4 Calling Songs: Mongolian Overtone Singing

Mongolian Overtone Throat Singer

People/Country : Tuva, Siberia, Mongolian (Dry Point Etching)

Calling image: Kloomei (Overtone Throat Singer), male in traditional deel attire with morin khuur (bowed fiddle)*

Corners and Borders: Mongolian flag and symbols

§  sain baina uu (sain bai-na OO) — formal

§  sain uu (say-noo) —  casual
Hello in Mongolian, the official language of Mongolia, an Altaic language spoken by approximately 5 million people in Mongolia, China, Afghanistan and Russia. Located between China and Russia, it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. You probably know it was once ruled by Genghis Khan (reigned 1206-1227) and Kublai Khan (reigned 1260-1294).


The "calling songs' shown here is known as Khoomei,  and is recognized as a UNESCO Intangible heritage. It is created by an overtone throat singer. Actually, Khoomei is most associated with Mongolia and Tuva, an autonomous small Russian republic between Siberia and Mongolia. But, Overtone or Throat Singings is practiced in several cultures, including the Inuit people of Nanuvat, Canada, the Sardinians in Italy,  and the women of Bulgaria. 

Overtone singing, sometimes called polyphonic chanting, diphonic singing or throat singing is a technique that results in a remarkable sound produced when the singer manipulates his or her vocal tract to produce more than one note at a time. I first heard this unusual sound at Wake Forest Museum of Anthropology, when a visiting Mongolian artist performed and explained the procedure. (See  photo below.)  It is almost as if the vocalist sings the "drone" note of a bagpipe, as well at the melody simultaneously. The sounds imitate sounds in nature.

Morin Khuur:

The figure in this dry point etching is playing a traditional instrument, known as a Morin Khuur, or horse head fiddle. It is also recognized by UNESCO.  This square box :fiddle” with two strings has evolved from the 13th century. The bow is generally made of horse  hair , and there is traditionally a horse’s head carved at the top of  the  instrument’s neck. 


The Mongolian dress from head to toe is quite dramatic and meaningful. There are more  than 400 styles of traditional hats that vary according  to season, occasion, sex and age of wearer, and social status. They may even be made of prized materials (velvets, brocades) and decorated with gems. In mediaeval times, a fanciful knot, symbolizing power, crowned the pointed top.

The calf-length tunic worn by both  sexes is called a Del or Deel.  Made of one piece of material. it crosses the body and buttons on the right shoulder. Each ethnic group  has their own distinctive deel.  (Note: Those of you interested in the artistic process might like to know that I had to recreate this entire  etching because I forgot that the a print plate prints in reverse when it goes through  the press. I usually think about that, but here, I forgot that would mean the Deel would botton on the left. So I had to correct that  detail.) 

Boots: The beautiful, stiff leather books have an upturned toe, which helps with walking and prevents the foot  from slipping out of the  stirrup when riding.  


Mongolian symbols fill the corners. These are designs that trace their history to past empires and Buddhist heritage. Most are interpretations of an endless knot.

Upper left: The bracelet of Khan (Khan-buguivch), Symbol of peace.

Upper right: The Earrings of the Queen (khatan-suikh), Symbol of love and honesty and marital fidelity.

Lower right: Buddhist Symbol, another eternal knot, also representing Mongolia.

Lower left: The endless knot (ölzij - ulzii). It symbolizes the infinite love and interdependence of all things. It also represents knowledge, wealth, happiness and good karma.

Borders: The national symbol of Mongolia pictured on the left side border of the etching also appears on the flag of Mongolia. It is called The Soyombo, and was created by Zanabazar, the 17th century statesman and father of Mongolian art and script. The flame at the top stands for the blossoming and continuation of the family.  Its three points representing prosperity of the people in the past, present and future. The origins of the Mongolian people are represented by the sun and crescent, and the two triangles show the people’s willingness to defend the freedom and independence of the its people from enemies inside and outside the  country. The two  horizontal rectangles stand for honesty and  justice. The actual flag patterns  also has two larger vertical rectangles on the sides, which are emblems of fortified walls. However, these rather metaphorically represent strength, and stand for the Mongolian saying, “ Two humans in friendship are stronger than walls of stone.”  The yin/yang symbol shows the unity of men and women.  At different times and under different political rules, such as Communism, these symbols  were assigned alternative meaning. The Mongolian flag contains three equally sized strips of color: a  center of blue, which stands for the  eternal blue sky, and two side panels of red, which represent progress and prosperity. The Soyombo symbols appear in gold, off center,  on the left panel only.  That  is why it is only on one side of the etching’s side borders.


Gerelee. Mongolian Patterns. https://www.amicusmongolia.com/mongolian-patterns.html

Modern Mongolia (U Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) https://www.penn.museum/sites/mongolia/section1a.html

Mongolian Tours: http://www.mongolia-travel-and-tours.com/symbols-mongolia.html


Visiting Overtone Singer @ Wake Forest Anthropology Museum

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The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin