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The Essay
Show #549
Esophageal Singing
David Gunn

Much has been written of the quaint overtone ululational practice attributed to Central Asia called throat singing. Unfortunately, nearly all of it is based on a wholly apocryphal study written by a malcontent graduate assistant in esophageal music whose research grant was eliminated during a mid 20th century economic downturn. In truth -- which is such an unusual way for me to start a story that I'm already breaking out in hives -- the technique was invented by Shundar Fez, an otorhinolaryngologist and recreational steppe dancer, while visiting Tuva, a republic in the Krasnoyarsk Time Zone. (World time zone aficionados will recall that Krasnoyarsk Time was previously known as Novosibirsk Time. But in 1993, Novosibirsk Oblast changed time zones and since then has used Omsk Time, thus requiring a new name for the time zone. Krasnoyarsk beat out its nearest rival, Bloody Cold Time Zone Not Fit for a Yak, by a margin of sixpence.)

As late as the early middle twentieth century, any Tuvan adolescent boy who wanted to advance to manhood faced a risky rite of passage: he had to stick his neck between the slavering jaws of a yak while the animal was pelted with senna leaves. And this was a live yak, not the comparatively predictable animatronic units that are employed in today's more politically correct rituals. (Young girls on the other hand only had to score a 75 on a one-page multiple choice quiz to enjoy the fruits and yeasts of womanhood.) At one ceremony in 1951, Beanomon, a lanky 14-year old resplendent in manly regalia, had barely offered his neck to the yak when the animal sneezed, involuntarily biting down on and severing the poor lad's trachea. Luckily, Dr. Fez was in the audience. (The chain of events that put him there is too bizarre even for this narrative, but it does illustrate the role of the butterfly effect in chaos theory.) Fez leapt down from his howdah, sterilized his hands in the bucket of Stolichnaya that had been left out for the yak, and performed an anesthesia-free laryngectomy as the Tuvan Maturation Committee cheered him on. The operation was mostly successful: the lad could breathe normally again, however the lack of a larynx compromised his voice functions. This troubled Beanomon, as he had had designs on a lucrative career as county auctioneer. But Fez was undeterred. Having done extensive research on air compression, he knew that a person could learn to push air into his esophagus, then pull it back up with the use of a windpipe winch, a minuscule cartilage appliance available in any medical supply store. The resulting sounds closely approximated articulated speech -- sort of like a leopard "closely" resembles a button accordion. Still, Fez dutifully administered the teenager's throat therapy and, within a year -- or five years, really -- Beanomon could accurately adjust the fundamental frequencies of his esophageal grunts and belches so as to produce intelligible communication. But this was a far cry -- and, in fact, many of his throat noises did bear a resemblance to far cries -- from the "Dean Martin Sound" that the lad so longed for, and he fell into a deep funk. Actually, Beanomon fell first into a deep ravine, escaping with only minor contusions, then he trended funkward. Fez felt he had failed the "primum non nocere" precept he had learned in otorhinolaryngology school. So he devised a plan to buck up Beanomon.

By the time the next high season for manhood rites of passage arrived, the good doctor had amassed 20 kilos of ground cumin and chili powder, which he surreptitiously mixed into the bucket of Stolichnaya that sat by each ceremonial yak. Then he slipped into the audience, ready to spring into action should the animal sneeze during the ritual. Almost without fail, it did. Likewise almost without fail, Fez executed an on-the-spot laryngectomy, after which he administered the same throat therapy that had worked on Beanomon. Within a year -- or five years, really -- 141 teenage boys were communicating in an eructational manner. Along the way, Fez had picked up a girlfriend, Iphigenia who, thanks to a vivid imagination, likened some of the lads' guttural sounds to singing. This gave Fez the idea to form a glee club, the Steppe By Steppe Tuvan Chorus, and he appointed Beanomon its director. The repertoire was initially limited -- a tabula rasa was more like it -- so the group did a lot of covers. But gradually, local composers began to write music that incorporated these strange new vocal timbres. One popular early song was "Bite My Yak," a poignant account of the animosity many glee clubbers harbored towards the beast that irrevocably changed their lives. (Fez was indeed fortunate his real role in their changes of fortune was never discovered.)

Although the chorus job wasn't as lucrative as that of the county auctioneer, Beanomon grew to enjoy wielding the baton. After he added some flashy passados, voltes and ripostes he'd learned from a mail order fencing course, audiences flocked to watch him conduct as much as they did to groove to the music.

And speaking of groovy music, that is precisely what Kalvos ampersand Damian have in spades for you in the house today, aided immeasurably by a musical visitor who has more than passing knowledge of the spawn of Fez and his consorts. So enough of this gay badinage, this otorhinolaryngological and sternutatory piffle. Park your yak by the door and join K&D plus the aforementioned special guest for a couple of recreational hours in the house.