In praise of human variety

Xenophilia opening page remarks


Publications by Guy Ottewell




Tuva is a little area in what is said to be the exact center of Asia, around the headwaters of the Yenisei (one of the great rivers of Siberia). It had a fleeting existence as a republic called Tannu-Tuva, during which it produced a lot of beautiful triangular and diamond-shaped stamps. It is in the middle of the mountains between Siberia and Mongolia, below freezing most of the year. There is a story that the Russian and Chinese empires agreed to take the slopes running north and south respectively, and for a time they didn't realize that there was this area that each had left to the other, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Annexed by Russia, it became the Tuvinskaya Avtonomniya Oblast, and is now called Respublika Tyva.

The Tuva people are horse-riding shepherds, Turkic in language. They combine shamanism with Buddhism, and regard the Dalai Lama of Tibet as their spiritual leader. One of their cultural features is that they have an art called throat-singing: a technique of singing up to four notes at one time, in a self-harmony. There are several styles, called höömeï, sygyt, kargyraa, with variations called borbangnadyr, ezenggileer, chylandyk, dymzhuktaar.

The sound is—astonishing. Sometimes it seems less like a human being than like a machine, or a radio noise from outer space. Actually it takes a while to learn to hear the overtones. How long it takes to learn to produce them I don't know.