Virtuosos from the Mongolian Plateau : King Records World Music Library King 5177 (August 1992)


Virtuosos From the Mongolian Plateau is a CD mainly dedicated to the Urtyn Duu (long song) singing of Norovbanzad. It features her singing a 14 minute version of a long song which is unheard of. There are details liner notes with translations of some of the lyrics, which I have included in full below. Yavgaan’s khöömii is featured on this CD. He performs some longer versions of some Magtaal’s, which add to the significance of this release.


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I went to live in Ulaanbaatar, the capitol city of Mongolia, as an exchange student from 1990 to 1992, a particularly volatile period in Mongolia's history, when the socialistic system which had continued 70 years came to an end and the country's name was changed to Mongolia. While there, I studied the techniques of Ms. N. Norovbanzad, the singer who is recorded on this CD. During that time I heard on a daily basis stories from her and other musicians about the history and recent development of Mongolian music, mixed together with stories of their personal experiences. I remember now with gratitude how everyone greeted me with openness, inviting me into their homes and rehearsal studios.


But what left the strongest impression on me was the power of the voices of Ms. Norovbanzad and other Mongolian singers whom I heard at close range. No matter how many times I hear them, I never cease to be amazed by the sheer volume, so much that it shakes my entire body, as well as the shining metallic sound of their voices.


Mongolian traditional music was born of a nomadic lifestyle: chasing after herds of sheep on horseback, moving he ger, a kind of tent‑like mobile home, with the changing of the season; in the summer having celebratory feasts in which songs are sung while people drink a wine made of horse's milk; and on winter evenings people enjoy listening to the performance of epic poetry.


Even in today's modernized world this music remains almost unchanged. Take one step outside the city into the endless grasslands, and you will find people living nomadic lives just as they did long ago, and who carry on the traditional music that has been passed down to them.


The Mongolian people's revolution, which occurred over half a century ago in 1921 brought about great changes in traditional music. In order to form a national traditional music ensemble, invited specialists from the Soviet Union began to train ensemble members in 1930. In 1931, the National Central Theatre was established, after that it reformed to the present National Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance. Western musical styles were introduced into traditional, the result of which was that its form was reconstituted. The National Ensemble instrumentalist began to use Western five-line staff notation, even when playing traditional folk songs, and singers began to conduct voice training to the accompaniment of the piano.


This new generation of musicians began to think of themselves as professional musicians and artist in the Western sense. They began to consider themselves as set apart from the usual livestock raising people, and society began to recognize them as such.


There were, however, more than a few among this group who before entering had spent their lives among the livestock raisers. Showing superior ability, they became famous by performing their special talents throughout the country until invited to join the National Ensemble. They are the virtuosos of the Mongolian traditional music that lives and breathes in the grasslands. Through their music they represent the nomadic peoples. While deriving their awareness as professional musicians from the West, they preserve the spirit and the pride of the nomad.


Throughout its development, this music has exhibited a dual nature: It is not only a continuation of the indigenous folk-song, it is also distinct form in and of itself. Remarkably, the Mongolian professional musicians have been able to strike a balance between these two seemingly contradictory aspects of their music.


While there are contemporary compositions in the repetoire of the National Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance, this collection focuses on the traditional elements. The following pages describe the instruments used and the genres of music to be found on this CD.


The musical instruments used:


Morin xuur. Morin means "of a horse," and xuur is the general suffix for musical instruments, similar to the Chinese character pronounced "kin" in Japanese and used alone to represent the koto, or in compounds to denote a kind of musical instrument. The morin xuur is a two‑stringed, bowed instrument. Both the strings and the bow are made from the hair of a horse's tail, and the end of the neck is carved in the shape of a horse's head.

Tovsuur. The Tovsuur is a two‑stringed, bowed lute. It has an oval wooden resonating body over which goat skin is stretched. Strings are made of gut. The head of a swan is carved on the end of its neck.

Xel xuur. A kind of Jews harp. Xel means "tongue," and refers to the shape of a part of the instrument. It is also called "aman xuur," the word "aman" meaning "mouth." The instrument is common throughout all regions of Mongolia. There are several types, classified according to shape and material. The four types used here are as follows


1) Xulsan [bamboo] xel xuur. Consists of a thin bamboo body to which strings are attached. Sound is made by plucking the strings.


2) Nyaslaa [plucked] xel xuur. Made of iron. The sound chamber is decorated with the inscribed heads of a male and female camel.


3)Tömör [iron] xel xuur. The outer rim of this iron xel xuur, the most common type, is sometimes shaped like a flying swan.


