero (man or woman) as well as of his/her adventures with magical and spiritual powers and forces in addition to their fights with the lower world; furthermore there is sometimes included the talking wise horse and the help provided by well-meaning spirits and creatures of the upper world. In the recitations, there are frequently integrated sayings (söspek-ter), wisdoms and phrasal verbs (khyigha sös-ter) or riddles (taptyrghas-tar). In dramatic human highlights, descriptions are further decorated by improvised texts (takhpakh-tar) – rather frequently as a dialogue between two persons – as well as by fixed songs (yr-lar or saryn-nar) and laments (syyt-tar). If people call upon superior deities, there are added ritual texts such as invocations or wishes in the form of prose (alghys-tar, suranys-tar; similar to prayers).

- Alyptygh nymakh are introduced with a tune (köö) on khomys (lute) or chatkhan (box zither).
- Stories are recited alternatingly with khai accompanied by an instrument and with unaccompanied speech voice.
- Storytellers break up the narration by means of instrumental interludes and add songs and laments for human drama.
- Alyptyghttygh nymakh (“story with a hero”) is the longest and most prestigious type of storytelling. At its best it is performed with khai (throat singing) and a string instrument. This way of performing epics is reserved for men and called attygh nymakh (“story with a horse”) in contrast to the chazagh nymakh (‘story on foot”), which is often performed by women, with ordinary voice and without instrumental support. They are frequently accompanied by the box zither (chatkhan); It was only performed in long nights and in the cold season. Today alyptygh nymakh is rarely performed.

- Attygh nymakh – (“story with a horse”) – an alyptygh nymakh performed with khai and a string instrument.
- Chazagh nymakh – (“story on foot”) – an alyptygh nymakh performed without instrumental accompaniment and without throat singing.
- Kip-chookh – this term designates many different kinds of stories, from real as well as fictive stories: their own history (chookh-tar), sad and tragic (mong-lar), true (syn chookh-tar) and fictive (taima chookh-tar) stories as well as anecdotes (khongaldjos-tar).
Kip-chookh are performed in prose form, never being accompanied by khai singing (throat singing) and instruments.

The Khakas have two main types of song. Both takhpakh and saryn or yr are often about nature and homeland, or are a form of well-wishing for nature and their homeland.
These are comparable with praises (praise songs) of the Altai people (maktal) or the Mongols (magtaal).

- Takhpakh – a song with an improvised text, and saryn or yr, a song with set text and melody. With these songs, performed solo, performers can freely express themselves, sometimes to the accompaniment of a string instrument. Takhpakh are spontaneously improvised texts and give a description of the surrounding nature, one’s home country, a gathering or meeting, or another singer. Takhpakh singers show their talent in special singing contests called aitys. In such competitions two singers alternately compete with constantly improvised verses on a limited number of melodies, and try to outdo each other in originality and wit. Such singers are supported by their spirit owner, who gives them the ability to perform such inspired texts. Set songs are called yr (Khaas, Khyzyl and Khoibal) or saryn (Saghai and Piltîr), having more verses, an elaborated theme, and often more distinguished melodies. The majority of these songs are lyric songs, into which the performer integrates own thoughts and feelings about life and past events; some are work, game, or dirge songs.
– The Mongols also know songs that are existent in verse form, without any refrain proper, with full vocal power and in the highest register. The melody is surrounded by a “coat“; there is sung a range of more than three octaves; these songs, however, are subject to rather strict rules of presentation and performance. The form is quatrains, and the beginning of every single line is determined by the same vowel of the first word. Texts are adopted by other singers, and there are added some new improvisations: in this way, long stories (songs) are generated and created. The people definitely sing these long songs when they are out alone in the steppe and only riding rather slowly. The repertory is a symbol of the freedom and the vastness of the Mongolian steppes and also accompanies cyclic rites of the year and ceremonies of everyday life. Long songs are also an integral part of festivities taking place in the round tents.
– The Khakas song melodies are mostly rather restricted: frequently to merely an octave.

- 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”.
- Aian – Aidym – sung spontaneously, without any important meaning (syllables without meaning), such as „damdamdam“, related with the Altaian oioiym.

- Alghys (alghys-tar) – thanksgivings, well-wishings, blessings (from algha: to bless), prayers.
alghys-tar may be in the most varied form; in Khakassia they are, however, mostly spoken and recited, which is why they are not considered songs. They are recited in and around the house on a daily basis, and in some cases there is even singing, such as, for example, with weddings, where there is presented „a praise to the wedding couple“. Alghys is also performed at certain seasons (midsummer night, moon change, first milking of the mare) and at powerful sites in the nature, where groups of people have found together. The ceremony is performed by an elder or a professional alghyschy*.
– *specialists performing these rites; in the most cases this is an older women or a man belonging to the community or the clan.
– Alghys are also performed at the beginning of a journey or in an interruption (pause).

