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How Mongolian Throat Singing Took Over YouTube (and Then the World)

Before Mongolian rock sensation The Hu were touring the globe, lone throat singers were raking in millions of views on the internet

In December 2019, Mongolian rock band The Hu was presented with the Order of Genghis Khan, the greatest state award of Mongolia, for helping to familiarize the world with Mongolian culture and art. That was approximately one year after they released their first two music videos, for “Yuve Yuve Yu” and “Wolf Totem,” which have since amassed more than 60 million views on YouTube.

The Hu, undeniably, bring something new to the musical table, blending wailing electric guitars, galloping drum beats, and most noticeably, the ancient art of khoomei, or throat singing. As the band explains to me in a (translated) email, “The Hu is Eastern meets Western, past meets future and traditional meets modern.”

Nonetheless, if you read just about any article about The Hu and their rise to fame, it will inevitably point to their early viral videos on YouTube as a big reason for their success. Hell, even the front page of The Hu website states, “Their first two videos (‘Yuve Yuve Yu’ and ‘Wolf Totem’) immediately went viral, garnering the band over 30 million views,” which certainly seems to credit YouTube and viral culture (and of course, the videos themselves) for their prompt ascent to the top.

Which, to me, is no surprise. As a seasoned lurker of YouTube, I recognize throat singing as a longstanding viral sensation on the platform. I also recognize that, in addition to standing on the shoulders of their Mongolian ancestors and their music, The Hu are also standing on the shoulders of many unidentified throat singers, who for years have been unsung stars of viral — often grainy and low-budget — YouTube videos.

Now that the rest of the world seems to be acknowledging throat singing in the same ways that YouTube lurkers have for years, I wanted to take a deeper look at these mystifying sounds to figure out what it is about them that has long captured the ears of the internet, and why, all of a sudden, the ears of popular culture, too. 

To do so, though, we first need to understand what throat singing is. Essentially, with precise movements of the lips, tongue, jaw, velum and larynx, a throat singer can produce two or more notes simultaneously, usually a low note and a high note. This is no easy feat: “Throat singing, or khoomei, is comparable to weight lifting, in the sense that you have to build yourself up to it,” explains Mikko Heikinpoika, a throat singer and throat-singing teacher, who studies in the global music program of the Sibelius Academy of Finland. “It’s strenuous to do, and if done improperly, one can really mess their voice up. In a way, it’s artificial hoarsening of one’s voice and adding a lot of pressure while modulating your vowel sounds.”

The Hu adds, “The Mongolian huumii [another word for khoomei] is an amazing sound that humans make, which creates the upper and lower harmony together. It takes years of hard work and dedication to learn and master huumii.” Each member of the band, they tell me, has somewhere between 10 and 20 years of throat-singing experience.

But throat singing is much more than just a complex vocal technique. As Alex Kuular, throat-singing YouTuber and throat-singing teacher, explains, “Throat singing is a very ancient form of vocal art. This is an imitation of the sounds of nature and animals by man, and these sounds are in our genetic memory; no matter where we are, the sounds of nature are always with us.”

The throat singers I spoke with suspect that this natural, almost spiritual sound is what has long made throat singing so popular on the internet, especially more recently, as technology further saturates our lives. “Today, there are a lot of gadgets, social networks, advertising and electricity around us, and man subconsciously wants to find a balance between nature and the modern world,” Kuular says. “This isn’t only about throat singing, but also yoga, meditation and spiritual practices — trying to find a balance.”

“I always ask my new students why they decided to learn throat singing, and they say that they feel the energy inside; the energy of nature,” Kuular continues. “They want to connect to nature, and they feel that throat singing is something real, something true. Perhaps that’s why groups that use throat singing are interesting to the public now: People want something real. They want to touch their roots, feel the power of nature and feel the balance.”

Heikinpoika agrees, pointing to the major, major differences between throat singing and highly produced pop music. “There’s truly something captivating about throat singing. In some of us, it might awaken a sense of something truly otherworldly, even sacred,” he explains. “There’s a primordial nature to the sounds of throat singing, and it attracts many of us in this time, where we’re grasping for something deeper and more meaningful than the commercial tribalism that we’re being fed. It’s very trance-inducing to do, and in a way, beyond music in the conventional sense. It’s usually not linear, like a pop song, but a kind of a space that one can enter.” 

Of course, as with anything popular on the internet, some people could also be tuning into throat-singing videos simply because they find them addictively bewildering. “Some of us just think it’s silly,” says Heikinpoika.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, those at the core of throat singing are happy to see it spread. In fact, unlike many things ancient, where some groups inevitably reject new, different interpretations, even The Hu — who have music videos featuring bikers motorcycling through the plains of Mongolia — seem to be receiving nothing but support, as evidenced by them being bestowed with the Order of Genghis Khan. “We haven’t gotten any negative reactions,” they tell me. “We’ve been receiving a lot of support from the huumii community for bringing it to world stages.”

Heikinpoika even traveled to Tuva in Southern Siberia along the Mongolian border to explore how the locals felt about the spread of throat singing, and was greeted, largely, with open arms. “I myself wanted to go to Tuva and ask the OGs what they think of what I’m doing,” he explains. “I made a documentary about it, directed by Viktoria Mate, called Khöömeizhi — a Young Man’s Journey Into the Cradle of Throat Singing. From my experience, Tuvan people are open to the interpretations of outsiders, as long as they’re respectful. The only flak I’ve gotten was when I was in Tuva, and during an international festival, I stuck my spoon into the quarrel between Mongolians and Tuvans about the origin of khoomei. It’s an eclectic tradition of nomadic cultures with little to no written history, other than what others have written about them. It’s a disagreement that hopefully will find harmony soon.”

While throat singing is perhaps most often attributed to Mongolians, it has also been practiced in other areas of Central Asia, like Tuva, as well as northern Canada and even South Africa, albeit in varying styles. “For centuries, it was carried by the nomadic tribes in Central Asia and refined into the pearls that are Tuvan and Mongolian throat singing,” says Heikinpoika. “Globalization has brought it to the big stage, and it has been sampled for a while now in electronic music and used in many, many genres.”

And while there might be a little bad blood surrounding the origins of throat singing, again, just about everyone seems to support its spread — and Heikinpoika believes that it will soon spread even further. “The future of throat singing looks good,” he says. “I don’t sense oversaturation behind the corner any time soon, and people’s appetite for it is just starting as we get more accustomed to it. We’ll more and more hear the nuances of it and develop our own preferences and tastes.”

Naturally, on the frontlines of this movement are The Hu, boosted by a few viral videos on a platform that’s long been eager to give throat singing the love it deserves. “We practiced this style for years — since we were kids — to be able to control it, apply it and now we’re infusing it into our songs because it feels natural to us,” they tell me. “It’s who we are, it’s what we know, it’s where we come from. It comes from an honest human place that we’re proud of and comfortable with. We’ve had many non-Mongolian fans come up to us after a show and throat sing with us. We love it. Many are actually really good at it.”

“We really hope to bring huumii to wider audiences,” they continue. “We’ll do everything to help people understand the power of huumii.”