Morin Khuur - Horse Head Fiddle
The Morin Khuur, a cherished emblem of Mongolian culture, traces its roots back to the 13th century and holds a significant place in the nation's heritage. Recognized for its cultural importance, this traditional instrument was inscribed on UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
It is said that Chinggis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, decreed that all ceremonies must commence with the enchanting melodies of the Morin Khuur, further cementing its esteemed status in Mongolian society.
The folklore surrounding the Morin Khuur weaves a captivating tale of love, loss, and resilience. In a narrative passed down through generations, we meet Namjil, a humble horse herder from the eastern reaches of Mongolia. Drafted into the army and stationed far from home, Namjil's soulful singing earned him the moniker "Namjil the Cuckoo."
During his military service, Namjil found love with the daughter of a local prince. Their bond transcended the distance, with Namjil's beloved gifting him a magical winged horse capable of bridging the vast expanse between them in mere moments. Concealed within the horse's hips, the wings remained hidden until summoned by special command.
Tragically, their idyllic romance was shattered by jealousy and deceit. A jealous neighbor, envious of Namjil's happiness, schemed to sever the wings of his enchanted horse while he slept. Awaking to the loss of his beloved companion, Namjil fashioned a solemn tribute from the remains of his faithful steed.
Crafting a fiddle from the horse's skin and tail, Namjil poured his sorrow into haunting melodies that echoed across the Mongolian plains. Thus, the first Morin Khuur was born from the heartache of lost love and the enduring spirit of a grieving soul.
Today, the Morin Khuur continues to resonate with the rich tapestry of Mongolian culture, its melodies echoing the triumphs and tribulations of its storied past. As each note reverberates through time, it serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring power of music to capture the essence of human experience.
The structure of the Morin Khuur and usage
Written sources claim that string instruments with horse heads on the upper end of the pegbox have been played from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries among Mongolian nomads for rituals and everyday activities. Morin Khuur is explicitly designed to present the attributes of the horse. The instrument’s trapezoid-shaped body is attached to a long neck bearing a carved horse head at its top end, and just below the horse head, two tuning pegs extend out like ears from either side of the neck. Conventionally, the soundboard of the instrument is covered with leather, and the strings and bow are made of horsehair. It is played in a way of stroking the bow against the two strings. Because of the simultaneous presence of a main tone and overtones, Morin Khuur music has always been difficult to transcribe using standard notation. Therefore, it has been transmitted orally from master to apprentice for many generations. Whereas, due to the modernization, the tuning of Morin Khuur has been adapted to the technical requirements of stage performance, resulting in higher and louder sounds that erase many timbral subtleties. (UNESCO, 2008).
Bie Biyelgee - Mongolian Traditional Folk Dance
(Photo from gogo Mongolia website)
Bie Biyelgee holds a special place in the heart of Mongolian culture, honored with its inscription on UNESCO's intangible heritage list. Originating from the nomadic lifestyle that has defined Mongolia for centuries, this unique form of dance embodies the essence of tradition and community.
Across the diverse ethnic groups of Mongolia, Biyelgee manifests in various distinct forms, each reflecting the customs and heritage of its people. Performances often depict scenes from daily life, with dancers gracefully portraying activities such as milking cows, cooking, hunting, and other household chores. These movements not only celebrate the practical aspects of herders' lives but also convey spiritual and cultural values inherent to different ethnic groups.
Traditional attire plays a crucial role in Biyelgee performances, showcasing vibrant color combinations, intricate patterns, and exquisite craftsmanship. From elaborate embroidery to skillful knitting and leatherwork, dancers proudly wear clothing and accessories that symbolize their ethnic identity and community pride.
Beyond mere entertainment, Biyelgee dancers serve as integral participants in family and community events, enriching celebrations, weddings, and labor-related practices with their graceful movements. Through their art, they foster unity and mutual understanding among Mongolia's diverse ethnic groups, strengthening bonds and preserving cultural heritage.
Music is inseparable from the choreographic art of Biyelgee, with many dances accompanied by traditional instruments like the Tovshuur and Morin Khuur, as well as the melodious strains of the human voice. The choreography itself is diverse, reflecting regional differences in expression and feeling, yet unified by the shared passion for storytelling through movement.
Despite the confined spaces in which Biyelgee is traditionally performed, dancers masterfully utilize their upper bodies to convey a myriad of emotions and identities. Hand, shoulder, chest, and head movements serve as powerful expressions of gender, tribe, and ethnic group, captivating audiences with their nuanced storytelling.
A testament to the enduring popularity and cultural significance of Biyelgee, a historic event in July 2013 saw over 5,200 performers don traditional costumes and unite in dance, setting a Guinness World Record. Representing more than 10 ethnic groups, participants showcased the "Gaits of Ambler Horse" and "All-Mongolian Motto," celebrating centuries of shared history and cultural diversity.
From the wisdom of an 82-year-old woman to the innocence of a 3-year-old boy, Biyelgee transcends generations, embodying the spirit of Mongolia's rich heritage and fostering a legacy of unity and celebration through the art of movement.
Urtiin Duu - Mongolian Traditional Long Song
The Mongolian long song tradition is a cherished cornerstone of the nation's cultural heritage, intricately woven into its history, ethos, and artistic expression. This musical genre, deeply rooted in Mongolian customs and philosophy, encompasses a rich tapestry of vocal techniques and lyrical themes.
At the heart of the long song tradition lies the shuranhai, characterized by prolonged, tenuto notes with deeply modulated vibrato on the vowels. These distinctive vocal embellishments, including the dan and davkhar shurankhai, nugalaa, usrelt, tsokhilgo, tsatslaga, khayalga, and shigshree, imbue the long song with a profound philosophical and meditational character.
Three major styles define the long song repertoire: besreg urtyn duu (minor long song), suman urtyn duu (ordinary long song), and aizam urtyn duu (majestic long songs). These stylistic distinctions primarily relate to the performance techniques rather than the length of the songs. The aizam urtyn duu, in particular, holds a special significance, characterized by its broad melody and thematic depth, often evoking a sense of ceremony, honor, and solemnity.
The term "Aizam" derives from the non-lexical vocable of "Aya, zee khu," marking the beginning of the grand long song. These compositions, sung in sequence at the outset of ceremonies or feasts, adhere to special ceremonial rules and serve as the pinnacle of long song performance. They challenge the skills and capabilities of both the singer and the morin khuur (horse-headed fiddle) player, embodying the epitome of artistic mastery and cultural reverence.
Through the evocative melodies and lyrical narratives of the long song tradition, listeners are transported to the vast expanses of Mongolia's mountain valleys, where tranquility and introspection reign supreme. As a reflection of the Mongolian soul, the long song captures the essence of the nation's heritage, offering a timeless glimpse into its rich cultural tapestry.