By Kelsey Larson
As my host father navigated the smog and traffic of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, we were accompanied by the sound of galloping horses. Though we were stranded in one of Ulaanbaatar’s legendary traffic jams, a steady rhythm of hooves played by some string instrument I didn’t recognize cut through the blare of traffic horns. “Morin Khuur,” he said in explanation, pointing at his car stereo. “It is a song about how much he loves his horse.”
The morin khuur, or horseheaded fiddle, is Mongolia’s beloved national instrument. The body looks like a two-stringed cello or mandolin, with a long and slender neck that curves into a horse’s head. Like the form of the instrument, the sound of the morin khuur is designed to mimic the Mongols’ favorite animal. The rhythms of traditional songs evoke the pounding of hooves; the long slides along the instruments’ neck sing out like a horse’s whinny. The morin khuur was born to be a nomad’s instrument, and its sound is ideal to tell the story of a nomad’s life. G. Mendooyo, president of the Academy of Culture and Poetry of Mongolia, explained that the majority of pre-communist Mongolian households had owned morin khuur, which the head of the household would have carved themselves, shaping the head into the form of their fastest horse or their horse with the most beautiful whinny. They would play with a bow made from 99 or 108 horse hairs, one for each protective spirit in Mongolian shamanism or Buddhism respectively. “The morin khuur was more than just an instrument,” he explained, “it was a sacred way of connecting to the spirits of the land.”
Though the morin khuur has been part of Mongolia’s culture for hundreds if not thousands of years, it almost disappeared entirely in the twentieth century. However, Genghis Khan’s name is mostly newly painted and always written in the Russian Cyrillic script. From 1920 until 1990, Mongolia was a Communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. Though the Soviets helped Mongolia boost literacy rates to 98%, modernize medical practices, and build up infrastructure, the assistance came at the cost of severing connections to Mongolia’s history and traditions. In an attempt to integrate Mongolia to a broader communist culture, the construction of new morin khuur and the playing of older ones was discouraged. Similarly, the Communists suppressed the history of Genghis Khan, Mongolia’s greatest national hero, and outlawed the practice of shamanism and Buddhism.
When Mongolians protested against Communist rule and held their first democratic elections in the summer of 1990, the Mongolians began searching again for the culture they had lost. Much to the alarm of the academics and musicians looking to rediscover Mongolian musical traditions, the art of crafting morin khuur had nearly been lost. Only a handful of older individuals still remembered the craft, and they slowly began teaching it to students eager to help reconnect to Mongolia’s national heritage.
The morni khuur found two very different but complementary sets of advocates in the Mongolian government and in the professional musical community. The Mongolian government passed a statement in 2002 encouraging “a mori khuur in every ger.” As part of the revival of Mongolian traditions, the Mongolian government envisions the morin khuur’s future as belonging back on the open steppes, an instrument of the people. Professional musicians, on the other hand, have tweaked the instrument for international performance, replacing hide with wood to allow the morin khuur to play well in more humid conditions than those of Mongolia. By bringing Mongolia’s traditional music to concert halls across Europe and Asia, the professionals who have taken up the morin khuur hope to share their national pride with the world.
I have now heard the morin khuur in a concert filling a performance hall, as well as echoing in tinny hoofbeats in a city where the nomads have replaced their horses with cars. Someday, soon, I hope to hear the morin khuur where it was born under the skies of the open steppes. However, the morin khuur is no less Mongolian in one of these places than another. Even when stranded in a smog rising from crowded cars, even on his way back to an office job in an overpopulated city, my host father’s fingers still find a natural rhythm da-da-da, da-da-da on the car’s steering wheel along with the morin khuur’s gallop.
Kelsey Larson ’16 is a junior in Silliman College studying abroad this fall in Mongolia. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.