NINE JEWELS OF MONGOLIAN FOLK ART

by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba


1. Long song (Urtiin Duu) Almost every Mongolian folk concert begins with a long song, a song with long notes. Think of it as opera aria of the steppe. In the past, when a nomadic herder rode a long way from home to round up his wandering horses, and when the Mongolian warriors rode thousands of miles across Euro-Asia, the long song served as the main entertainment – a way to overcome the long rides and encourage the man’s closest ally—his horse! A competent long song singer uses different techniques than does an opera singer. She or he sings using so called “open voice” with a relatively closed mouth. With usual opera techniques, a singer cannot exploit her or his natural “open voice” as they use mouth movement to moderate their voice. Whereas Mongolian long song singers utilize a different breath technique to sing long, powerful tunes. Imagine yourself a nomadic herder riding through the countryside in winter. It is minus 20 or 30 Celsius. Would you sing with your mouth wide open or would you devise a technique to sing without freezing your throat? So, the long song was born on the vast steppe, improved in the winter, and honed by the winds of Mongolia. Please enjoy this UNESCO registered world heritage! The songs will be about love, the sun, horses and battles, happiness and sadness, mother and father, God and Chinggis Khaan. Long songs vary depending on what region of Mongolia they are from. Gobi and steppe long songs are mellow, while songs from mountain areas are full of sharp highs. The shorter folk songs of Mongolia also have various characters depending on the location and the theme.


2. Horse headed fiddle(Morin huur) The sound of this two string instrument will remind you of the cello. However, the cello has four strings while morin huur melodies are created with only two strings. Legend has it that the morin huur was created by a man called Cuckoo Namjil who lost his favorite flying horse. The horse headed fiddle is the principal accompaniment for the long song as players can produce horse-galloping rhythms. The culture related to the horse headed fiddle is also registered by UNESCO as a world heritage. The horse headed fiddle is a leading instrument in the Mongolian national folk orchestra. The orchestra has multiple fiddles as well as other instruments such as the yochin, yatga (harp), shanz, huuchir, limbe (flute), buree (horn pipe), tsan, bishguur, buree (pipe) , tsuur, tovshuur, ikel, drums and so on. The newest addition to the Mongolian folk music orchestra is the Altai yatga (Altai Harp), a five-string instrument of the 7th century which was recently discovered in a cave in the Mankhan soum of Khovd province and recreated. This instrument is best suited for the epic song melodies.


3. Throat singing (Hoomii, Khuumii) When you come to Mongolia, expect to see or hear something unusual. Here’s one: Throat singing. At first, you’ll be puzzled ‘What is it?’ Then, when you notice that the man who’s doing it is using no other instrument than his own mouth, and he is emitting at least two tunes at once. Yes, if you can distinguish that there are multiple tunes coming out of one mouth, then you are hearing a real Hoomii. The hoomii is the expression of the mountain spirit. In the Mongolian Altai mountains, and all other Mongolian high altitude locations, one can hear the extraordinary solo of the wind at the top of the mountains. Also, at the bottom of the mountains, one can hear the sound of the very wind differently. That wind sound will be blended with the sound of spring water, and the sound of animals, birds and tree leaves. How to express such a complicated natural sound? The ancient Mongolians devised a way to express that sound using one’s tongue and throat. The tongue moves inside the mouth making the second sound while the voice is coming out of the throat with the first tune. The khuumii’s ultimate home land is Khovd province of Mongolia. There, every member of the family learn to sing khuumii. On our stage, you’ll hear some of many techniques of khuumii. Human throat and tongue collaborate to produce a sound of windy mountains. Please enjoy this unique Mongolian folk art, that is also registered by UNESCO as the world heritage.


