This year, the SIETAR USA Conference included a cultural performance featuring Munkhbaatar Bat-Uzii and Amarbayar Menchin. The musicians were interviewed by by Ishibalijir Battulga, a national tour guide for Mongolia and skilled translator. Munkhbaatar Bat-Ulzii is a Mongolian urtyn duu (long song) singer, a State-honored Artist/Actor in Mongolia, soloist in the Mongolian Philharmonic Orchestra, researcher, scientist, scholar of Mongolian folk music, and soon-to-be-published author on the subject of Mongolian long songs. Amarbayar Renchin is a Morin khuur (Horse headed fiddle) player, researcher, scholar, and professor at a music university.
These two renowned and honored Mongolian performers of traditional folk music took us on a cultural trip that was like no other. They talked about the history of Mongolian folk music. Mongolian long songs are classified as a “classic art” – the most cherished and valuable form of art in Mongolia. They were registered as an intangible cultural heritage art by UNESCO in 2005
. Many researchers have studied the origins of this distinctive style of folk music. Recently, there has been some interesting research
on the connection between Mongolian people and native North American groups based on the shared cultural traditions of throat singing. Mongolian long songs have often been compared to opera songs, since both require singers to effectively control their breathing and prolong it over the melodies. However, the most observable difference is how singers control their mouths. Opera singers vocalize with vertically-open mouths while Mongolian long song singers vocalize with horizontally-open mouths.
In Mongolian folk music, there are two types of songs, urtyn duu (long songs) and bongino duu (short songs). The Mongolian long songs are called “long” because they have a long history and they are made up of prolonged noises with modulated sounds on vowels. They are often accompanied by the horse head fiddle or the flute. There are three categories of long songs – minor long songs, ordinary long songs, and grand/majestic long songs. Minor long songs and ordinary long songs are sung at parties, weddings, and in daily life. Grand long songs, such as the Chinggis Empire Anthem, are sung at State ceremonies or when worshipping nature. Mongolian folk music, particularly long songs, are deeply connected with the pastoral, nomadic lifestyle of Mongolian people. Interestingly, Mongolian long songs do not contain any humorous nor sorrowful lyrics. Instead, lyrics are meaningful, deep, and often contemplate the themes of life, humanity, the universe, and existence. They also tie in elements of daily life and experiences such as herding livestock and being outdoors. The long songs frequently imitate sounds, such as battle cries, blowing wind, animal calls, galloping horses etc. Mongolian long songs almost always open with reference to horses, and then move on to a philosophical topic. Mongolian long songs are also unique because songs are limited to fewer words. For example, a four-minute song might use only 10 words. So, lyrics must be chosen thoughtfully. Some long songs are forbidden from being sung at festivities since it is the song lyrics that dictate whether it is appropriate to sing a certain song and a specific event or gathering. In many cases, Mongolian long songs can be used for religious purposes, such as asking for blessings from nature or well-being in life.
Munkhbaatar explained and demonstrated different components and techniques of Mongolian long songs, including vocals modulated from the throat, modulated vibratos, and vocals modulated from chest, which are mainly performed by male singers. He explained that the main characteristic of long song singing is to hold one’s breath as long as possible and avoid opening their open mouth wide. Munkhbaatar sang and Amarbayar accompanied him on the horse headed fiddle. They performed one of each type of Mongolian long song. For the minor long song, they performed Alia Saaral (“Sassy Silver Horse”). For the ordinary long song, they performed Khuren tolgoin suuder (“Shadow of the hill”). For the grand long song, they performed Ertnii saikhan (“Ancient Splendid”).
Amarbayar Menchin talked about the cultural significance of the environment and horses in the lives of Mongolian nomads. To emphasize this point, he showed his horse hair fiddles, which both feature traditional carvings of horses on the scrolls, above the two tuning pegs. Another special feature of the instrument is that the bow and the two strings are all made out of horse hair. There are many different stories about the origins of the horse headed fiddle. However, what is known is that it is one of the oldest stringed instruments in the world. Many Mongolian families will display a horse headed fiddle in the most respected part of their home, even if no one in the family can play it. Customs dictates that any visitors able to play the horse headed fiddle must play it or at least tune it and place it back in the most respected part of the host’s home. In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed that the horse headed fiddle was one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Amarbayar played a popular tune, Jonon Khar (“Black Steel”), which tune ended with the strings being played so that their sound perfectly imitated the neighing of a horse. Amarbayar played several more tunes, including Builgan Shariin Yavdal (“Camel trotting”), Morin Tuvurguun (“Roaring hooves”),
After the musical performance, Ishibalijir Battulga participated in a Q&A with Deborah Orlowski, Ph.D. During the Q&A, he shared more information on Mongolian daily life, culture, and traditions. He said that, “[In Mongolia, there is a] cultural shared love of singing. Singing is connected to the heart. [So, if one is in a] happy mood, [then] singing comes naturally.”
This unique cultural performance was informative, insightful, and enthralling. It thoroughly demonstrated Munkhbaatar Bat-Uzii and Amarbayar Menchin’s skills and dedication to their craft as well as their respect and care for the musical history, culture, and traditions. Participants commented that the musical performance was entrancing, haunting, melancholic, beautiful, and resonate. One participant said that, “Mongolia is a deeply beautiful and spiritual place. It's one of my favorite places in the world.”
Written by: Emily Kawasaki