Horse-head fiddle or morin khuur
Varied local legends tell of a man’s love for his dead horse breathing life into Mongolia’s national musical instrument, the morin khuur or horse-head fiddle. Now its distinctive violin-like sounds permeate Mongolian culture and resonate throughout the country.
Historically a nomadic nation, the horse still plays a beloved and integral role in life on the steppe and many Mongolian songs and poems extol its virtues. (See Nadaam Festival – Horse Racing on the Steppe.)
The scroll of this prized, traditional instrument is carved into the shape of a horse’s head while the bow and two strings are made from horsetail hair.
More than a musical instrument to the nomads, the morin khuur remains an intrinsic part of everyday life and rituals, accompanying songs, dances, ceremonies, folkloric tales and daily tasks including the taming of animals.
“Weeping Camel” is an insightful documentary into the nomadic world, showing Mongolian herders playing the morin khuur whilst serenading a mother camel to entice her back to her rejected foal.
Last year my brother Mike married his bride Anna in her motherland, Mongolia and during the traditional part of the wedding ceremony, a musician played the morin khuur. (See Getting Hitched in Mongolia – Local Flavor.)
During the wedding reception, Anna’s cousin Khongor Khuurch gave an extraordinary performance of throat singing known as khoomei while playing the morin khuur. A famous musician in Mongolia, his music videos air on national TV channels. (See also here.)
After Khongor finished performing, his father, Anna’s uncle Toroo, presented an honored Mike and Anna with the morin khuur as a very special and prestigious wedding gift.
Sacred in every Mongolian home, the people believe a ger with a morin khuur is complete whereas one without is like a widow. A ger is a traditional Mongolian felt, tent-like dwelling that is home to a huge part of the nation’s population both in the countryside and the city.
Throat singing or khoomei
Mongolia is the most renowned country for khoomei (can be spelt differently), the ancient and otherworldly art of throat singing, although it is an esteemed musical tradition in neighboring areas too.
While in Kharkhorin, now a ramshackle town but once the ancient capital of the Mongol empire, an old musician called B. Baasandorj visited our ger camp bringing with him an array of traditional instruments.
He indulged us to a mellow evening of melodious playing and khoomei, a welcome treat after spending two weeks of long days on the road out on the Mongolian steppe, or more accurately on bumpy tracks and completely off-road.
To hear the unique sounds of khoomei and learn more check out the following:
- video of a Mongolian musician’s explanation and performance of morin khuur and khoomei.
- short video demonstrating and explaining the origins of the different khoomei tones.
- the documentary “Genghis Blues”.
Zither or yatga
Another traditional Mongolian instrument is the yatga, a kind of zither with a wooden body and strings played by finger plucking.
Check out B. Baasandorj playing the yatga and singing with some khoomei here.
Flute or limbe
The Mongolian flute, called the limbe, was traditionally made from bamboo and is a very popular folk musical instrument. It produces a delicate sound in stark contrast to the gruff tones of throat singing and flautists use a form of circular breathing to play it.
Horse racing was the Three Manly Games event of the Nadaam competition that I had most looked forward to since arriving in Mongolia and it proved to be the most raw and authentic.
It took place on the steppe a few kilometers out of the capital Ulaanbaatar and to get there two uncles of my newly wed sister-in-law Anna drove us in 4WDs. The roads were so congested, as this was a national holiday and such a popular event, that we cut across country which was an adventure in itself.
A muddle of unmarked dirt tracks crisscross this barren, open landscape, splitting off in various directions and enough to confuse the most skilled orienteer. We weren’t the only ones out there. Lines of cars streamed along behind each other but everyone seemed to know where they were headed.
We were tossed around in the back seat over ruts and potholes until we almost reached a traffic choked, paved road where police forced us to turn back. Then it was mayhem for a while as all the cars tried to maneuver out of a tight dead-end while still more arrived.
We cut back across the steppe partly on dirt tracks and the rest of the time off-road. Finally we reached our journey’s end, the race finish line, which was a flurry of activity with droves of people walking or riding around on horseback, many in traditional Mongolian costumes. There was an excited buzz in the air as they waited for the race finale.
In Mongolia, horses far outnumber the human population and, despite their small size, are horses not ponies. Mongolians are so deeply proud of them that a traditional gift to a three-year old male child is a horse. They are extremely tough, surviving out on the steppe during the harsh winters and are an essential part of daily life. Nomads use them to herd their huge flocks, sometimes they eat the meat and they use the mare’s milk to drink or ferment it to make airag, the national alcoholic beverage. The best they train to race and winners are highly prized.