4. Mongolian dancing techniques (Mongol Bujig, Bii Biyelgee) For most visitors to Mongolia, our most understandable cultural element is dance. However, there are certain common elements of the Mongolian dance that need some explanation. Firstly, if there are lots of jumping in the dance, pay a little more attention to it. They are usually telling a story on the horseback. If the dancers are holding their arms in front of them while jumping/waving/galloping, they are simulating the holding of a horse’s reins, or managing a bolting horse, etc. Mongolian dances are inspired by our nomadic daily lives. The more you know about nomadic life challenges and aspirations, the easier to appreciate Mongolian dancing. There is a special group of dances called “bii biyelgee”. This particular dance is performed by all age groups, and the movements will show the daily chores of nomadic families. If there are three people dancing Bii Bielgee on the stage, all three of them might perform completely different “chores”. It is because they are showing you the division of labor within the family! Bii bielgee techniques from Durvud people are very special. In order to dance in the Durvud way, dancers stand with bent legs and move only their upper body and the head. It will look like these dancers are standing on stirrups and riding horses while doing their chores. The stationary Durvud style bieylgee dance makes it possible for family members to dance at home, i.e. in the ger, without stepping all over their ger’s floor. It is very comfortable to perform this dance at any small location, but it means the dance is difficult to perform by those whose thigh muscles are underdeveloped. The Bii Bielgee dance is registered by UNESCO as a world heritage.


5. Mongolian Limbe (flute) performing circular breathing technique (Limbiin bituu amisgaa) The traditional technique of playing mongolian flute has been developed to accompany the long song. One stanza of the long song lasts 4-5 minites, and the whole song could last 20-30 minutes. The ancient musicians invented the way to play the music for the entire long song without breaking the flute melody for a breath. The most accomplished flute players perform a continuous flute melody uninterrupted by a breath. Make sure you notice it when you listen to a performance and please give your greatest applause for such a performance because it is so rare for musicians to have that capacity! The performer is not playing it for you without breathing. He or she is breathing, but is using a skill that helps her or him breathe air by her/his nose while blowing the air by mouth. The art of Limbe playing with its circular breathing technique is registered by UNESCO as a world heritage.


6. Mongolian tsuur (Mongol tsuur) If you see an artist playing a simple wooden flute-like instrument which produces a complicated, thick and natural sound, please take special notice. You are hearing perhaps the most ancient musical instrument invented by the Mongols. In this generation, tsuur’s performance and the traditions are kept alive only in the far west of Mongolia—by Uriankhai people of Bayan-Ulgii province. Tsuur has only three holes, and it is played both by the human voice and the voice of the instrument producing the sounds of nature. There are no written notes on how to produce certain sound and melody by tsuur, all such knowledge has been transmitted orally by every generation since the tsuur’s first invention. After thousands of years of successful survival, this rare instrument is faced with extinction during our times. Modernization, learning things only via written notes and ignoring oral traditions has displaced tsuur learning from every school, including the art school curriculum. Nowadays, only a couple of families have transmitted this art to their children. UNESCO registered tsuur as a world intangible heritage requiring urgent safeguarding. If tsuur is being played on stage, I recommend you to hail it, and congratulate the artist for bearing this rare and precious heritage of the Mongols.


7. Contortion (Uran nugaralt) It is said that contortion was developed as the palace entertainment of the ancient khaans and the queens. The main feature of mongolian contortion is to use very little space, i.e. just a round table top, to perform unimaginable twist of one’s body to accompanying music. Contortion is the art of controlling one’s body, and the defying the presumed limits of what the body can do. Mongolian contortion trainings are conducted by experienced contortionists that transmit their knowledge to small groups of disciples through a decade or more of hard work. One tutor trains up to 10 students at a time and less than a half of the students become contortionists. Many Mongolian contortionists work in the world stages like Las Vegas show centers and the Cirque du Soleil. When you see contortion on stage, you are actually seeing the unique contribution made by Mongolia to the world of show business and the circus. The old time palace entertainment became accessible to all only in our time. There was a time that this art form very nearly disappeared. However, Mongolia was lucky to have a contortion genius by the name of Norovsambuu, who popularized the art by her extraordinary performances in the 1960-1970s. Norovsambuu continues to train young contortionists although lots of challenges confront contortion trainers. Because the training process is quite long, because the trainer needs to take care of little children-students, the biggest problem of any contortion trainer is financing the training room and facilities for decades. Anyway, this marvelous art is still alive thanks to the determined, tough and stubborn community of contortion lovers. Be surprised, marvel and be thankful to those who are teaching, learning and preserving this difficult art form.


