Authority And Ownership In The Tuvan Practice Of Khöömei

Tuvan Khöömei (also xöömei) is one particular variant of overtone singing practiced by the Tuvan community found in southern Siberia. In the art of Khöömei, performers mimic sounds of nature such as bubbling water or a trotting horse. This art of Tuvan throat singing is a style in which one or more pitches sound simultaneously over a fundamental pitch, producing a unique sound. Based on an appreciation of complex sound with many layers, Tuvan singers can amplify some certain overtones allowing the listener to hear multiple pitches distinctly (Levin 2006).

Video of Alash, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Princeton July 2009

Khöömei is historically performed by nomads on a variety of social occasions, grand state ceremonies and festive household events. Khöömei is an oral tradition, passed from master to apprentice. Khöömei is also sung during herding, and inside the yurt to lull babies to sleep. With a heritage rich with nomadic lifestyle, and an open landscape that allows sound to carry over great distances, Khöömei performs a vital role in both Tuvan pastoral animism and in their construction of a contemporary identity.

Ethnomusicologists and Anthropologists in the past have touched on the art of singing, but the notion of identity and authenticity within the practice has only recently been challenged and therefore this blog is largely a preliminary set of enquiries; opening the issue for debate and setting questions for future research.

The challenge, as I have called it here, is inherent in the geographical and political history of the region. The nomadic heritage of Tuva is interwoven with that of neighbouring Mongolia, and taking this phenomenon on a larger scale, Mongolia shares a history of migration with China. (Without the ability to discuss in detail the intricacies); within the region, and especially along the borderlines, are communities which identify with these three places in complex ways. To talk about the culturewithin these areas is to address notions of contemporary practice, nation-state, language, and heritage; all of which may give different classifications of cultural identity.

Tuva is at the southern edge of Siberia, with Mongolia to its south. Over the centuries, Tuva has been part of Chinese and Mongolian empires, and shares many cultural ties with Mongolia. In 1944 it became part of the USSR, and is now a member of the Russian Federation. Mongolia’s relations with the Soviet Union during the 20th century led to an ecology of communist ideals and a purging of ‘indigenous practices’ (including Khöömei). It would not be until the 1980 that a revitalisation of throat singing would be undertaken (Pegg 1992).

As expected in a geography rich with nomadic history, overtone singing exists throughout east-central Asia (it has also been compared to the overtone singing of the Inuits and the Xhosa). With a past steeped in mobility it’s impossible to pin point the origin of Khöömei or to assume that it occurred in geographic isolation. Today no comparative study has been done between Mongolian and Tuvan throat singing. From personal conversations Tuvan’s tend to argue for a difference involving the sound and the heavy reliance on accompanying instruments. Although this warrants further research, what I want to open for discussion in this blog is the case of Khöömei is how the authority over tradition is taken out of both of these cultures’hands.

In 2009 “Mongolian art of singing” was added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) list of intangible heritage, listed under the country of China. Set up to recognise, protect and encourage indigenous traditions, the Intangible Cultural Heritage list states that Khöömei is “a window into the philosophy and aesthetic values of the Mongol people, it has served as a kind of cultural emissary promoting understanding and friendship among China, Mongolia and Russia” (UNESCO). This is evidently problematic; by labelling intangible culture, UNESCO are fixating ownership to specific countries. Does Tuva own Khöömei? Is Khöömei still Tuvan? There are also problems for Mongolia, although in a very macroscopic understanding of culture, Mongolia could potentially be seen as pan-Chinese. Yet Mongolia is a recognised country in its own right, recognised as such by the United Nations. Why has China been chosen? The practice of Khöömei is not known to play the same integral role within China as it does Tuva and Mongolia. Recognising the art as both Mongolian and Chinese can also infer that it is not recognisable as Tuvan. Evidently, the list of intangible heritage prompts numerous questions around who has authority to claim, label and protect these practices. Further still, in what ways do actions like this effect practices like Khöömei?


Studies of Tuvans and Mongols as ethnic minorities within Chinese borders by Erika Taube, Carole Pegg, and Marina Mongush do not encounter throat singers during their research (Pegg 1992). The authority to recognise China’s claim is in the hands of cultural imperialistic UNESCO. Their website states an independent panel of judges votes on each application, but there is no evident structure in which these are read critically by academics or by communities affected. It seems to have never been questioned by anyone with authority – by which I imply government/political authority – why a Mongolian tradition was being claimed by China, or how appropriate it would be to recognise the tradition as, ultimately, Chinese. In an article by Andrew Higgins, the authority is claimed to be over who is best to protectthe tradition. Who has the political and economic power to protect Khöömei? Yet can we not also mirror that question as who poses a political and economic threat to Khöömei? Is there not an inherent threat to authenticity in any nomadic based traditions when places into a scheme which privileges bounded, fixed ways of being?

