The capital of Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia’s only true city. Roughly half the country’s three million people live here, most of them in ger suburbs that sprawl outward from a compact center of Chinese-built tower blocks and crumbling Russian buildings. It’s in one of these that I meet Batzorig Vaanchig, 39, a celebrated morin khuur master. Seated with the instrument squeezed between his legs and the horse head jutting upward, it’s almost like he’s riding a tiny wooden steed.
Batzorig starts playing, languidly at first. The two strings are tuned a fourth apart, which makes for a mournful wail, like the moan of the wind over the steppe. He speeds up, switching the rhythm from a trot to a syncopated gallop, then slows down again, playing more softly to represent the change of terrain under the hooves. Fingers trill like a bird’s wing over the strings, and occasionally he taps the wood of the instrument like a drum. Then all is quiet, the bow still, and Batzorig simply tickles the strings in faint rhythm, like the ripple of a horse’s mane. It’s remarkable. The morin khuur might resemble a classical instrument, but the performance is something far more primordial.
Batzorig starts to perform khoomi, or throat signing, as he plays, his voice constricting into two separate tonal tracks; he performs ezenggileer, a pulsing style of throat singing that mimics the rhythms of horseback riding. Even though we’re inside, the cumulative effect is astonishing, transporting me out onto the wide-open steppe. A primal call of the wild. Then he stops, puts down his bow, and we plop back down to earth with a thud.
“Playing the morin khuur is like riding a fast horse – when I play, I imagine I’m in the saddle,” says Batzorig. His journey as a performer has borne him far beyond Mongolia. In 2011, his traditional band, Khusugtun, traveled to London for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, but it was in 2015 that Batzorig and the morin khuur really exploded onto the global scene by achieving second place in Asia’s Got Talent. The performances provided the incongruous spectacle of Khusugtun, wrapped in their del greatcoats, performing Mongolian folk songs for a panel of judges that included Melanie C, the former Spice Girl. After an ovation, Melanie looked at the band and said, simply, “Magical, I’m transported.” Even a Spice Girl was undone by the essence of the morin khuur - music as transportation, both figuratively and evocatively, with the power to convey the listener out across the great grass sea, like a trusted horse, to somewhere distant and long ago.