8. Mongolian Epic singing (Tuuli hailah) Before there was a TV and a radio in our lives, the mongolian nomadic herders’ children used to enjoy a form of entertainment called “epic singing”. Performers recount long descriptive and poetic fairytales told to music that could last from one night to a month long series. In the past (and to some degree even today) epic singers were invited by herder communities during the winter. Each night, after all the chores were done, the whole neighborhood would gather in a ger where the epic singer was staying. The singer performed each night for an hour or more epic folk stories in which heroes are born, and great battles take place. In such a manner, the epics would last several nights giving children enough time to memorize the lines, imagine the story and expect the continuation of the previous night’s tale. It was an effective way of developing children’s imagination while telling the history of the Mongolia’s long past. There are hundreds of epic stories composed by the Mongols and transmitted to every generation. Unfortunately, with the technology, TVs, Radios and Internet, epic singing was nearly forgotten by our generation. Mongolia is now being tested. We could preserve this ancient and unique form of art or lose it. However, mongolian epic singing is registered by UNESCO as a world heritage needing an urgent safeguarding. The government of Mongolia and the community of dedicated epic singers are collaborating to preserve this art form. If your host tour company brought this art to your attention and schedule, I must congratulate you and your host for helping us safeguard our ancient art of epic story-telling. The Bogd Khaan Palace Museum recently provided a ger and land for the epic singers’ community to practice this traditional art in the traditional ger because epic singing is best sung in the ger, with the crowd close to the storyteller. Some epic singers are naturally very emotional (for example Mr.Bayarmagnai), and dramatize all the events described in the tale as they perform, while other epic singers (for example Mr.Baatarjav) sing in a monotone manner. Whichever manner the singer sings, it is very rare to have epic singer perform for you. So, if you have a chance to witness such an art, be sure to listen to the epic song at least an hour so that you feel transported to the world when there was no TV. You may be given a chance to hear stories. In this case, here are some of the most famous epic tales: The Two Palamino Horses of Chinggis Khaan, An epic story of Jangar, An epic story of Geser, Story of the Best Man Khan-Kharangui.


9. Praising, Well wishing and Title calling (Eruul, Magtaal, Tsol duudah) Historically and even today, Mongolia is the lowest population density country on earth. Herders lived far from each other, only rarely gathering at one place. When they did gather for festivities, they liked to say best words to each other, to appreciate each other’s company and to show it with melodies and poetry. This tradition of appreciation goes not only from people to people, but also to nature, to the state, to peace and to the eternal blue Sky. However, every appreciation must be expressed genuinely, i.e. not composed by someone beforehand, but be composed just for the occasion on the very moment of the occasion. And that takes special skill! It is often difficult for someone to express genuinely beautiful appreciation, so a talented well wisher is invited to help. One who can create praiseful and optimistic lyrics on the spot, and sing appreciative songs and wishes to the surrounding crowd is called the Well Wisher. Usually the well wishers compose their praises and the well wishes with a horse-headed fiddle or tovshuur. Well wishers are hired to give a starting praise and well wishes for traditional festivities like bride asking, weddings, a child’s first hair cutting, branding colts, making felt and other private festivities and public events like naadam. Well wishers also play a role of a social peacemaker if two families needed to reconcile after a long conflict and misunderstanding. During naadam, the wrestling judges and the horse judges perform singing praises that are called “title calling”. For title-calling one doesn’t need musical instrument. The title-caller sings the full name, the origin and all the good titles of the wrestler whom he’s praising. He will also call the name of the wrestler with whom the his wrestler wants to wrestle. As to the horse title-calling, the singer raises the lead rope of the horse which came first in race, and sings of all the beautiful features of the horse that came first and he praises the child jocky and the horse’s trainer. Publically praised child jockeys receive a huge boost of self confidence that can last them a lifetime. Well wishing and Title calling is an important part of the mongolian folk culture that needs to be transmitted to the young generation. When festivities and naadams are embellished by well wishers’ original creations on the spot, rather than by pre-recorded music and lyrics, the crowd witnesses the live and exciting ancient form of communication between Mongolia’s nomads. If your tour company takes you to festivities and naadam, you will certainly be exposed to the well wishers’ arts, so enjoy it!

Ulaanbaatar, 2014


Copyright 2014 Oyungerel Tsedevdamba

Contact me directly at oyunlt@gmail.com