4) Böögiin [shaman] xel xuur. Made of iron. Used for shamanistic rituals.


The genres of song:


Urtiin Duu. Means “Long song." The rhythm is non‑metrical, and the singing is free and drawn out. Since this type of song, requires a rich, large voice and deep breath, the singers of this genre are highly respected. Lyrics are usually from four-line poetry, often about such subjects as swift horses, beautiful nature of and love for one's family or lover. It is sung to the accompaniment of the morin xuur.


Xöömii. A method whereby one person sings two pitches simultaneously. A single fundamental drone‑like tone produced with the vocal chords is resonated using the trachea and mouth cavity, and the resulting harmonic tones are manipulated to play a melody. This genre is traditionally found in western Mongolia, i.e.present Xovd, Zavxan, Uvs, and Xövsgöl. According to legend it is said to have originated in Xovd, in the Candmani area. There are several different methods, varying according to the way in which the vocal chords are used and the way the sound is resonated, and singers are thus divided into from three to five categories.


Tuuli [epicpoem] A major form of epic poetry, played to self ‑accompaniment, and sung in praise of the ancient Khan, or of heroic deeds. Sometimes the mountains or nature are also used as subject matter. The singer accompanies himself on a tovsuur in western Mongolia, and on the moriin xuur in other regions.


Magtaal [song of praise] A song in which the singer accompanies himself, the lyrics containing praise for the beauty of Nature or of livestock. As one might expect, the singer accompanies himself on a tovsuur in western Mongolia, and on the morin xuur in other regions. In comparison to Tuuli, it is usually, more showy, and has a faster tempo.


Mongolian traditional music can be roughly divided into two broad categories: that which is associated with xöömii and the tovsuur, and that which is associated with urtiin duu and the morin xuur. The former is mainly that of the Oirod tribe in western Mongolia, and the latter belongs to the Xalx tribe, which live in all parts of the country. It follows that the use of both groups were originally kept separate, and a mixture of instruments or song genres from both groups would be unthinkable in their indigenous forms. But hybrids by the musicians on this CD have developed as a result of their various attempts to rethink their traditions and keep them alive in this day and age. It may be for this very reason that they are professionals.


Then again, it could be that the Mongolian temperament is revealed by precisely this sort of experimentation. The broadminded Mongols make no bones over small matters, making use of whatever is at their disposal. In this respect, they are much like the vast sky and endless grass land which encompasses everything around them. Their flexible way of thinking, as if to say, "Whatever we make will be Mongolian tradition," is astonishing to the Japanese, who are incessantly preoccupied with formality.


All through this CD you will hear such experimentation. Their tradition is constantly being created, in the "present progressive tense."


Profiles of the performers:


Namdžiliin Norovhanzad‑urtiin duu


Born to a livestock‑raising family in Dundgovi, 1931. Exposed to urtiin duu from infancy, she naturally acquired her vocal technique as a part of her livestock raising lifestyle. She won a gold medal at the 1957 World Youth Festival Folk Song Competition in Moscow. The same year she became a member of the National Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance, and for the next more than thirty years continued to be active as one of this group's central figures. As the number one singer of urtiin duu she holds many awards and titles, including National Meritorious Artist, People's Artist, and the National Honorary Award of Excellence. She has performed in over twenty different countries including Japan. Presently, in addition to her activity as a singer, she is advising the next generation as a lecturer at the National Junior High School of Song and Dance and as a professor at the University of Culture and Art.


Tsendiin Batčuluun‑morin xuur


Born in the city of Ulaaribaatar in 1952. Currently a lecturer at the National Junior High School of Song and Dance. National Meritorious Artist. In 1978, he performed in Japan with Norovbanzad, introducing urtiin duu to this country for the first time.


Gūndenbiliin Yavgaan ‑xöömii, xel xuur, tovsuur


Born in Zavxan in 1947. Singer with the National Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance. Won First Prize at the 1989 World Youth Festival Folk Song Competition, held in Pyongyang. Won First Prize at the Asia International Symposium, Folk Art Division in 1984. One of a select few xöömii performers in Mongolia. Excellent researcher and performer of xel xuur. Also famous for his self‑accompaniment on the west Mongolian Tuuli and Magtaal.




