Visit Mongolia and music is all around you. Spend time out in rural Mongolia and you will hear a herder singing or whistling as an accompaniment to their lonely work. Music is used to control livestock and to encourage the animals to give milk or accept their young. It permeates domestic and public celebrations such as Naadam (one of Mongolia’s most traditional festivals), when rhythmic calls form part of archery competitions and ritual songs are performed by child jockeys during the horse racing competition. Visit Ulaanbaatar and you will hear the beats of urban hip-hop. Travel during the summer month and you will come across Mongolian families celebrating being Mongolian with a rousing late-night karaoke tune.
Within Mongolia, music remains an integral part of the culture, and traditional instruments often are played in a way to evoke Mongolian nature – by embracing the wind, the rolling steppe, and high mountains, birds or horses. One such traditional instrument is Mongolia’s horse head fiddle – the Morin Khuur.
Mongolia’s horse head fiddle is two-stringed with a hollow trapezoid-shaped body attached to a long fretless neck bearing a carved horse head. Just below the head, two tuning pegs jut out like ears from either side of the neck. The soundboard is covered with animal skin, and the strings and bow are made of horsehair. The characteristic sound of the Morin Khuur is produced by sliding or stroking the bow against the two strings.
Mongolia’s horse head fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument – it was traditionally used as an integral part of rituals and everyday activities of nomadic Mongolians. To this day, the Morin Khuur repertory has retained some tunes (tatlaga) specifically intended to tame animals and it was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
The design of the Morin Khuur is closely linked to the all-important cult of the horse and when played, it can produce sounds similar to the noises that a horse makes. The Morin Khuur is a beautiful instrument – not just in sound and design but in the legends surrounding its origin.
The Legend of the Morin Khuur
There are many different versions of this legend but this is one … Once upon a time, a horseman rode through the night sky and spotted the ger of a beautiful herdswoman. He stayed with her for one night and at dawn he rode away. The second night he returned to the woman’s delight, but at dawn again he disappeared. After several nights the woman decided to keep the horseman by her side. While he slept she crept out to his horse and noticed that the animal had little wings above its hooves. In a drastic moment, she cut off the horse’s wings. When her lover left the following morning his mount fell to the earth and died. Despairing over the loss of his horse the man grieved night and day. To soothe his sorrow he carved the horse’s head from a piece of wood and transformed it into a two-string instrument, using the bone, hair and the hide of the dead horse. The Mongolian horsehead fiddle is played to this day in celebration of the spirit of all horses.
The Hu And The Morin Khuur
The Hu are a Mongolian heavy metal band that calls their style of music “hunnu rock”, hu being a Mongolian root word for “human”. Their music incorporates elements of modern music with traditional Mongolian rhythms and musical style including combining Mongolian throat singing and traditional Mongolian instruments including the horse head fiddle.
Activist musicians are on the increase in Mongolia, using their music to reflect popular concerns as well as to remind the next generation of Mongolia’s culture, nationalism, and historical legacies. Modern music is being used with traditional instruments to awaken the conscience of the next generation and to instill them with a feeling of pride for being Mongolian.
In an article in the Guardian newspaper, the Hu said that:
“Our music is a blend of east and west, old and new,” said Galbadrakh Tsendbaatar, AKA Gala, the band’s lead singer, through a translator. “We’re building on a history and a sound that has been around for thousands of years.”
If you’re interested in learning about how the Morin Khuur is made or played then we can arrange this as part of our One Day series. Alternatively, look at the longer Mongolian experiences that we offer.
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes