Beyonce? No. But her throat singing soars

The World
Olga Letykai, one of Far East Russia's best known throat singers, this summer in Chukotka.

Olga Letykai, one of Far East Russia's best known throat singers, this summer in Chukotka.

Hans Petter Sorenson

The holiday season brings with it the tradition of caroling, but an entirely different kind of singing can be heard in one of the most remote regions of Far East Russia. Throat singing is a long-lived tradition among the Chukchi women of Chukotka. The deep, guttural sounds and high-pitched trills mimic the sounds of birds and animals on the tundra. But it’s also a tough skill to master.

This summer in Chukotka, one of Far East Russia’s best-known throat singers, Olga Letykai, performed during a cultural celebration. She learned how to throat sing from her mother and grandmother.

“It’s like before our men [go] hunting or with reindeer on the tundra,” she explained, “the women go together and throat sing. We give spiritual support for our men.” 

Letykai, is from a long line of traditional marine mammal hunters. The 42-year-old grew up in the tiny village of Enmelen along Chukotka’s Bering Sea coast. Worldwide, it’s pretty rare for women to be throat singers, but in Chukotka, it’s a tradition passed down through generations of women.

Olga Letykai

Olga Letykai

Credit:

Hans Petter Sorenson

As she demonstrated throat singing, Letykai explained how to breath in deeply, and let the air the pass from her belly back up through her throat.

To throat sing, Olga Letykai manipulates her mouth, larynx and pharynx. She pointed to her throat. “It’s a road. It’s an oxygen road,” she said. “It’s like a guitar when you do the note.”

But instead of her fingers on the strings of a guitar, her body helps make the notes.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to call throat singing singing. It’s not melodious, sweet or lovely. It’s deep, earthy, guttural. And then there are ear-piercing birdcalls. Letykai said when she makes these sounds, she’s not just imitating a bird. “No, I am a bird!” she laughed.

Throat singing isn’t exactly hip even in Chukotka, but it is finding its way into Russian pop culture. Letykai says she improvises with a little jazz. A local band from Anadyr, Gubernator has also incorporated throat singing into its sets.

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