Thursday, August 18, 2011

Throat Singing Controversy


There was a news report titled “Stop singing our tune: Mongolia” in the Singapore Straits Times (13 August 2011), reprinted from the Washington Post. It is about a spat between Mongolia and China on the ownership of throat singing. Such spats between countries on heritage issues are becoming a litany around the world. In Southeast Asia we have seen Malaysia and Indonesia, and Thailand and Cambodia in such tussles about heritage matters recently. These disputes are mainly between governments - who may not have the technical expertise and correct information to determine ownership.

Throat singing is a generic term, describing a vocal technique, where the natural harmonics of the voice is enhanced into multiple layers. Research and documentation is on going. There are fundamental differences and terminology used in throat singing in different regions. This makes the musical genre quite territory specific.

Throat-sing, as a voice technique, is found in many parts of the world (Canada, Northern Europe, Central Asia, Central Europe, Northern Japan, Tibet and South Africa). The list and territories can grow longer if variations to this voice technique are added.

It is common knowledge that throat singing is widespread in Mongolia. It came to prominence early last century when ethnomusicologists began investigating this art form at TUVA, which is in the Russian territory close to the northeast boarder with Mongolia.

The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage project has been a platform to define identity and location for traditional and indigenous musical forms. There are many professional agencies that have professionals who could assist with such disputes in a researched and diplomatic manner. One such organization is the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM). It is an important arm of UNESCO, and plays a major part in providing advice and expertise. Many ICTM members also assist in the rigorous research and presentations that UNESCO demands for Intangible Heritage certification. Adrienne Kaeppler, ICTM President, is one such person. She assisted Tonga in their successful accreditation of a singular music form.

It would be in the interest of governments to work with ethnomusicologists, as much of the traditional and indigenous musical forms are quite varied and territorially specific. The Intangible Cultural Heritage project is one of the best platforms for dispassionate arbitration in the epistemology of musical forms and musical systems in the world.


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