An online culture zine called Phantom Sway just discovered Mongolian folk rock and can’t stop raving about it (I found the article because 3 Quarks Daily picked up on it). What the superficial review fails to mention is the depth of this genre – like all genres – and restricts its attention to one band, The HU, while ignoring its breadth.
You’re probably wondering why I expected better, or that I’m being too harsh. Both would be right: I’m just peeved because I’ve been following Tuvan throat-singing for years and that it’s unfair that the one time a somewhat widely read publication picked up on it (3QD, not Phantom Sway), they chose to limit themselves to such a cursory review.
In fact, the most important thing Phantom Sway does, and does badly, is lumps all of throat-singing into one group called “Mongolian throat singing”. There are actually multiple types depending on the tones to be achieved as well as the regions in which they’re practised. And multiple proponents of multiple sub-genres as a result.
Throat-singing itself is a feature of multiple cultures, from Canada to Tibet to Japan. My favourite throat-singer, Albert Kuvezin, employs a form called kargyraa, a part of the Tuvan throat-singing of southern Siberia. The other forms of this classification are khoomei (recognised by UNESCO) and sygyt. They each have their own sub-styles as well, and many of them bear marked differences over just subtle variations.
Other forms of throat-singing from other regions include the khai of the Altai Republic and the now-extinct rekuhkara of Hokkaido.
The band that Phantom Sway picked, The HU a.k.a. Hunnu Rock, is a self-proclaimed proponent of what it calls ‘New Mongolian Rock’, seemingly shunning the throat-singing based classification.
If you’re into this type of music, you should check out Kuvezin’s discography, the punk-rock band Yat-Kha and the heavy-metal band Tengger Cavalry. My personal favourites are Hartyga – their album ‘Agitator’ exemplifies their brand of “psychedelic ethno-rock” –, the artisanal Huun Huur Tu, and a selection of less well-known singers/groups including Ay-Kherel.
There are two good options if you want to explore more of the zeitgeist of this musical genre: the music of Kongar Ool-Ondar and – even better – the Tuvan short-film Shu-De, produced by Michael Faulkner and released in 2013.
But whatever you do, please don’t start and stop with The HU. They’re new, mainstream, and it isn’t clear if they see themselves as exponents of throat-singing or instead – as some have pointed out – those of a particular politics.