Nothing much goes on in remote Mongolia

This article first appeared in The Wire Magazine’s Global Ear section and is a précis of my third trip to Mongolia in 1997


Bill Laswell popped over here a few years ago to do some subliminal sampling. The Tuvans to the north are cornering the market in throat singing and I find myself in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar. My mission is to find the elusive “sound mountain” and to see my khöömii singing teacher Tserendaava. Ulaanbaatar has changed a lot since I toured with my music group Nada three years ago. The Cyrillic script being replaced by Roman and new buildings and cars litter the unkempt Russian built roads. While arranging for transport to western Mongolia I got some time to check out the city's music scene.


Sarantuya is still no 1 with a soft jazz/rap version of an old Kino (cinema) song about a celibate monk who peeps at his young love through a whole in the wall of her house. Sarantuya has just given birth to a son and surprisingly won't say who the father is. The Spike Girls are playing at the cultural palace, Nikiton are the new boys in the Mongolian rock scene, displacing Haranga (gong) with a new CD manufactured in Singapore.


Zulsar is the new star of khöömii (Overtone) singing, combining the tiger sound of Khargiraa with the whistling harmonics of Isgeree, and if you manage to find her, in a small office next to the old Lenin Museum is Erdenechimmeg. She has just won a scholarship to Shanghai. Her theory on the Morin Khuur (Two stringed horse‑hair fiddle) goes beyond, Schoenberg, Parch and La Monte Young. We are talking a massive 12 pitches to a semi‑tone, that's 144 to an octave! It’s all linked up to the amazing vocal style called long song (Urtyn Duu) of which Norovbanzad has reigned supreme for the last 30 years. Her soaring melismatic, glottal stopping, glissando vocals easily match any contemporary vocal techniques that you may hear in classical or improv music.


The city, which is surrounded by felt tents (gers) is becoming a mix of the old and new, the poorer and the richer, traditionalists and capitalists. You can see Chi Bulag playing his virtuoso Morin khuur on Inner Mongolian cable TV. Switch to one of the 23 channels and the latest hits on Indian MTV are pumped out to the eager listener. Even Ganbold arguably the best khöömii singer at present has just released a Mongolian made CD with traditional Korean and Japanese songs.


Khöömii is a remarkable style of singing where one person sings two or more distinct tones at the same time! The singer isolates the harmonics or overtones of a single note whilst at the same time singing the fundamental or drone note of the harmonics. The Mongolians and Tuvans play traditional melodies about the landscape and the people that are derived from the overtone series. The overtone series is a universal series from which all sounds emanate and is the core of the just intonation systems that Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and many others have been inspired by it. The many styles of khöömii require immense vocal strength and stamina, making it one of the most difficult vocal techniques to master. However in the flesh it has a power that transfixes and transports the listener to another age.


We are sitting in Ganbold's basha (house) with a large bowl of piping hot boiled sheep innards facing us. His new recording is playing and some of it will blow the ethnomusicologists theories about khöömii into the endless clear blue sky of Ganbold's

homeland in western Mongolia. He grunts, "Maa!" as he gives us a knife. We pick at the steaming heart, liver and kidneys while trying to avoid the lungs and brain. Ganbold's son Amgaa strikes up a tune on the Morin khuur and demonstrates his Mongolian and Tuvan khöömii. He is only 21 and works in the tourist art shop by the Ulaanbaatar hotel. He is the next generation and we drink to him and his singing with ample supplies of Chinghis Khan Vodka, a staple of most khöömii singers. There are now two strands of

khöömii singers, the professionals who work in theatres and the new private music ensembles and the amateurs who mainly live in Chandman' sum (district), Khovd aimag (province). Ganbold is big in Japan, you can even hear his khöömii on the Throat Singing

Society page on the Web.


