Hoomii Singer Hugjiltu

By staff reporter JOY
Hugjiltu, 54, is a Chinese singer of Mongolian ethnicity. He learned Hoomii, a Mongolian singing style, by a quirk of fate but has since become a vocal advocate for this part of his ethnic group’s cultural heritage. His chorus appeared at the closing ceremony of the Fourth Asia Arts Festival, the Fourth World Choir Games and other international musical events. In 2009 the ensemble Sound of the Blue, of which Hugjiltu was a member, participated in a Hoomii symposium and contest in Ulaanbaatar, and won third prize. Hugjiltu received a special honor from the Mongolian government for his contribution to the development and heritage of culture and arts. In 2013 Hugjiltu was recognized as an inheritor of China’s national intangible cultural heritage.

HOOMII (Khoomei), or throat singing, is a vocal art where one person simultaneously sings two pitches up to six octaves apart, a rare feat. Named a “living fossil of Mongolian folk music,” it is lauded as one of the “three treasures of the grassland,” the others being the Long Song (Urtiin duu) and Horse-head Fiddle (Morin khuur).

Hugjiltu, chair of the Hoomii Association of Inner Mongolia, is one of the best known Hoomii singers in China. In his understanding, throat singing pays homage to Mongolian ancestors and their history. “Its pitch can dive from the top of a mountain to the bottom of a valley in a split second, and then soar as steeply and fleetly again,” he explained proudly.

Hugjiltu was formerly a bass with the Inner Mongolia Broadcast Art Troupe Choir. He had been working for 18 years when he became enchanted by Hoomii. In 1996, he and a group of other young Mongolian artists headed for Sydney for the Fourth World Choir Games. At a symposium on Mongolian music, one of the speakers claimed that the two icons of Mongolian music were the Horse-head Fiddle and Long Song. Someone in the audience disproved, “No, there is one more, Hoomii,” to which he added a brief on-the-spot performance. This incident impressed Hugjiltu. “It was not until that moment that I realized that Hoomii was a treasure of my people that was recognized worldwide–and it was so wonderful.”

Back in China, Hugjiltu began to collect materials on Hoomii and carried out extensive research. He tried to teach himself the singing technique, but after several years had made little progress. Dating back 2,600 years or longer, Hoomii involves complicated vocal techniques that produce two distinctively audible pitches at the same time by coordinating vocal cords and the nasal and oral cavities. There is no way of mastering it without professional coaching.

In 1999, Mongolia’s Hoomii guru Odsuren Baatar launched a four-year course in Inner Mongolia, and Hugjiltu signed up. At 39, far beyond the prime age to start the art, he was hardly a model student. But he soon proved to be the most diligent student in the class. His hard work paid off – on conclusion of the course he achieved the highest score, causing Odsuren to admit he was the best student he had taught in Inner Mongolia, and the most promising one.

Highs and Lows

Hugjiltu has overcome multiple difficulties and mishaps in the course of learning Hoomii. The first was losing his voice. “My voice broke soon after I started studying. The cause, my teacher said, was my flawed practicing method,” he recalled. He was anxious about this, as he had heard a rumor that Hoomii was highly damaging to the vocal cords and bungled efforts to learn the craft could ruin the chance of performing any other genre of singing. For a time Hugjiltu debated whether he should continue learning Hoomii. He eventually decided not to give up and resumed training when his voice was fully recovered. “My experience testifies that vocalists can master Hoomii. Actually, I have two advantages in doing so: My experience in vocal music makes it easier to control my breath in learning the craft, and as a bass I have a deep, mellow voice,” Hugjiltu said.

Hugjiltu gave his first public Hoomii performance after four years of study. It was for the 2002 Inner Mongolia Chinese New Year gala. His debut was so eventful that he still remembers every detail.

The gala director’s invitation didn’t reach Hugjiltu until one week before the recording, catching him completely unprepared. He cherished the opportunity that would put his learning to the test, but needed a new song for the performance. He turned to Se Enkhbayar, an Inner Mongolian composer who had studied in Mongolia and researched Hoomii, for help. Excited by the prospect, Enkhbayar took on the task and within three days, Heavenly Colt was finished.

