But they were eager to learn and, after years of sharing his techniques, Odsuren took pride in having helped promote an art form prized here in Mongolia as a singular national treasure. His pride, however, turned to dismay and then anger when he saw a copy of a video that China had quietly submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: it featured one of his former students pitching a bid by Beijing to have throat singing registered by the United Nations as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” with China getting the credit. “I was in shock. I taught them and then they say it is theirs,” said Odsuren. Throat singing — a fiendishly difficult practice that musicologists know as overtone singing — has often attracted interest, sometimes covetous, from outside Mongolia. The Russian region of Tuva, which borders Mongolia, tried briefly in the 1990s to brand it as Tuvan and impose a licensing system on throat singers. Frank Zappa, the late American musician,jammed with a throat-rock ensemble called Huun-Huur-Tu, and folk music aficionados around the world have long marveled at how a good throat singer can produce two or more distinct pitches simultaneously in an otherworldly mix of melody and tone.
But China has proved the most zealous fan of all: Its pitch worked, and the country got UNESCO to list Mongolian throat singing under China’s name. Sitting in a dingy Soviet-style apartment, the 63-year-old teacher showed photographs of himself in happier times with his pupils in China and fumed at the betrayal: “I don’t like people lying and claiming something that everyone knows is Mongolian.” A listing by UNESCO doesn’t bring any money or copyright privileges, but it does confer bragging rights — and it helps China reinforce cultural claims viewed as essential to holding together a vast territory populated on the fringes by ethnic minorities of often uncertain loyalties. That includes a population of ethnic Mongolians, most of them in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, which was hit by a wave of unrest in May and further protests in June fed by resentment against the area’s majority Han Chinese. By claiming — and also controlling — culture, the Communist Party has sought to keep such tensions in check, not only in normally placid Inner Mongolia, but also in far more protest-prone regions such as Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang. “Throat singing is part of China’s splendid general culture because Mongolians are one of China’s ethnic groups,” said Li Qiang, director of Inner Mongolia’s Song and Dance Academy, the institution where Odsuren taught. Arguments over who actually developed throat singing and where, he added, aren’t important because what matters today is who can best protect the art: “Right now, we are strong and capable enough to do that.”
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