For the love of throat-singing
WHEN I FIRST HEARD of Khoomei, a type of throat-singing practiced by the Mongols in Mongolia and Tuva, I thought how amazing it was that a single person could produce more than one sound simultaneously to form a melody. I mean, how does one do that?
Usually done outdoors, the vast open landscape of Mongolia allows the sound to be carried off to a great distance. A traditional form of music, it is listed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO.
Considering himself a human synthesizer, Hiroshi Obiki fell in love with the art of Khoomei. In throat singing, the singer is able to produce more than one note at the same time by manipulating their vocal chords and also with the precise movement of their lips, tongue, jaw and larynx to produce varying melodies.
“I have always been interested in overtone singing and that is how I got into practicing Khoomei and also playing the Jew’s harp, which is a type of overtone musical instrument,” said Hiroshi.
“Before I started practicing the Jew’s harp or Khoomei, I was a singer in a band and I have always been interest in sounds and voices,“ he explained.
When his interest in overtone singing started about 15 years ago, Hiroshi was already quite familiar with the art of Khoomei and had already been playing the Jew’s harp for some time.
But, due to his interest with the enchanting and traditional form of singing and hope to expand his knowledge in Khoomei, Hiroshi traveled several times to Tuva to perfect his Khoomei technique with the locals.
His first trip to Tuva was back in 2000. Although Hiroshi was already familiar with Khoomei, he said it took him about half a year to be in tune with his overtone and get pitch perfect.
“I can sing Khoomei but even now I am still practicing,” said Hiroshi.
While on his trip to Tuva, not only did he got to learn Khoomei from the locals, but he began to pick up Igil, a bowed two-stringed Tuvan musical instrument. Also known as the horsehead fiddle, the Igil typically features a carved horse’s head on top of the neck of the tuning pegs.
With the talent and skill he obtained from learning Khoomei and Igil, as of May 2013, Hiroshi is part of a classical Japanese musical drama called Silkroad Noh Musical Theatre.
The word ‘Noh’ in Japanese means skill or talent and is a traditional form of Japanese musical drama that can be traced back to the 14th century when it was brought to Japan from China.
Developed by Kan’ami Kiyotsugu, a Japanese Noh actor and his son, Zeami during the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573), it is the oldest major theatre art that is still performed to this day.
But unlike the traditional Noh that uses the musical instrument such as the shime-daiko, otsuzumi (a Japanese drum in the shape of an hourglass) and Shinobue (a Japanese flute), Hiroshi and his group members add non-traditional elements to their Noh performances.
“Unlike traditional Noh, the Silkroad Noh is a contemporary Noh where I use Khoomei and play Igil and the also the Jew’s harp when performing,” said Hiroshi.
From January 18th till 22nd, a musical troupe led by Japanese composer Makoto Nomura for the Work-In-Progress project courtesy of Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur was in Kuching for or a research tour with the aim to create a new composition with their Thailand and Indonesia counterparts for a performance in Kuala Lumpur on January 25th.
Throughout his trip in Kuching, Hiroshi said that he found the ‘sape’ to be most interesting as he finds that it to be quite similar to playing a guitar.
“I can make the same sounds from it although I can’t really play it that well,” he added with a small laugh.
From his short yet informative trip in Kuching and his fascination with the ‘sape’, it made me wonder whether Hiroshi would decide to add the sape to his contemporary and unique Noh group where the blending of multi-cultural melodies of different musical instruments from different regions.