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Almaty or Bust!
Central Asia in Words and Pictures

Part Seven: Mongolia

Population: 2,712,315 (July 2003 est.)
Capital: Ulaanbaatar
Ethnic Groups: Mongol (predominantly Khalkha) 85%, Turkic (of which Kazakh is the largest group) 7%, Tungusic 4.6%, other (including Chinese and Russian) 3.4% (1998)
Religions: Tibetan Buddhist Lamaism 96%, Muslim (primarily in the southwest), Shamanism, and Christian 4% (1998)
Languages: Khalkha Mongol 90%, Turkic, Russian (1999)

Growing up, looking at maps of Mongolia, sandwiched as it was between the USSR and China, I always wondered exactly how this sparsely populated, nomadic country ever managed to remain independent. Only recently did I learn that Mongolia was, for all intents and purposes, a part of USSR; its "official" independence was a move by Moscow to appease relations with China. Of course, today Mongolia IS completely independent, and that's caused a number of problems within the country, thanks to a lack of infrastructure. The ties between the present and the past are more evident in this country than in any other in Central Asia, as the country's population is still largely composed of nomadic herders.

This relatively traditional lifestyle means that traditional culture in Mongolia is very much alive today. The fascinating web site, Mongol Art, offers a very vivid description of Mongolia's musical culture:

Mongolian music is a reaction to our surroundings and life. Caring for a baby provokes melody. Seeing a calf being rejected, its mother is convinced to return by singing. Seeing white gers spread across the green pasture inspires a proud melody. Traveling a long way on horseback, riding sets a pace, the pace delivers rhyme, and here again the song is involuntary. Hurrying to one's beloved, the heartbeat composes another melody. The sources of song are endless. Birthdays, weddings, national holidays, winning a horse race or wrestling competition, celebration of the elderly, mare's milk brewing, wool cutting, cashmere combing, and harvest comprise an endless chain of reasons for singing and dancing.

Through the ages, music has spread around Mongolia through home teaching and festivals. Any family or clan event was a good chance for musicians and singers to gather together. Coming from different areas, most often representing different tribes, people had the opportunity to perform, to learn from others and to take home a new melody or song. In this way, the ancient patterns of various corners of Mongolia have been preserved by local masters for the whole nation.

Mongol Art goes on to note the variety of traditional songs common in Mongolia, including labor songs, lullabys, "Uukhay" or call and response songs, epic and long songs (similar to those heard among Kazak and Kyrgyz nomadic herders) and "Mongol Hoomii," or throat singing (see the Tuva section of this guide for more information on that). Among the many instruments used in Mongol music, the one that stands out is the horse-head fiddle, which the Mongols call the morin khuur (see below). If you're interested in hearing some Mongol music, I'd heartily recommend picking up a copy of Egschiglen's Sounds of Mongolia. It's filled with exuberant, joyous music, including a lot of morin khurr and mongol hoomii. It's a true delight!

THIS is Mongolia! Wide open spaces, isolation, and peace: what more could you want? Well, perhaps a horse and some music...

...and here's a little of both. This is a picture of a morin khuur, or horse-head fiddle (courtesy of Mongol Art).

As this picture on the right demonstrates, the morin khuur is played in an upright position, using a bow (like a cello). This picture is courtesy of Ride4Kids.com.

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central asia in words & pictures
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