One of the dominating styles of Mongolian music is the love song. However, I think it’s probably a very different kind of love song than what many people might think of. These love songs consist of long, drawn-own syllables. The average 3-4 minute song might only have a few words to it. So, I suppose it’s not what you say, but how you say it. (I tell this to my husband ALL THE TIME.) The subject of the lyrics may vary from philosophical to romantic, and horses seem to be used as symbolism. It sounds like the making of a country song, but remember, much of Mongolian history and culture is based on the horse culture that was common throughout Central Asia.
I read about overtone singing when I was studying music in college, and it’s a style that Mongolia is fairly famous for. It’s more commonly practiced in the northern regions of the country along with some of the southern regions of Siberia (in particular, the area of Tuva). When most people sing, they sing one pitch at a time. But in overtone singing, the singer is able to produce two pitches at the same time; one of the pitches is typically a drone note. This practice is sometimes referred to as throat singing and can also be found in a number of cultures.
There are a number of instruments utilized in Mongolian music. Probably the instrument most well known in their music is the horse-head fiddle. It also goes by the name of morin khuur and is often seen as a symbol of the country. This two-stringed instrument is played with a bow and held similar to a cello, with the exception that it’s held between the knees rather than balanced on the ground with an endpin. The upper end of the instrument’s peg box typically has a carving of a horse on it, leading some scholars to tie the morin khuur to shamanism. This video is a little longer, but there is some good background and info here.
Mongolian music utilizes other instruments that are similar to Chinese and Japanese musical instruments. Some of the ones you’ll hear include the ikh khuur (like a bass version of the morin khuur), shants (a three-string, long-necked lute), bishhuur (similar to a clarinet), yoochin (like a dulcimer), everburee (like an oboe), khel khuur (similar to a jaw harp), khuuchir (bowed spike-fiddle), tobshuur (a plucked lute), and the yatga (a plucked zither).
There are several traditional dances that are tied to Mongolia, many stemming from their nomadic traditions. One dance called the Biyelgee incorporates all of the motions of the nomadic ways of life. This particular dance is famous in the Oirat culture, the group of people who live in Mongolia’s western regions. Another type of dance in called tsam, which means “dance” in Tibetan. In this dance, the performers wear masks and do what’s almost like a pantomine play. It was tied to Buddhism ceremonies, but a lot of the information we know about it got destroyed when over 700 monasteries were destroyed during the communist years.
I was really surprised at the pop music and rock music scene. Classical music (especially Western classical music styles) is important and has an integral part of their music. I didn’t expect Mongolia to have such an extensive number of groups and that many of them stream their music online. I listened to the female group Sweetymotion. In some songs they stick to more of a strings-heavy soft rock sound or even R&B, but other songs sound like a club pop song (which sounded better, in my opinion).
Another musician I listened to is Sarantuya B. Her music is a little slower, more chill. It reminds me of the kind of music you hear as you’re shopping. It’s not bad (if you like soft rock, I suppose), but it’s a little too chill to listen to in the car. I might get too relaxed or something. Or just drift off.
Now I came to the first Mongolian rock band I listened to. They’re called Nisvanis. All of their songs were written in the Cyrillic script, and it would take me forever to try to remember what little Cyrillic I remember. But their music is probably what I would call garage punk. I was kind of digging it. The instrumentals were pretty clean, although the vocals had that raspy, raw sound to it.
I also listened to Magnolian. They sung mostly in English and had an indie rock or folk sound to their music. Using a variety of guitars, they reminded me a little of the Estonian band Ewert and the Two Dragons. I really liked what I heard here.
The music of Altan Urag is kind of hard to place. It could easily be metal if it were played with different instruments. However, it uses more traditional instruments, and the lead singer demonstrates the use of the throat singing at times. It’s odd, yet fascinating. Metal, but not metal. Not even folk metal, but it could be. Someone needs to make this happen.
Yes, it’s true that I like a lot of non-English language rap and hip-hop. There’s just something about listening to the rhythms of the language. Plus, the lyrics often talk about the subjects at the heart of the people, or at least typically those who struggle the most. But anyway, I listened to Battulga, and struggle is exactly what it is. His flow just wasn’t there; it was like there was no feeling in what he was saying. I was struggling to listen to it. It was like he was either not sure or not comfortable with what he was doing, and it showed.
In contrast, Lumino knew what he was doing. At least he had better advisers and mentors on how to do it. His flow and rhythms sounded like he had practiced and that he actually believed in what he was rapping about. Ice Top is another one. His music seemed a little harder, but was equally put together better as far as the overall package goes. One main difference is that Ice Top’s music incorporates more of a rock-rap, Latin, and sometimes a soul sound to it.
Finally I listened to The Lemons’ Red Album. They had a nice happy alternative rock sound to them. They mixed their style up a little bit by using slightly different textures in different songs, but otherwise much of their music sounds like it came straight from the 1990s.
Up next: the food