A complex pyramid of power relates Chinese, Mongolian and Tuvan concepts of identity. Although the Tuvan’s are ancestors of Mongol people, they are technicallypart of the Russian Federation. In Mongolia, any group identifying as Mongol people come under the broad umbrella of Mongolian. The application for recognising Khöömei came from China, as they claim a long oral tradition of the practice. If this were true however it is very strange that Khöömei only exists in reference and practice in present day China. Although an oral tradition within mobile borders would assume it would travel and pass into China, the truth is no study from anthropologists or musicologists in the area, on which to some degree I have to depend, locate the practice in the region. Even if they did, the claim stated it was Mongolian throat singing, and so why would it not come under Mongolia? To what degree does the authority imposed by UNESCO legitimate the authority over authenticity of a tradition? Where does  this place Tuva, who do not identify as Chinese or Mongolian, but do claim authenticity and authority on Khöömei?

This play on authority is mirrored in Nexica’s work where she suggests a double vision in which on one hand post structuralism has led to realisation and acknowledgement of identity as a fluid concept built on and through borders of race, ethnicity and cultural identity. On the other hand, we still exist in a system that is founded upon rigid classifications and binaries which serve to reinstate power to those already in a position of power (Nexica 1997). In the example of Khöömei this is seen when China is not challenged in their claim for authority, because they initiate that authority as shared with Mongolia. Yet the heritage is heralded for it’s ability to forge friendships and sense of community through geographical borders. For Tuva, there is no recognition as a country or independent community in the eyes of UNESCO and as such the tradition can not be claimed by them. They are forced into a system in which they are absorbed into other identities. This becomes more problematic in this case when an integral cultural practice is being contested over by two countries they are not officially part of. There is a political ownership battle over intangible heritage as something that is valued as a source of credibility and authority in present day. In being recognised as authoritative, China are therefore claiming authenticity in their practice of Khöömei. This then poses a threat to construct a knowledge-power system in which Foucault argues Mongolian and Tuvan practices of Khöömei could be administrated.

What I wanted to highlight here is the many issues at stake within the practice of Khöömei. The emotional resonance within performance is subsequently affected by an understanding of authenticity and authority. Recognising Khöömei in such a heavily localised way is surely set to impact how people relate to the practice. If Khöömei is now identified with China, in what ways do Tuvan performance now relate to a Chinese identity. In what ways can we translate China’s authority over Khöömei into authority over the heritage of Tuva in a broader sense? In what ways is this just an example of a larger system of cultural imperialism? One in which not only Mongolia dominates Tuva, and China dominates Mongolia, but UNESCO dominates China. How legitimate is UNESCO in being able to impose authority to recognise not only which indigenous cultural heritage to list, but how they are recognised? Who has giving authority to UNESCO? It is clearly recognised by China in order for them to make the application, but how does Tuva understand this system? What are the motivations behind this list? UNESCO brand the term protection repeatedly on their website and yet, there is the inevitable result of being empowered by offering and providing that protection. What is the motivation behind China’s request for ownership of overtone singing? Protection, tourism, economy, power, recognition, all of these are likely to play a role but in what ways do these reasons directly impact the practice and those who participate in overtone singing?


Evidently this blog has asked many more questions than it has answered! With need of more words and time I hope there will be more challenges into how these systems operate and the effect they have on the cultures they set to protect and identify, the harm in this case of identifying or classifying a heritage is in a sense to ignore a history in which it is inextricably linked to mobility, not just of borders but of the herders who used these sounds to communicate. A rich heritage is suddenly conglomerated into an un-challenged and un-researched label. If the authority is to be in the hands of UNESCO I would suggest that a more open debate would need to set up in order to better challenge the authority as oppose to just accept it.

Joanna Kalinowska


Levin, Theodore Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2006

Pegg, Caroline Mongolian conceptualisations of overtone singing in British Journal of Ethnomusicology Vol 1: 1 1992

Nexica, Irene J. Music marketing: Tropes of hybrids, crossovers, and cultural dialogue through music in Popular Music and Society 21/3, 1997 pg 61-82.

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