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» Steve Sklar: “People ask me how I got into khoomei, and I tell them that instead, khoomei got into me!”
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Steve Sklar: “People ask me how I got into khoomei, and I tell them that instead, khoomei got into me!”

Steve Sklar. Photo courtesy of khoomei.comIn July 2004 Tuva-Online information on the khoomei festival devoted to Gennadi Tumat said of the controversy which followed the festival program. Old khoomeizhis who took part in the Round table on the future of khoomei expressed their concern about the bold experiments with the traditional way of throat-singing and participation of foreign participants in the khoomei contests when jury very often out of hospitality gives awards to foreign throat-singers. Some of them proposed a separate nomination for foreigners competing with local throat-singers. This debate was followed on the tuva-online site by Arjopa (Germany), Sauli Heikille (Finland) and others. Here is a view by Steve Sklar (USA):

“Dear Khoomeizhis and khoomei lovers, Dina Oyun has informed me of some debates and controversy taking place in Tuva, regarding foreigners and khoomei. She has kindly invited me to join in this dialog. So, I will share some carefully considered thoughts and feelings. I do expect that some of you may not agree with nor appreciate my comments, but please believe me when I give you my word that what I express comes from deep in my heart and my spirit, with great love and affection.

I’d like to begin with a birthday wish to my most important khoomei mentor, Kaigal-ool Khovalyg. Happy Birthday, Kaigal-ool!

Perhaps some of you may know me, or may have heard of me. Probably most of you have not, so let me tell you a little bit about myself.

I am a musician, my main instrument being guitar, and I also play the didgeridoo and khomus. I also sing khoomei, since January 1995. Of course, my khoomei path has been different than all of yours; I did not grow up surrounded by khoomeizhis. My first exposure to vocal harmonic was many years ago, when the tantric chanting of Tibetan monks was available via recordings. Next I heard some western overtone singers, then by the early 90s I heard records of Mongolian throat-singing. Soon afterward I heard “60 Horses in My Herd”, the first CD by Huun-Huur-Tu and my introduction to Tuvan music.

People ask me how I got into khoomei, and I tell them that instead, khoomei got into me! This is quite true; when I heard this music it resonated within my body and soul, and I knew I would have to learn to express it myself. I tried for a long time to teach myself, but only learned to do overtone singing, not yet understanding the throat techniques required for true khoomei.

In January 1995, I was fortunate to hear and meet Huun-Huur-Tu. During our first meeting, I mentioned that when I listened to their music with closed eyes, I believed I “saw” the place that produced such people and music. They responded that I must visit Tuva to see if my vision was accurate (it was). We became fast friends and by June of that year, I was headed to Tuva as their guest.

It was my good fortune to spend a few weeks in Tuva, attending the 1995 Khoomei Fesival and Symposium, and found this journey to be an valuable immersion experience. I returned to Tuva with my wife in 2001, and got to travel to remote areas with a political campain tour, witnessing with great interest town meetings in which the people explored a democratic process. It was moving to visit places like Bora-Taiga, home of Marzhamal Ondar, one of the teachers of my


Naturally, my experience is unlike that of most Tuvan singers. I began when I was 38 years old, with no local throat-singers to learn from. I engaged in earnest study of the voice and the anatomy and physiology of the vocal system, trying to figure out how to sing in the various styles. Every year or so, I would meet with HHT and they would help me improve my singing.

Early on, I began to hear from folks around the world, saying that they heard that I could sing khoomei, and also explain and teach it. So, with encouragement from HHT, I began to do so. Since then, I’ve performed, taught, and given presentations in many places, and recorded with my own ensembles and others. Tuva and khoomei became major forces in my life.

Now, whenever I do a workshop or presentation, it’s important to me that I talk about Tuva and its culture and traditions, to the best of my ability. I try to help people understand that they should respect and honor that tradition, themselves becoming a part of it. Many of them have gone on to travel to Tuva to further their understanding and to experience it mind, body and soul.

So, at least in many cases, this is not a simple case of cultural appropriation/exploitation.

As for the quality of khoomei sung by foreigners, of course it varies and is usually not done as well as by native singers. There are some exceptions: some of the Finnish singers are very serious and are singing pretty well, Todoriki of Japan comes to mind also. These performers try to emulate Tuvan singers, performing Tuvan songs on Tuvan instruments. My path has been different: I do not usually perform Tuvan songs, though I have on occasion; rather, I use the khoomei techniques to express my life and my feelings. To me, this feels honest, positive, and also respectful.

For me, it is also not just a matter of “playing with sounds.” I’ve experienced what it is to sing a landscape, to learn a melody from the spirit of a mountain, or to feel the spirit of the wind passing through the needles of a pine forest. When I hear my friends perform Odugen Taiga, I, too, smell the Todzhan taiga, which is now a part of my soul, too.

I understand what I’ve read about some Tuvans resenting what they feel is misappropriation of the traditions of their ancestors. This is a common sentiment and has occurred many times around the world when what was once a closed tradition becomes practiced by outsiders. For example, in America this has happened with blues music. Originally a black musical form with roots in Africa and in the work songs of slaves, many blues performers resented the white musicians who emulated them. Over time, this has changed; many white performers became excellent bluesmen-and-women, and helped to create a much greater audience and appreciation for the original artists, frequently lifting them from conditions of obscurity and dire poverty. And similarly, Tuvans must be free to play blues, jazz, European sacred music, or the sitar or tablas from India, regardless of the music's and instruments’ roots in Hindu and Moslem culture.

It is not easy being a purist, because it is not the way of the world and they will always be disappointed. While I understand and to a degree sympathize with such feelings, I submit that there are unavoidable factors at work here. When Tuvan musicians perform or record their music for the outside world, they put their art and sound into the consciousness of the listeners. Whether intentional or not, it then becomes part of the spirit of the listener, who may decide to embrace and express that feeling, which will be done according to their own way. I feel that this is natural and unavoidable. Such has always been the case elsewhere and this is now happening with Tuvan music. In a sense, music is like yogurt: unless there is some infusion from time to time, the culture will weaken, dilute and smell bad! As Tuvan elders pass away, it’s true that some traditional elements will gradually pass with them, but with new generations and growing interest from others, some traditions will be strengthened and others will be born.

It’s quite interesting that a number of times, Tuvans hearing me sing said, “you must have been Tuvan in another life.” The same has been said to me by Tibetan monks. So, perhaps something else is at work in the case of foreign singers.

While I respect the Tuvan people’s love of competition, treating art as sport opens the door to misgivings as to winners and losers as well as raising questions of aesthetic values. Probably, if it is practically feasible, there should be categories of competition for natives and non-natives, but also a process for outsiders to compete with Tuvans if they demonstrate sufficient skill, a case which is likely to become more common in the future.

What I know of the current state of throat-singing is that it seems generally healthy, with a positive outlook for the future. But I do think that there are some causes for concern.

My friends, while I love Tuva and look forward to returning, I see some serious problems. Rather than dilution of khoomei by foreigners, societal challenges within Tuva are what concern me. Violence is common and widespread. I’ve read that the average lifespan of Tuvan men is 49 years, and women, 60. How are traditions to be passed along if there are few elderly people to do so? Alcoholism is perhaps the biggest challenge. Tobacco presents great health problems and is bad for singers especially, yet many khoomeizhis I’ve met drink and smoke too much! When I hear of the early deaths of important and skilled khoomeizhis such as Gennedi Tumat, Oleg Kuular, and Mergen Mongush, such tragedy saddens me, and makes me worry for the others. When I go to Tuva and see the pollution, people dumping garbage next to sacred arzhans, or on a formerly pristine mountain, I wonder how the spiritual relationship with the environment so much a part of khoomei will be maintained? From what I’m told, the same situations exist in other Central Asian throat-singing regions.

Also, I can’t help but note the sometimes aggressively competitive attitude between singers both in Tuva and between, say, Tuva and Mongolia. One of my friends says that this is an unfortunate leftover from Soviet times. Maybe this is true, I don’t know. But I’ve often heard “oh, that singer is not good, the singers from such-and-such place are not good,” etc. Seeing that the problems facing the throat-singers and their homelands are so similar and widespread, I

hope that someday these attitudes will be replaced with a mutually beneficial relationship and spirit of connectedness.

It’s my hope that this letter doesn’t offend anyone; as I said at the beginning, what I express to you comes with great affection and respect. Tuva and her people and culture are most dear and special to me, I miss them, and I hope to visit again soon. I wish only the best for all of you!

Yours truly, Steve Sklar (Minneapolis, MN USA)

Steve Sklar
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