Mongolia: Soul Music of the Steppe / by Thomas O'Malley

An unabridged version of a Mongolia-themed cover story I wrote for Morning Calm, the inflight magazine for Korean Air (with my photos).

It’s nearing midday when our tire blows. Spilling out onto the hot sand, my driver and guide busy themselves replacing it, while I stand about, trying to look useful. The sun is pinned out across the sky. In the far distance, the salt lake of Khar Nuur shimmers like a mirage. Behind, the massif of Jargalant Khairkhan rises red and barren, its peak dusted with snow. 

Driving through the deserts of Khovd aimag.

Driving through the deserts of Khovd aimag.

Suddenly finding yourself motionless in Mongolia’s epic wilderness is sobering. This is a land for giants. You can drive for hours through grassland and desert steppe, and the view barely changes. You might not see another soul all day. If you’re going anywhere on foot, well, good luck with that.

Fortunately, the tire is replaced and we’re back on our way, bumping along a desert track in Western Mongolia’s Khovd Province. A couple hours later, the driver pulls into a fenced-in compound containing a cabin, a ger (yurt), a grumpy dog and Dashdorj Tserendavaa.

In his sixties, Tserendavaa has lived in this region all his life. He smokes, drinks, likes to drive around in his Toyota Land Cruiser, and he plays a mean morin khuur, the horse-head fiddle that UNESCO inscribed on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008. He’s also, I’m told by way of introduction, one of Mongolia’s three living khöömei (throat singing) masters. Often performed in unison, the morin khuur and throat singing go together like horse and rider. In the cabin, we’re served bowls of salty milk tea and yesterday’s bread as Tserendavaa puts out a cigarette and takes up his instrument. Looking rather like a two-stringed cello crossed with a banjo, it’s worn from years of use. The neck is topped by a carved horse head, while the body is a drum of wood and taut camel skin. Dramatically, he puts bow to strings. “This song is about a legend of the morin khuur and what it means to Mongolian people.” Tserendavaa’s fingers dance as he sings in a wavering baritone, eyes shut.

throat singer

"He smokes, drinks, likes to drive around in his Toyota Land Cruiser, and he plays a mean morin khuur."

Tserendavaa, throat-singing master.

The lyrics, filtered through the sometimes stumbling translation of my guide, tell of a handsome man sent away to the east to war, where he falls in love with a beautiful girl. When his military service is over he must return home, but he vows to come back for her one day. To aid the man on his long journey, the girl gives him a winged horse that carries him westward, swift as lightning, over endless leagues of empty steppe and home.

But it transpires that a girl in the man’s home village is in love with him, and in a fit of jealousy she kills his horse as he sleeps to prevent him from flying back his betrothed. When the man wakes he is devastated. So he does what any heartbroken Mongolian would do. He transforms his dead steed into a musical instrument. The horse’s head and neck become the top of the morin khuur, its hair is turned into strings, a rib becomes the bow, the skin the body of the instrument, and the horse’s wings its tuning pegs. Then the man sits and plays his mournful song for the rest of his days, the same song that Tserendavaa now sings for me. 

There are several minor variations on this story depending on the source, but it seems to follows largely the same narrative, and so one might be tempted to conclude that Mongolian men love horses even more than women, and they wouldn’t be far off. The love for the horse in Mongolian culture is all-encompassing. Pop stars sing syrupy ballads about them. Children get in the saddle at the age of three; by five, some of them are competing in 20km horse races at naadam festivals. Airag – fermented mare’s milk – is the national tipple. You might even say that the largest contiguous and most feared empire the world has ever known, the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan, was built on the back of a horse.

So to understand just how prized the morin khuur is in Mongolian culture, one must first grasp the deep veneration Mongolians harbor for the animal and then acknowledge that the morin khuur is itself a horse, and not just via the origin-story symbolism of its component parts. To play it and listen to it is to gallop over the grasslands, as I’m about to find out.