1. At the zeergen‑grassy mountain.


Urtiin duu. Lyrics are based on an old tale that goes:


"Genghis Khan was raising a pair of sibling horses. In spite of the fact that these two horses worked for Khan, he forgot to perform a ceremony in their praise. Dissatisfied with the situation, the two horses ran away from Khan. When the two horses became homesick and returned, Khan gladly welcomed them. Admitting his negligence, Khan held a grand ceremony in their praise." The melody is in a short form called besreg urtiin duu. Two lines of poetry correspond to number one of the melody. Many urtiin duu, including this one, have lengthy lyrics of ten or more stanzas, but due to the limit of the singer' s endurance it is normal to sing only until number three or four.


There are also small variations in the lyrics from one singer to another. In this case, one of the purposes was to record Norovbanzad's style of lyric, and she thus sings here up to number eight of the melodv. To do this is unheard of, and the fact that she pulls it off without giving any impression of her age is astounding. The interlude and postlude by the morin xuur were both specially added for this occasion.


On the mountain where the zeergen (*1) grass grows

Wild deer eat the grass

Two sibling zagal (*2) horses were raised together.


Wait, younger brother zagal,

Why hurry off to unknown lands.'

Wait, older brother zagal,

Why hurry back to the land to which we are so accustomed?


Melt then, if you wish, Mountain Snow!

Bend to the cold then, if you wish, my Back!

Sing then, if you wish, Cuckoo Bird!

Stand there, if you wish, blue fog!


The snow on the ridge will melt

Saddles, wet with sweat will dry,

The mountain snow, will melt

And we siblings will have communion with our homeland.


(* 1) A kind of grass of the ramie family

 (*2) This word refers to a kind of horse with reddish­-yellow hair.


2. At the peak of Altanbogd


This urtiin duu is medium in length in comparison with the rest of the urtiin duu repertory. The melody, of this song has many regional variations, the version used here being that of the Bordzgin clan. It is a song about border patrol police who guard the Altanbogd region, located in the Altan mountain system). It tells of their longing to be with their parents back in their home town.


At the peak of Altanbogd a nightingale chirps

Whenever he remembers his while haired father to whom he is indebted.


3. Xel xuur medley


1) Rising Sun (xulsan xel xuur)

2) The Xotgoid's Colt (nyaslaa xel xuur)

3) Sketch of Sounds of Nature (tömör xel xuur)

4) A Shaman's Prayer (boogiin xel xuur)


4. Xöömii Vocal Solo


Yavgaan sings the following three types of Xöömii:


1) Flexing the throat so as to press against the larynx, sound is created from below the larynx. This method is used by the Xotgoid tribe.

2) A method of producing sound from above the Adarn's apple.

3) A method of resonating sound with the nose and mouth.


While playing the tovsuur he sings the folk song, "The Xotgoid's Colt while alternating between these three styles of singing.


5. Clouds trailing from Mount Xangai.


This is a kind of urtiin duu. A song about the fertile land of Xangai, in Central Mongolia, where water and grass are plentiful. It is a song in praise of nature's bounty, and a prayer that the people might live long and prosper.


Clouds trailing from Mount Xangai

The tall mountain overflowing with gladness

May ice the people of this land

Together live happily in peace.


6 Epic Poem in Praise of Altai Mountains


The Altai Mountains, which run through western Mongolia, are an object of the Mongolian people's reverence. Before the recitation of a long epic poem, which lasts anywhere from several hours to several days, there is always a song sung in praise of the Altai Mountains. This is one such song, which has come to be considered a part of the present collection of epic poetry.


Above the Suural, Sulbar and Sundaarii rivers

Which belong to the multicoloured plains,

Above the fifty hills there lies perpetual snow

That sparkles like crystals like holy treasure

The red Altai Mountains with thirteen al (* 1),

Thirty peaks, seventy‑seven branches and trails of clouds.


Arranged in this manner the thirteen favours

Land of Altai, my treasure

Rolling fog in the morning

Streaming clouds in the middle of day

Eternally rich, Wide, high, precipitous, pure white

Our Altai and Xangai mountains.




Light yellow‑stained boulders on the ridge

Little birds chirp at the seven borders

The Plain is fertile and rich

The five cattle (* 2) multiply and fill the land

Precious and noble Our Altai and Xangai mountains.


Once there were wild sheepand goats

Light brown deer sang, ran and played

On the thirteen peaks of Altai

Truly, magnificent The Altai and Xangai mountains.


(* 1) The flat portion of a mountain ridge  (* 2) The five kinds of cattle are: horse, sheep, cow, camel, and goat.


6 Song in Praise of the Xangai Mountains


The Xangai Mountains, running through north western Mongolia are also highly revered. The Magtaal of western Mongolia is often mixed with xöömii.


