The browser or device you are using is out of date. It has known security flaws and a limited feature set. You will not see all the features of some websites. Please update your browser. A list of the most popular browsers can be found below.
Novoye Chaplino, Russia — Olga Letykai took the stage this summer in her usual performance attire, dressed from head to toe in seal skin, white fur at her cuffs, beaded headband on her forehead, traditional markings on her face.
For those who had never heard Letykai before, what happened next was probably a surprise. While the frigid wind on the Bering Sea coast carried along an occasional call of a seagull, that was soon joined by the unearthly — and almost indescribable — sounds of Letykai’s throat singing: deep guttural noises mixed with heavy growling and panting, followed by sharp, bird-like trills.
Throat singing, in which a singer can produce two or more notes at the same time, is one of the oldest forms of music. While not mainstream, most people’s exposures comes from the Tuvan throat singers, nomadic herdsmen of Central Asia, who have, literally, played Carnegie Hall. But throat singing can also be found in Africa and among the Inuit in northern Canada — and in the Russian far east province of Chukotka, where Letykai grew up in the tiny coastal village of Enmelen, close to Cape Bering, a descendant of a long line of marine mammal hunters.
For Letykai, learning throat singing was part of a tradition passed down among generations of women in her family.
"We learned from child," she said in a thick Russian accent. "When I was young, I was learning like I see the bird, I should think about nature and I am like bird. Free, like nature."
While Letykai has performed widely, including in Switzerland, Greenland, Canada and at the Sochi Olympics, this particular performance was in her home province, where the inaugural Beringia Arctic Games, a gathering of peoples from the circumpolar North, were held this July.
She wasn’t the only one. Throat singing has also found its place in the modern music scene of post-Soviet far east Russia. Letykai said she doesn’t practice much, but she does find ways to mix the old tradition with new, modern music.
"Myself, I play with jazz music and rock also," she said.
There are also groups in Russia that mix throat singing with their rock-band sound. A band called Gubernator also performed in Novoye Chaplino at the games. A woman in tight jeans and a torn T-shirt danced on the stage to a beat pounded out by a bearded man seated behind a drum kit. A man in a half-buttoned flannel shirt played the harmony on an electric guitar. Letykai said she supports younger generations mixing the old and new.
"It’s developing like society," she said. "It’s developing but keeping the same culture."
There’s a limited amount of research into throat singing among Russia’s indigenous cultures – the Chukchi, Evens and Koryaks, for example. Virginie Vatè is an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. For the past 20 years, she has studied the Chukchi reindeer herders in Far East Russia.
"It’s not that easy to do research in Chukotka, and there aren’t that many people who research in Chukotka," said Vatè.
But while Letykai’s village relies on marine mammals instead of reindeer, Vatè can attest that the women throat singers are seen as being as necessary as the men who care for the reindeer or hunt marine mammals.
"Everything they do in the domestic area, in the tent and in ritual, all this has a consequence," Vatè said. "It’s seen as having an important consequence."
Letykai put it more simply: "It’s like before our men [go] hunting, the women go together and throat sing. It’s like shamanic song. We give spiritual support for our men."
For Letykai, what she considers the shamanic elements to throat singing are also transformative. She said she doesn’t just imagine the animals she mimics in performances.
"No, I am a bird!" she laughed. "I forget who I am when I am singing," she said. "Many people say 'When I see you singing …" she pointed to a spot at her temple "… I see something from here go …" her voice trailed off as her hand floated away from her face.
"I always see nature," she said, "and I thank our ancestors and too, I see the people who listen and I transfer their energy [to my] singing."