“The saying ‘good things never come easy’ may be right. As soon as the first problem was solved, another one cropped up,” Hugjiltu recalled. “On the day of the gala recording, my singing troupe was scheduled to stage a performance at the Inner Mongolia Hotel. I asked for leave but the choir director refused, saying the performance was important. So I had to rush to the recording site as soon as I was done at the hotel. It was snowing that night, and while speeding along on my bicycle to get to the studio on time, I fell off and bashed my nose. I arrived at the studio with five minutes to spare. But when applause erupted at the end of my recording, emotions filled my heart – it was like recognition of my years of keen endeavor.”

In 2002, Hugjiltu received the credential of Professional Hoomii Singer from the Mongolian International Hoomii Association, the first to achieve the qualification in China.

UNESCO Intangible Cultural

Heritage of Humanity

Hoomii has an ethereal sound, something out of this world. Hugjiltu explained that this effect on listeners is due to the particular vocalization techniques that produce two or three harmonics simultaneously that deftly combine low droning and high whistling pitches. The bass part, extremely low and very crisp, is not the kind that one would expect to hear from a natural voice. The singer must manipulate his breath to deliver strong air waves that forcefully pound the vocal cords, resulting in guttural “bubbling” sounds that are 10 times more intense than normal singing. Meanwhile, the singer has to modify the shape of his oral cavity as the resonating body to magnify overtones. The result is clear, metallic, high-pitched tones.

“As for the origins of Hoomii, one theory is that it has its roots in the mimicry of sounds of nature made by early Mongolians while hunting. That’s why the singing depicts natural scenes, wild animals, horses, and the steppe,” said Hugjiltu. “Its styles are primarily Short Songs, but also include certain Long Songs of less complexity and length.”

Da Bueh Cholaw, a Mongolian musician and director of the intangible cultural heritage preservation section of the Arts Research Institute of Inner Mongolia, found similarities between Hoomii and the 2,300-year-old Holin-Chor singing of Altay in northern Xinjiang and Chor singing of Xilingol in central Inner Mongolia, both of which feature multiple sounds by one voice at the same time. His study provided supporting evidence for Chinese Hoomii’s successful bid for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

Passing down a National Treasure

Hugjiltu has noticed that an increasing number of foreigners are learning and performing Hoomii, which reinforces his determination to pass on this cultural heritage of his ethnic group. In 2006, he founded China’s first Hoomii association at his own expense, and began to recruit students and organize exchange and research events. With his efforts 12 sub-genres of Hoomii have been rediscovered.

In 2005 Hugjiltu founded a five-member ensemble called Sound of the Blue, and later produced the first Hoomii album in China, Sound from Heaven. In 2009, the ensemble participated in a Hoomii symposium and contest in Ulaanbaatar, and won third prize. Hugjiltu received a special honor from the Mongolian government for his contribution to the development and inheritance of culture and arts.

As chair of the Inner Mongolia Hoomii Association, Hugjiltu has a strong sense of purpose. “I am obliged to pass down this art to future generations,” he often reminds himself. “I suggest injecting modern elements into this ancient singing, such as blues and rock-and-roll. The appropriate splice of the old and the new can promote the legacy of traditional culture. Besides, Hoomii could be added into the curriculum of some conservatories so that systematic training is available to their students. All members of the public also have a part to play. Only in this way can a strong momentum be formed to ensure Hoomii goes down in history.”

The Inner Mongolia Hoomii Association regularly sponsors training courses and singing competitions. It also runs a website where fans can access Hoomii information, Hoomii news and a pool of professional Hoomii teachers. Hugjiltu is proud that hundreds of students have graduated from the association’s classes over the years. His goal is to nurture more Hoomii singers throughout the Inner Mongolian grasslands. “The grassland is the cradle of Hoomii singers,” he said.