Mount Zandan can be seen sparkling

In the majestic Xangai Mountains

A river flows slowly pouring into the grassy, ravine

Peaceful by nature

Pure white like the hair of a venerable old man

Xangai, my homeland.


Patting the back of a tired ball

Climbing up

The five meandering portion of river

The thickly growing sandalwood rustles in the wind.

A three year‑old black hawk takes away

A brown rabbit with a white forehead and triangle spots

Peaceful by nature

Pure white like the hair of a venerable old man

Xangai, my homeland.


Where the horse with shackled legs

May find bountiful Provisions

Xangai my homeland.

Gently surrounding

The lonely and weak

Xangai my homeland.


8 An old man and a bird


This song is an aizam urtiin duu, a particulary long form Of urtiin duu. One stanza of the poem corresponds to number one of the melody.

There is a surprising and sudden change in mood at the end of the piece. There are several urtiin uu which have this sort of modulation, called xög soligdol. The song is a conversation between a migratory bird and an old man in the land to which the bird is going, with the speaker alternating each stanza. Because of the length and content of this song, it is usually sung by a man.


O ye countless birds

Why do you come from far across the sea

Fluttering and frolicking

In the pleasant summer months of fertility

O ye birds.


0 Thou old man,

In the Passing of the four seasons

In this powerful summer month

We come to this beautiful land

By the power of ancient prayers.


9. Song in Praise of Mount Dǔndzingarav


A Magtaal sung in praise of Mount Bogd, which towers over the land to the south of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Dǔndzingarav means "white mountain" in Tibetan. The influence of Tibetan Buddhism can be seen in the Mongolian race's peculiar worship of mountains. For accompaniment, the morin xuur is played in the fashion of bowed instruments of western Mongolia.


There is an ovoo (* 1) at the mountain's peak, which gather people from many lands to worship

The sacred relics of Ocir Saan (* 2)

It is Mount Dǔndzingarav of the Xangai mountains

The king Dǔndzingarav.

The holy Dǔndzingarav

Boulder faces showing, Dǔndzingarav.

The king Dǔndzingarav.

This Dǔndzingarav

The great Dǔndzingarav

Lord Dǔndzingarav

In the four pure white mountain chains of Xangai

We praise Dǔndzingarav.


Looking from the south, one can see

The mausoleum of Manjusri Bodhisattava

Decorated with coral and pearls

Nine layers of treasures can be found

O the splendour of the Xangai mountains.


Looking from the West,

one can see the eternal relics

Bountiful Dǔndzingarav

Heroic Dǔndzingarav


Looking from the north, one can see

Xangai's mountains covered in thickly, growing, bronze‑coloured trees

Bucks and dos playing about

Water overflowing from the springs

The clear blue water of the Tuul River with its many boulders.


Looking from the East, one can see

A red boulder resembling a heart Bucks and dos running about

Beautiful trees standing

Springs like crystals.


This Dǔndzingarav

We say Dǔndzingarav

In the four pure white mountain chains of Xangai

We praise Dǔndzingarav om mni mani maha mani shanchoo mani sowakha (*3)


Prosper in the country of Mongolia

For all living things

Urai Urai (Hurrah! Hurrah!)


(* 1) A pile of stones in which multicoloored flags attached to tree branches are erected. An object of worship as well as a guidepost.

 (* 2) Meaning unknown.

(*3) A chant from Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism


10 Erdene Zasag's Colt


Erdene is a person's name, and Zasag is the title of a position in medieval Mongolia's regional beaurocracy. The lyrics speak in praise of a horse raised by the hometown zasag, and about longing to be with one's family. This is a famous besreg uttiin duu, but specially for this recording it is used simply as a motif in order to blend the styles of several major genres of Mongolian music into a kind of collage.


E'rdene Zasag's colt

Is clever and agile, a džoroo (*1) horse.

Tovuu Zasak's colt

Runs lightly. He is a džoroo horse.


(* 1) A kind of horse, which alternately throws out its right and left legs while running. It is easy to ride since this way of running reduces vibration.


Mongolian traditional music, the urtiin dun and xöömii song and vocal techniques are highly advanced. The voice of the nomadic people, trained by the pure and sometimes harsh air of the plateau, seems to be the result of searching for all outlet for its energy.


Their art of singing is at a fairly high standard, even in comparison with the rest of the world. In the future, there will Likely be a rise in the level of interest in Mongolian traditional Music, which shows us the power of the human voice.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Hasumi Haruo Of Tokyo University of Foreign Languages for his guidance during the translation of these lyrics.


Translated by Larry Richards


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