Batzorig playing the morin khuur. 

Batzorig playing the morin khuur. 

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.

Carving the horse head. In Manchu times it was often replaced with a lion or dragon.

Carving the horse head. In Manchu times it was often replaced with a lion or dragon.

Not too long ago, however, the future of the instrument, and traditional Mongolian culture, seemed pretty bleak. The whinny of the morin khuur was muzzled during much of the 20th century while Mongolia was a satellite of Soviet Russia. The Cyrillic alphabet replaced Mongolia’s own script, Genghis Khan was branded an imperialist and the status of traditional nomadic culture was diminished, with classical music favored over Mongolian music.

But despite this erosion of traditional Mongolian culture, some nomads still kept morin khuur in their ger, and a few even carried on the tradition of making them, like the family of Baigaljav, pastoralists living in the barren sands of the Gobi Desert. The third son of 10 children, Baigaljav comes from a family line (on his mother’s side) of morin khuur craftsmen. “I made my first instrument when I was 16, back in 1976,” he tells me. “But during the Soviet times, life was hard, and nobody focused much on music.”

He was a rare exception, and in 1991, after Mongolia’s democratic revolution, he opened Egshiglen Magnai in Ulaanbaatar, a tiny workshop making and repairing morin khuur. Today it’s the most famous instrument maker in Mongolia. Around 50 full-time craftsmen and women create 150 to 200 morin khuur a month.

“The secret to making a good morin khuur is practice,” says Baigaljav, as we chat in his office. “You’ve got to listen to the instrument, to know it intimately.” In the workshop next door, craftsmen are chiselling horse heads, whittling out morin khuur bodies and performing all sorts of bending, sanding and polishing. There’s a bewildering assortment of tools lying about, and the floor is thick with sawdust.

But the real treasures are downstairs. Baigaljav unlocks a room containing what amounts to a museum of morin khuur – his life’s collection of rare and wonderful instruments. They line the walls, all sizes, shapes and styles - a veritable timeline of morin khuur history. The older ones are made with skin – goat or camel, even snake – stretched over a frame. In the 1960s, craftsmen began to make the instrument entirely from wood, to get around the damage wrought by humidity. Morin khuur made since the 1990s more closely resemble classical violins or cellos.

Wrong bow position. Whoops.

Wrong bow position. Whoops.

The morin khuur, or its forebear at any rate, is said to date to the time of Genghis Khan,” says Baigaljav, “but no instruments from that era survive.” His oldest example was made for a Mongolian lord in the 18th century. Another is from the late Qing Dynasty, when China ruled the roost. The neck is topped not with a horse head but a lion, painted imperial yellow. Some are inlaid with delicate designs of bone. Others are brightly painted. One morin khuur in the collection is noticeably humbler than the rest – Baigaljav’s very first instrument, made at a time when the future of the morin khuur looked shaky to say the least.

Things couldn’t be more different now. The government actively promotes the instrument, even decreeing in 2002 that all Mongolians should keep one in the home, and, in 2011, 999 morin khuur were played in Ulaanbatar’s Sukhbaatar Square as part of the State Reverence of Otgontenger Khairkhan, one of Mongolia’s most sacred mountains.

In many ways, the enduring success of the morin khuur mirrors the story of Mongolia as a whole. Despite historic hiccups, few other countries have managed to preserve their ancient forms of living – in this case, nomadic pastoralism – alongside contemporary urban existence. Fundamentally, little has changed out on the steppe. Herding families still tend flocks of goats, sheep and cattle, moving with the seasons. The horse still looms large in the national consciousness. If the second coming of Genghis Khan were to enter a ger in modern Mongolia, he’d probably feel quite at home, provided the TV was switched off. He might even pick up the morin khuur if the family had one and belt out a tune. And for those that have given up their old ways and moved to the city, all it takes is a few rhythmic bars to evoke the thunder of hooves, the eternal blue sky and the great grass sea waiting just beyond the window.