These rituals are also performed at sites where the presence of such „spirits“ – „owners“ – may be felt: piles of stones, holy trees or springs. In the ceremony, alcohol is sprayed, dried barley, cigarettes, bread sweets and the like are dispersed, all the time murmuring prayers. In this prayer, there is asked for permission to enter territory. Furthermore, prayers are spoken for the protection of small children, when the animals are fed, for appeasing the spirit of the fire at the fire place of a house or when a house is entered or left at night. Prayers are only seldom spoken out loud but rather frequently only whispered. It is possible to recognize that somebody prays by his body stature, his movements and gestures, such as walking in circles (always clock-wise), permanent bowing, gestures towards the sky, etc.
Prayers with predetermined texts are intended to show respect to and request well-being from the spirit owners of nature (ee-ler; eezî). These spirit owners have specific areas of rule (mountain spirit: tagh eezî; water spirit: sugh eezî). healers and shamans have helping spirits (tös-ter) that are all of a different kind, have different names, and operate in different realms.
– Canonical texts for addressing all sorts of spirits may be alghys, in order to appease owner spirits (eeler) there are used and recited alghys-tar by alghyschy or shamans in the course of bigger community meetings and gathering such as tagh taiygh (mountain ritual) and tigîr taiygh (sky ritual). Alghys is also used to instruct and command the helping spirits (töster). However, before it is possible to direct the helping spirits (töster) these have to be asked to appear by way of special verses, the tös tartkhany (“invocation of helping spirits“).

Bards – Kaichi (Khaigee – Khaijy)

- are singers, who perform myths, sagas, legends and epics. They belong to the important conservators of this culture. Stories and tales are interwoven with religious concepts, practices and holy sites thereof. There is also given information on the origin and ancestors of the tribes (sööks), their leaders and heroic deeds, and on the creation tales. Such epics have been orally transmitted from one generation to the next one; the whole would fill up about 4,000 pages in books. Several epics are now existent in written form, such as: Altyn-Arygh, Ai-Mergen, Khan-Mergen, Khuban-Arygh.
Such as Ülgen, Geser (creator) or Aru-tös (ancestors) of Turkic speaking and Mongolian tribal communities. They are also called Kaichi, “the people of wisdom“ – “neme bîlerkîzhî“. Such epics have been orally transmitted from one generation to the next one; such as, e.g., "Altaibuchai", "Maadai-kara" and other tales of the Altaians, which are now existent in written form.

Epic stories fundamentally are tribal history and the mythologies thereof. It is important to note that such epics many only rather seldom be assigned to one special tribe (söök). The tribes are mutually related with each other, although not in an ethnical sense. There is spoken of the “collective memory” of all tribes sharing the same ancestors, including all Turkic speaking and Mongolian communities and the world concepts that were then rather similar. In every larger tale, there is given praise of a hero (mostly a male ancestor and leader of a community). There may, however, also be present female heroes such as in the legend "Ochibala" (female amazon warriors) or female Khakas heroes such as Altyn-Arygh and Khubai-Arygh.

The stories and tales tell of male and female heroes, who were born under strange circumstances. They go on journeys (also in the form of a hunt), and when they come home, they find their communities suppressed and subjected or even destroyed by invasion or attacks. In these tales, the attackers are described, identifying suppression and subjugation with a character such as Erlik, the ruler of the underworld. In the heroic epics, also in the form of tales, the central figures are heroes having supernatural powers, who are given the virtues of force, craftiness and wisdom and who restore freedom. Suppressors are defeated or expelled, and the heroes are celebrated as leader and liberators. This has led to a form of idolization and deification. Examples thereof are tribal leaders such as Amyr-sana, Schunu or the Oirot-khan. Among the population, there was also widely popular the story of and the belief in Ak Jang – “white belief" (see more under Burchanism – which is, however,
not known among the Khakas people). There is also told the legend of the liberator, who returns and rescues the people (Schamballa – the king returns from paradise in order to free the people – this, however, is also not known among the Khakas people).

A common prayer, directed at the „spirit-knight“ (hero), to thank him for the rescue, is celebrated by priests in common gatherings and meetings.
In the course thereof, there are mentioned names like Schunu, Altyn-tunter, Geser-khan, Khantolpytte, Bakshi-burkhan, Altyn-kerel, Altyn-topchy, Ak-anchilei and others. The three to follow are especially important heroes: Oirot-khan or Galdan-Oirot, Schunu (also called Ashina) and Amyr-sana – all three heroes are closely associated with the sufferings of the Dzungars under the attacks of the Manchu from the Qing dynasty (17th / 18th century).

- Shunu
(Ashina – "wolf")
– An Altaian version of Asena (Aschina). This is the most important totem of the old Turks; the origin of all Turks.
- Amyr-sana – This figure has its origin in the Dzungar confederation (Oirat alliance).

He was the prince and later on leader of the tribe Koit, who started a rebellion / revolution in Tarbagatai and wanted to fight the Manchu-Chinese leadership. This revolution was violently crushed, and Amyr-sana fled across the Altai to Russia in the year 1756, where he later died of smallpox. During his rule, the Dzugnar empire had its vastest expansion, vaster than ever before and ever after. At this time, the Altai with the Altaian "Teleuts and Schor" was part of this Dzungar-Oirat alliance. These, however, later became vassals of the Qing dynasty.

- Galdan-Oirot – or Oirat-khan – this is also a historical figure. Galdan-Tseren was born into the Choros tribe, who was then in1677 elected Dzungar Khan. He was a mythological liberator of the western Mongols. Sources therefore include unpublished manuscripts of the ethnographer and music scientist A. Anokhin, who had spent more than 20 years in the Altai region.

Khakas epic tales are close to shor tales. Some epic tales have similarities in their identity with tales of Kyrgyz and Altai heroes (e.g. Genghis Khan or a Mongolia-Burjat version of the Geser).

Revised by Hermelinde Steiner and Liesbet Nyssen 2013

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