Everyone lounging around on horseback waiting for the race to come in.
This kind man let me sit on his Russian horse which is bigger than the Mongolian. It was the first time I sat on a horse in Mongolia but not the last.
Exquisite saddle on the Russian horse.
Nadaam horse races are long distance, cross-country events held on the open steppe with no set track or course, ranging usually from an exhausting 15-30 kilometers long depending on the age class of the horse. Up to 1000 horses compete from all over Mongolia.
Jockeys are from 5-13 years old as the main purpose of the race is to test the speed and endurance of the horse and not the rider’s skill.
Before the race starts spectators sing traditional songs and jockeys sing a special song called a gingo. As the winning horse crosses the finish line, everyone dashes to touch its lucky sweat and they sing to the last horse in the two-year old class wishing him luck. Prizes are awarded to both horses and jockeys.
The race coming in fast across the steppe.
Everyone cheering and standing up on their horses to get a good view.
Standing up on their horses to get a view of the race.
Unusual attire for riding but here there was a mix of everything.
Closing in fast almost at the end of the race.
A view of the race trailing across the vast steppe.
Horseman wearing a brightly colored deel, the national costume. This robe-like garment is daily wear for many Mongolians. Here there was a real mix of traditional Mongolian and western style clothing.
Selling Mongolian flags.
Climbing for a better view.
Everyone gets around on horseback.
Selling drinks out of a shopping cart.
Taking a break.
Watching the screen on horseback.
Gers in the background.
The two uncles waiting for lunch.
Mongolian flag. The yellow symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.
Nadaam poster showing the Three Manly Games of archery, wrestling and horse racing.
Stopping by at the store.
Billiards on the steppe.
Also check out my blog post Nadaam Festival: Mongolian Wrestling.
Nadaam or the “Three Manly Games” is the most important festival of the year in Mongolia and is held throughout the country during the national holiday from 11-13 July. Its roots lie in Mongolian warrior traditions and includes competitions in wrestling, horse racing and archery.
The National Sports Stadium in the capital Ulaanbaatar holds the biggest celebrations and opens with an extravagant ceremony of horsemen, athletes, musicians, dancers and the military. Then the contests begin.
My brother Mike planned his wedding in Mongolia to coincide with Nadaam, giving guests visiting from other countries the chance to see this unique festival too.
National Sports Stadium, Ulaanbaatar
Officials in the stadium dressed in the national costume. This robe-like garment called a deel is daily wear for many people in the city and out on the steppe.
Old woman in national costume arrived before the crowds.
Beautiful costumes everywhere.
The President of Mongolia, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, gave a speech during the ceremony which broadcasted to everyone on the big screen.
Spectators sheltering from the harsh sun under umbrellas.
Archers gallop on horseback.
Archery display. Both men and women compete in Mongolian archery and wear traditional costumes.
A multitude of film crew and photographers record the event.
Horsemen show their skill galloping into the stadium in a cloud of dust.
Synchronized military display.
Parachutists landed in the stadium closely missing dancers. It was mayhem.
A full stadium.
Horseman carrying the Mongolian flag. The yellow symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.
Cirque du Soleil’s mind-blowing show “O” at Bellagio in Las Vegas set the stage for their romance. Once ignited there was no dousing it. An Englishman and a Mongolian. A fire artist and a contortionist.
Now that would’ve aroused my interest under any circumstances but this was my brother getting hitched. Location Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. There’s no way in the world I would’ve missed that wedding.
The following posts are a photo documentary of the day.
The Bride’s Family Apartment – The Morning Before the Wedding
We arrived to collect the bride, Anna. Her parents greeted us with traditional Mongolian milk tea and breakfast while her sisters helped her get ready in the next room. Mike my younger brother is the groom (right) and Matt my older brother is the best man (left).
The bride appears and Anna’s father offers the groom Mongolian milk tea according to tradition. During formal occasions food, tea or vodka is given and received with the right hand extended and the left hand supporting the right elbow. Also they roll down the sleeves first to show respect.
Outside The Wedding Palace
A photo shoot outside the Wedding Palace while waiting for their allotted time. Each couple has half an hour for the ceremony so punctuality is crucial. That day the traffic was worse than usual and we thought we weren’t going to arrive on time but there were still a few minutes spare to take photos.
Mongolian registration plate on the wedding car. The red symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere including on the Mongolian flag. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.