This form of vocals that’s still prevalent in other world cultures was becoming a lost art among the Inuit, in part because traditions were only passed on orally and also because the church banned the custom for a century or more. Now throat singing is enjoying a revival among the new generation of Inuits or Eskimos of Canada’s North.
Eskimo means “eaters of raw flesh” in the Algonquin tongue whereas the preferred name, Inuit, means “people in their language,” that is Inuktitut. Different words in Inuktitut mean throat singing, depending on the region of the performers: Northern Quebec, Baffin Island or Nunavut. In Nunavut, the word is “Nipaquhiit.”
The Region of Nunavut
The first ever Throat Singing conference was held in Nunavut in 2001. Translated as “our land,” Nunavut was created in 1993 as a subdivision of the Northwest Territories and consists of around 2.1 million km of land that stretches from the James and Hudson Bay area on the east to the Northwest Territories on the west. Its capital is Iqualuit; the predominantly Inuit population has a median age in the 20s.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the region “has a consensus government, a system that blends the principles of parliamentary democracy with the Aboriginal values of maximum cooperation, effective use of leadership resources and common accountability.” (In other words, candidates but no political parties.)
How Throat Singing Works
Nunavut throat singing does require cooperation. Initially, women performed it as entertainment when the men were out hunting and women still dominate the art. Two, or as many as four, face each other. The lead singer sets a rhythm, leaving spaces between for the follower to fill. An ethnomusicologist named Mark Van Tongeren demonstrates the art on the Smithsonian’s Folkways Web site, using the throat to emit the sound and movement of the tongue, lips, jaws, and vocal chords to alter the tone. Throat singing requires plenty of lung power and heavy use of diaphragm muscles to keep up the short, sharp, in and out breaths needed to produce the rhythmic chant.
Throat Singing in Other Cultures
The techniques vary in other areas of the world where throat singing remains an art. In regions of Mongolia, especially in Tuva (Tuvans were originally not Mongolian but Turkic), the art is called “Khoomei” and men are trained from childhood to be the throat singers. Their breathing technique allows them to hold multiple notes for a long time as they imitate natural sounds such as winds, water flowing or animals. The Chukchi, among other Siberian people, use it in their folk songs, sometimes to imitate familiar sounds like a reindeer breathing.
The chanting of Tibetan monks also involves rudimentary throat singing. The Ainu of Northern Japan call their version “Rekkukara.” In fact, the Japanese Throat Singing Society has its own Web site.
In southeast South Africa, the Xhosa people of Bantu use the term “Eefing.” The form is also a call and response with its own unique, more musical sound, created by producing two notes one tone apart and adding overtones to higher notes.
For a sample Inuit version, you can watch a video of two women throat singing on You Tube.