In Mongolia, the Horse-Headed Fiddle Rides Again

The Tumen Ekh folk dance and music ensemble in 2006.
ULAN BATOR, MONGOLIA — In the two decades since the Soviet Union dissolved and Mongolia became an independent democracy, the country has struggled to resuscitate cultural traditions lost during its many years as a Soviet satellite.
“Stalin wanted to bring Russian culture to Mongolia and destroy Mongolia’s national ambition,” explained the poet G. Mend-Ooyo, speaking in the book- and calligraphy-filled office of the Mongolian Academy of Culture and Poetry, of which he is president and founder. “He couldn’t do it completely, but from 1940 to 1990 we were far from our culture. We used Russian script, we couldn’t mention the name ‘Chinggis Khaan’ [Genghis Khan], we didn’t know our own history.”
Efforts to revive the nation’s traditional culture have borne mixed results, bogged down by factional bickering, philosophical disagreements, budgetary restraints and habit. So, while Genghis Khan is once again a household name, the Soviet-imposed Cyrillic alphabet continues to replace the flowing Uighur script that the great Khan himself is said to have borrowed for his people. Surnames — which were abolished by the Soviet-backed government in the 1920s — are still rarely used, despite government mandates to revive them. (Instead, the initial of the father’s first name is often added to given names for official usage.)

There is, however, one area in which near unanimity of purpose has enabled major progress: the revival of the morin khuur, or “horse-head fiddle.” The general revival of the instrument has been bolstered by the government, which went so far as to issue a decree aimed at restoring its special role in the nation’s cultural life. In Mongolia’s music schools, the number of morin khuur students has increased significantly, as has production of the instrument.

A two-stringed bowed instrument with a scroll in the shape of a horse’s head, the morin khuur both springs from Mongolia’s nomadic heritage and embodies it.

“Mongols really like horses,” explained B. Bayaraa, a dean at the Mongolian University of Culture and Arts. “The morin khuur really reflects the feeling, the spirit of the Mongols — it was the main musical instrument.”

The origins of the morin khuur are hazy, but legends recounting its creation all center on a herder’s abiding love for a horse who dies. To numb his grief, the herder is said to have fashioned a musical instrument from the animal’s carcass, covering a wooden frame with its skin, crafting strings and a bow from its tail hair, and carving the scroll in its image. When the instrument was finished, he played upon it the sounds his beloved steed once made as it galloped over vast green steppe, whinnied on a frosty starlit night, or snorted and shook dew from its mane in the first rays of the morning sun. Soon, there was a morin khuur in every ger (or yurt) in the land.

“Every family used to have a morin khuur as a kind of altarpiece — it was a sacred part of the household,” said B. Sharav, a composer at the Mongolian State Theater of Opera and Ballet, who as a child was taught to play the instrument by his father and grandfather and as an adult has written orchestral concertos for it. “This is one thing the Mongols can be really proud of.”

The morin khuur became an integral part of nomadic culture, used to celebrate the beginning of a new year; to mark the end of a long day pounding wool into felt; to break the monotony of herding sheep; to accentuate the joy of drinking fermented mare’s milk — even to encourage a recalcitrant camel to nurse a newborn foal.

The process of making the instrument was gradually standardized. It was determined, for instance, that the thinner of the two strings (which nowadays are generally tuned a fourth apart to F and B-flat) should have about 105 hairs from the tail of a mare while the thicker string should have about 130 from that of a stallion. Goat or camel skin was sometimes substituted for horse hide and the instruments were painted green, to symbolize fertility. A repertoire evolved and the instrument, which is held on the lap as it is played, was used to accompany dance, folk songs and poetry.
The morin khuur’s sound is a part of life,” Sharav said, gesturing toward one propped on a piano in his office. “The head of every household should be able to make a sound on it — the melody of the rhythm of a horse galloping.
As Soviet control over Mongolia tightened, however, the status of the morin khuur was deliberately diminished.

“There were purges and the abandonment of traditional instruments in the 1930s,” explained Ts. Ariunbold, director of foreign affairs at the College of Music and Dance in Ulan Bator.

Echoed his colleague, N. Ganchimeg, deputy director of the college, “This was within the stream of abandoning our traditions — instead classical music was promoted.”

The morin khuur was not completely cast aside — the College of Music and Dance continued to teach it, alongside violin, cello and other Western string instruments — but it lost its central role in Mongolia’s musical life.
Its comeback began in the general flowering of traditional culture that accompanied democracy. The instrument got a considerable boost in 2002 when then-president Natsagiin Bagabandi issued a presidential decree aimed at re-establishing its lost primacy.

“The regulation says that every household needs to have a morin khuur and the head of the household needs to know how to make a sound on it,” Ariunbold said.

Though the decree — which also established a state morin khuur on which the national anthem is to be played on special occasions — is non-binding, it has been broadly propagated and appears to have widespread support.

“We have so many requests to study the morin khuur,” Ganchimeg said. “The policy has really had a big impact in society.”

Of the 170 College of Music and Dance students who play traditional instruments, 50 major in morin khuur; the College has an accomplished morin khuur ensemble that performs works by Mongolian and other composers in a recital hall lined with portraits of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven on one wall and Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky on the other.

The situation is similar at the Mongolian University of Culture and Arts, and many government-sponsored activities have been implemented to support the decree.

“There is a Golden Autumn competition that encourages composers to write for the instrument,” said Bayaraa, of the University of Culture and Arts. “And every two years there is a morin khuur competition. Many people participate — including amateur players from abroad. There is a symposium on techniques, music, and research. We also invite the people who make morin khuur to share their experiences.”

Modern technology has been used to update the instrument, which now often has an all-wood sound box — the leather changes shape when taken to more humid countries — and synthetic strings. Although the instrument is widely used in rock, folk rock and jazz ensembles that play in Ulan Bator’s clubs, amplification comes from a microphone rather than electric pickups on the instrument itself.

Efforts to revive the morin khuur at home have been so successful that many of its advocates have set their sights on promoting it overseas, noting that its sound is comparable to that of the cello and that it blends well with Western orchestras.




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