Bought some recordings of animal cries from Mongolian radio. The Mongolians can talk to the animals because they can sing like the animals. They can make camels cry (really big tears) by singing a special tune. This melody calms a She-camel in order to allow her to accept a baby orphan camel to feed from her! Such are the mysteries of one of the last nomadic nations in the world. Everything is up for grabs if you have the dollars ready. I bought another morin khuur from Altan Tsog. He plays for the state ensemble and back in his changing rooms I heard him play this two‑string instrument like he was a horse himself. The strings are made from the tail hair of the tough Mongolian mount and its origin goes back to the times of the Böö (Shaman). We celebrate my new acquisition by having a pint of German beer in a neon lit Turkish bar that used to be a cinema. The cinema now shows porno movies and shares it premises with a bingo hall and a money exchange market!


The Chingis Khan Hotel was, the venue for a symposium on all things Mongolian. I met Jargalsuren, the elder statesman of Mongolian Pop/Rock. He was the lead singer of the perennial group Chingis Khan and had just delivered a paper about the subject. You should be able to get his book about Mongolian Pop/Rock music in you local Mongolian bookstore right about now. I ask him if he wants to play in a benefit gig for Buddhism in Mongolia. He would love but will be in Singapore touring, however he said that we could borrow his P. A.


Met a Danish ethnomusicologist at the conference. He said he would get me an instrument that the reindeer people (Tsaatan) from the north play. It is a wind instrument made from the bark of a tree that you suck into to imitate the sound of a reindeer! Where are you now John Zorn.


Alma, beautiful Alma, whose “liquid silver” voice sings khöömii (I know of only two other woman khöömii singers in the world) is sitting in our flat. Alma is somewhat of an enigma, she is married to a monk but we never see him and much the same for her three kids. She taught herself khöömii but keeps it all quite secret. However she has a character that is a large as her bulk and can sing all kinds of tunes from lullabies to long songs. She comes from the Central Gobi (desert) region and it is to here where we start our journey to the countryside.


      We were looking for places that connect sound with the landscape and passed through, Ikh Gazryn Chuluu (Big stone land/garden) and Baga (Little) Gazryn Chuluu. The legend that says that when the wind is strong enough you can hear the sound of a

thousand flutes emanating from the rocks. If they can be heard from an old monastery about 50kms away then it would be portent of bad news. We travelled for six weeks on terrible track roads in our Russian built jeep meeting the nomads, staying in their gers exchanging our songs for theirs. My khöömii went down very well, as did the didgeridoo, Purcell and Berio of my travelling companions. We were looking for Duut Uul (Sound Mountain), from where stone instruments that sounded like Tibetan singing bowls were meant to come from. We found (sound lake) instead. The lake's still waters reflected the snow‑capped Altai Mountains. Only the sound of the wings of a flock of waterfowl disturbed the eerie silence.


Travelling onwards we reached the homeland of khöömii, Chandman' Sum. I met up with Tserendaava my khöömii teacher of four years ago. We went to a Mongolian wedding and sung, ate and drank from eight in the morning to six at night. Tserendaava took us to a cliff that faced Har Nuur (Black Lake) and listening to the waves lapping on the lake side reminded me of the story of the origin of khöömii he told me four years ago. The sound of wind on the threes lakes was echoed in the Jargalant Altai mountains for anything up to three days and then sounded to the people of the Chandman’ plain below.


We were blessed by Zunbaatar a Yeröölch (Wish prayer or Blesser), attended a hair cutting ritual, we ate wild deer cooked by hot rocks and in Khovd. City met Gombajavdd the amazing knife and spectacle arm flute player!!! . Gombajavd plays the Tsuur a vertical end blown flute that is made from the root of a special tree that grows in the Altai Mountains. He learnt from his father Narantsogt, the most famous Tsuurich. The technique of playing the Tsuur allowed Gombajayd to sound the smallest edge like a flute. You have to see it to believe it! The next day he was off to Korea to do a gig.


Back in Ulaanbaatar we were to appear on Radio 102.5 fm to sing one of the songs we composed during the journey. Sadly the recording equipment had broken down on the day we were meant to record so instead we gave a farewell party in a monastery ger.

Ganbold and his brother Gereltsogt another great khöömii singer came. We sung khöömii together and played a “Ndiznee Americ Magtaal” (throat singing blues) to say goodbye to the hospitable people from a land of extremes. They say nothing goes on in Mongolia ....


Michael Ormiston 1997


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