Review: Mongolian throat singing is unlike anything else

Khöömei — the long, low overtone emanating from the singers' throats — is hypnotic and calming. Anda Union brought it from their homes in Mongolia and filled the walls of the Chan Centre with a sound the likes of which it has never played host to before. In a season that has brought us New Orleans jazz, Russian opera, flamenco dance and sweeping orchestral performances, the strange, surreal hum of these performers represented a surprising move into a previously uncharted realm of music.

This was Anda Union's first and only foray into Canada on their tour across the world, and it gave attendees on Sunday night an experience whose uniqueness and rarity would be sold short if I described it as “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Anda Union are not just performers, they are also conversationalists. The sounds, stories and culture that they capture in their music come from a time that was at risk of being obliterated by the great upheavals that have shaped China's recent history. The group's aim is the gathering of the music that was once integral to Mongolian culture, with the aim of re-engaging fellow Mongolians who have lost their heritage while also raising the world's awareness to its existence.

Essential to the group's sound are the vocals, known as either overtone or throat singing. The technique relies on the manipulation of air passing through the respiratory system, which when done correctly produces two, distinct notes at the same time. It sounds ridiculously cool, even eerie at times and there are around six different types of overtones — Khöömei — used by Anda Union, each remarkably different from the others. The sheer physical strength that must be required to sustain these sounds alone is impressive, but is all the more striking when paired with the array of instruments that accompany the performance.

These include an array of string instruments that will look familiar to anyone who has ever been to the symphony, though they are boxier and mostly two-stringed. The primary instrument of the show is called the morin huur, or horse head fiddle, which while also having an actual horse's head carved into it, can produce a sound highly reminiscent of the creature in question. These, accompanied by sheep skin drums, a lute, bass and reed flute, amounted to a performance whose sound was versatile, emotive and rich. I don't think that I've ever been so aware of how much music can encapsulate a culture as when I was watching this performance and picking up details about the origins of different aspects of the music. 

For instance, the throat singing is supposed to capture the sounds of the wind moving over the grass lands and was used by herders to call and subdue sheep. The horse heads are another example, as horses were a vital part of Mongolian culture and many of their songs used horse riding as a motif.

Every explanation only enforced the idea that what we were witnessing was not only a performance, but also a lesson in Mongolian culture. Great efforts were made to ensure that we understood what we were listening to as much as we were enjoying it. With this intention, several of the songs were accompanied by videos of Anda Union back in Mongolia, providing interesting visual context. While these videos were not always necessary and sometimes felt a bit like afterthoughts, it was still fun to see a traditional drinking song paired with a montage of Mongolian people getting wasted.

The songs were well-curated to take us through a slew of different genres and musical traditions from many of the different regions of Mongolia. There were lively “cowboy” numbers (complete with dancing), romance songs, maternal tributes and slow, solo pieces. On particularly impressive work had the performer producing sound from his throat while also playing a moadin chor (reed flute), creating (by my math) three notes at the same time.

The best concerts that I have seen at the Chan Centre have been not only entertaining, but also great lessons from the artists on their craft. I've seen Wynton Marsalis regale his audience with tales of jazz greats, heard Jonathan Girard happily recount details about the subtle rebellions made in the symphonies of Shostakovich and now I have heard Anda Union teaching their audience about a part of Mongolian culture that risked being lost to both its people and the world.

Anda Union showed their audience the sheer power and importance of simply playing music and how vital the conservation of tradition is to understanding the culture of a nation. In their songs, were were given the rare opportunity to experience not only a dying art, but also an age that has long since passed — sustained only through the remarkable efforts of people like them.