The press materials for AnDa Union, a Mongolian folk group coming to UCSD on October 27, contain the following legend about the origin of the two-stringed morin huur, an iconic cello-like instrument also called the horse head fiddle.
As the story goes, a shepherd, Namjil the cuckoo, had a flying horse that he would mount each night and fly to meet his beloved. A jealous woman cut off the horse’s wings, and it fell from the air and died. From the now wingless horse’s skin and tail hair, the grieving shepherd made a fiddle and used it to play poignant songs about his horse.
I like this story for two reasons: 1) it captures some of the haunted otherworldly melancholy, which seems intrinsic to much traditional Mongolian music, and 2) the shepherd ends up singing about his horse rather than his women, which is, like, dude, classic Mongolian.
The music of the grasslands of Ghengis Khan does feel as though it’s more about place than people: it feels elemental, which is not to say that the Big Three Themes of Folk Music (Women, Drinking, and Nostalgia) aren’t as omnipresent as always, but rather that the backdrop of the inner Mongolian landscape – horses and hawks and endless steppe – dominates the imagination in every piece. The elemental quality arises because so much of the music, even instrumental, is based on throat-singing, and throat-singing is very much endemic to this isolated part of the world.
I first heard throat-singing in Bill Alve’s ethnomusicology class in college, mid-’90s. My roommate and I were so entranced that we spent months trying to learn how to do it (with very little success). There are a half-dozen varieties, but, basically, throat-singing is a vocal technique that allows one person to sing two notes simultaneously. One note is regular and full-voiced, and the second (and sometimes even third) is harmonic, usually high above the first, and sounds like a whispering whistle. If you grew up with it, I suppose throat-singing sounds just as much like home as country gospel does to me, but when you hear it for the first time, lawd a’mercy, it is strange, even hard to believe. And in the same way that jazz saxophone takes on the quality of jazz singing, the typical Mongolian instruments – the lute, the flute, the horse head fiddle – also take on some of the quality of throat-singing, combining low drones with high trilling melodies. Add booming percussion made of hooves and sheep skin, and you’ve got instrumentation for songs like “Galloping Horses” and “Holy Mountain,” which paint plein air directly onto the inner eye.
Traditionally, this is nomadic music played by a single performer accompanying himself, or it’s played in small groups of two or three around campfires or in yurts (a circular tent that nomads use). But AnDa Union is a nine-person ensemble, all relatively young for folkies, and this gives them a certain leeway and breadth. Based now in Hohhot, the core of the group met in the Inner Mongolia Music and Dance Troupe, a regional performance company promoting cultural music throughout China. They come from musical families in different traditions; one is adept at “long song,” another at Buriat wedding songs or the especially low-pitched style of throat-singing called kargyraa. Nine performers means they can blend traditions, paint wider landscapes, or present a kind of variety show with half a dozen roots. “Anda” means blood brother; the band name implies that they are a unifying of a brotherhood of Mongolian traditions stretching across central Asia. In live performance, they wear traditional garments and tell stories about the songs to connect with the audience, going so far as to give out typical blue scarves at the door (though I’m not sure that’s what they’ll do at UCSD). The emotional palette of their show is large; pieces range from trance-like to raucous, from slow shamanic dirges to stampedes.
AnDa Union is by no means the only ambassador of Mongolian music, but first contact with the western world was surprisingly recent. In fact, not until the late sixties did academia even know two simultaneous tones was possible with one human voice. Music of Tibet, an ethnographic recording of chanting monks made in 1967 by Huston Smith, was the first commercially available, and even then it took a team of MIT engineers to confirm what Smith suspected: that harmonic and drone came from one person. In the ’80s, through the tireless promotions of the Dalai Lama, a group of Tibetan monks toured the world, flummoxing audiences with deep chants that seemed to emanate from the core of the Earth. But, where the Tibetan style of throat-singing is raw and powerful, the styles of Tuva (in Russia), Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia (in China) are far more precise. The most impressively technical singers can produce whole intricate melodies in mid-range, sub-harmonic, and high-harmonic registers.
The first group working in these traditions to make any kind of dent in Western consciousness was Huun-Huur-Tu, a Tuvan folk quartet. Starting in 1992 with their debut album 60 Horses in My Herd, they toured extensively. The ’90s were a golden age of “world music” in the States, at least partly because arts visas became severely restricted after the 9/11 attacks. Between Huun-Huur-Tu’s riveting shows, Tuvan throat-singing master Kongar-ool Ondar’s appearances on David Letterman, and the 1999 hit documentary Genghis Blues, Westerners got more than a peek at Mongolian musical culture.
Aside: if you’re going to see AnDa Union when they come through town at the end of the month, do yourself a favor and watch Genghis Blues or listen to 60 Horses in My Herd or both beforehand. The movie is “instant” on Netflix, most of the “60 Horses” is available free on YouTube. You’ll enjoy them, I guarantee it, and then we can compare notes about the differences between Tuva and Inner Mongolia afterwards.
Nowadays, world-class “world music” only comes at all regularly to three venues in San Diego: House of Blues, Belly Up, and the ArtPower concert series at UCSD. Of the three, ArtPower is the most reliable. Along with series of string quartets, modern dance troupes, and various jazz eclectica, ArtPower brings three or four groups a year from the far corners of the globe to further San Diegans’ cultural education. In the coming season, Fatoumata Diawara, a Malian singer-songwriter, and the large South African Soweto Gospel Choir will join AnDa Union in visiting UCSD. The audiences at these shows will surely be entertained; most of these performances have been honed into tight spectacles after months of touring, and music has always been called the universal language. But there is also something to be said for coming face-to-face with the Other. A healthy life of the arts must look both inward and outward. Inward to native musics like bluegrass, jazz, hip-hop, and, yes, pow-wow drum circles. Outward to things like airag.
It’s “milk champagne” made from fermented unpasteurized mare’s milk, being the only domestic animal milk with enough sugar to convert to a reasonable percentage of alcohol. The fermentation process produces fizz and also apparently renders the milk palatable to an otherwise largely lactose intolerant population. It’s very limited in production because 1) no industrial farm finds it economical to keep dairy horses and 2) it’s reportedly fairly difficult to milk a mare. Airag can thus be said to be a drink that has not made it into the industrial age: it is a thoroughly un-modern drink. In “Ordos Drinking Song,” here, poorly translated, is what AnDa Union have to say about it:
When the airag is in the bottle
It’s like small sheep in a pen
When the airag is in your belly
It’s like a tiger on the loose!
Anyone can write a metaphor, and anyone can sing it, but when you reach down into your soul to sing these lines, it doesn’t hurt to have direct personal experience of mares, sheep, and tigers. AnDa Union have it.
See you at the show: Sunday, October 27, 8pm at the Price Center East Ballroom. Contact http://artpwr.com/experience/2013/10/27/anda-union for further details and ticket information.