Kargyraa – throat singing
Powerful rough undertone singing technique
Throat singing (kargyraa) is a singing technique that creates a pitch impression of one octave below the modal voice by vibrating the ventricular folds or aryepiglottic folds alongside the vocal cords.
The Tuvinian singing technique called kargyraa is a prime example of throat undertone singing. There are undertone techniques similar to kargyraa in other cultures. There is no cross-cultural category name yet. Unfortunately, there is a likelihood of confusion with the term throat singing: throat singing is used in literature with four completely different meanings:
- throat singing = undertone singing
- throat singing = synonymous with overtone and undertone singing of the nomads in Central Asia as a translation of the Tuvinian word khöömej.
- throat singing = throaty-rough singing techniques with throat constriction (neither overtone nor undertone singing)
- throat singing = overtone singing
That is why, in case of doubt, I use undertone throat singing, vemtricular fold technique or simply the Tuvinian term kargyraa to describe the technique.
Undertones Without Overtone Singing
Yevgeniy Ulgbasev – Khai from Khakassia
Julia Charkova – Takhpakh from Khakassia
A Baluch boy with undertone singing from Pakistan
Undertones With Overtones
Undertone singing is combined with overtone singing in some cultures. Lowering the fundamental by undertone singing shifts the entire harmonic scale downwards. This means that twice as many overtones are available as with the normal voice. In this way, women, for example, can sing in the bass and baritone ranges and produce the same overtones as men.
In Tuva there is the undertone singing technique called kargyraa, which is often combined with overtone singing. There are artists who use only this low register (cf. Albert Kuvezin, Yat Kha). Many (probably most) undertone throat songs do not use overtone singing (see above). Kargyraa-like undertones also exist in the traditional music of Europe and Africa.
The umngqokolo, which combines the vocal technique of kargyraa with overtone singing, is known from Xhosa women. In this case it is very virtuosic, because the Xhosa women (singing in a bass/baritone register!) imitate the sounds of the mouth bow and thereby change the fundamental note and thus sing two melodies at the same time (polyphonic overtone singing). The fundamental changes rhythmically by a major second, while an overtone melody appears above it in a faster tone sequence.
There are also throat singing styles in Tibetan monasteries that produce undertones. It is not always clear to me whether the techniques are based on kargyraa or strobass, or whether both techniques occur and are used differently depending on the singer. The recordings I know are sung with strobass, which you can easily recognize by the occasional overturning of the voice into modal register. Tibetan monks usually recite very slow texts or mantras or phrases. Often the sound is dominated by the 10th harmonic, which is why some authors regard these songs as overtone singing.
In paghjella from Corsica and in cantu a tenores from Sardinia there is a rough deep voice called bassu or su basciu. It corresponds technically to kargyraa, but is sung without overtone techniques. In classical choral singing there are compositions – e.g. Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky – which require basses down to A1 (contra A). Hardly any German voice achieves this bass with a modal voice (normal voice). That is why strohbass is used in such passages, something that only a few experts have mastered.
Undertone singing of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia
There are several styles of undertone singing in the Tuvan kargyraa technique that have been little studied. A good overview is given by the diploma thesis by Sven Grawunder.
Sven Grawunder found the same constriction in the steppe kargyraa as in khöömej. The aryepiglottic folds that form this constriction are oscillated in addition to the vocal cords when singing. This creates a pseudoglottis, a second sound source. Apparently, these coupled oscillations produce a period of oscillation at half the frequency of the singing tone, creating the overtones of a note one octave below the singing voice.
It is possible that the ventricular folds underneath the constriction are also involved in the phonation process. However, since they are covered in the picture, this cannot be seen. Studies by Tran Quang Hai, myself and others show that in Kargyraa techniques, the ventricular folds (false vocal folds) together with the vocal cords form a complex oscillatory system without involvement of the aryepiglottic folds.
American throat singing expert Steve Sklar had a revealing videolaryngoscopy done on his kargyraa at the University of Wisconsin in 1998.
Kargyraa is not entirely risk-free to learn, as one can easily injure the vocal cords. You don’t need a deep voice. There is a wonderful recording of an 11-year-old singing this technique on the CD “Tuva” by zeitausendeins and the same recording on the CD “Deep in the Heart of Tuva” by ellipsis arts.
Women can also use it to sing the bass, as the singers of the Tuvan group Tyva Kyzy and the throat singers of the Xhosa impressively demonstrate. In kargyraa you always sing an octave higher than the voice sounds. During a long campfire night together with the group Huun-Huur-Tu I learned to develop the approach to kargyraa from a relaxed throat by feeling the vibration deep in the windpipe and keeping my mouth closed.
Steve Sklar has released a CD video tutorial that I recommend.
Here’s a video by Jonathan Cope: