Mongolia Monday- Music, Part 3: Something Old, Something New

For the final part of this three-part series, here are three videos that, to me, show one of the most interesting and fun parts of contemporary Mongol music, the synthesis of traditional and modern forms.

Altan Urag is probably the best known group outside of Mongolia, due to their attendance at many internatinal music festivals. They play what we would call “Neo-folk” music, traditional songs uniquely interpreted. This one, “Khiliin Chadad” combines traditional Mongol instruments like the morin khuur (horse head fiddle), Jew’s harp (used by Mongol shaman), plus khoomii (throat-singing) with a Middle Eastern-sounding drum rhythmn and Spanish-style guitar. It’s quite a combination.

Hurd, whose lead singer is Chono (“wolf” in Mongolian), is one of the most famous rock bands in Mongolia. The song, Eh Oron ( which I think should have been spelled Ikh Oron), is a rock anthem, with morin khuur. The video’s visuals are a photographic journey through both the land and traditional culture of the country. Picture Led Zepplin extolling the virtues of the English countryside and the various activities at county fairs with a violin section added in the middle. But somehow, in Mongolia, it all makes perfect sense.

Javhlan, one of Mongolia’s most loved singers, has a world-class voice and then some. He only records traditional songs. But he sets them to a variety of western rhythms…samba, waltz, pop and others. He often wears traditional Mongol men’s clothing in his videos, as in this one, and usually includes lovely shots of the land. I’ve been told that these days he lives out in the countryside in a ger and I’ll bet it’s a really nice one. I have six or seven of his CDs loaded into iTunes and listen to him often while I’m painting.

Mongolia Monday- Music, Part 2: Three Western Musical Genres Mongol-Style

There doesn’t seem to be a western musical genre that hasn’t found its way to Mongolia over the last twenty years or more. I get a kick out listening to pop, rock, jazz, etc, with lyrics sung in Mongolian. There are covers of western songs, but most are original compositions by Mongolian songwriters. There are standards too, obviously well-loved songs that have been recorded many times.

Rock arrived in Mongolia very shortly after democracy. Groups like Haranga, Chono and Nisvanis were extremely popular and there are still lots of videos of their music on YouTube. Today the alt rock band The Lemons is very popular.

Boy Bands were big in the United States at the same time the youth music scene started up in Ulaanbaatar. The most successful Mongolian group in this pop genre was Camerton, four guys with great voices who created wonderful harmonies. They’ve all done solo albums and one member, Bold, has gone on to write, record and produce at least a half dozen albums and now has his own production company, B Productions.

Hip Hop isn’t really my thing at all, but it’s a very important genre in Mongolia and often is used to draw attention to serious social issues like alcoholism. I chose this one because it’s about the Democracy Movement and includes images from that time.

Next week: Mongol music that is a synthesis of traditional and western styles

Mongolia Monday- Music, Part 1: Three Traditional Forms

Morin khuur player who also sang khoomii. Hustai National Park, 2011

I thought I’d do a three part series on Mongolian music, using YouTube videos that I’ve found, and starting with three traditional forms- khoomii (throat singing), Urtyn Duu (long song) and morin khuur (horsehead fiddle). Next week, it will be Mongolian musicians and singers performing in western musical genres like rock and the third week will be music that is a synthesis of the first two.

You can read more about Mongolian music here.

Khoomii may the musical form best known by westerners due to a number of “folk” CDs available that feature throat singing, which originated in western Mongolia in an area just to the south of the Khar Us Nur lake complex.

Urtyn Duu means “long song”, but not that the songs themselves are long. The name refers to the singer stretching out the syllables of the words. Although both genders sing this form, the most famous long singers seem to be women.

Morin Khuur is the horsehead fiddle, probably the most famous Mongolian musical instrument and is one of the symbols of the country. With only two strings, the player can create truly beautiful musical sounds and also perfect imitations of the sounds that horses make. The selection in the video is one of my most favorite pieces of Mongolian music, “Mongolian Melody” by one of Mongol’s most esteemed composers, Jantsannarov.

Mongolia Monday- Ethnic Folk Group Altain Orgil

Mongol ethnic folk group Altain Orgil is essentially the house band at the City Nomads restaurant in Ulaanbaatar. I had never heard of them until I bought one of the CDs on a whim at the HiFi shop on Seoul St. Wow. I will be at City Nomads at 7:30pm sharp next time I’m in UB.

There are a number of these groups around, young people who are not only preserving traditional singing forms and instruments like khoomii, long song and morin khuur, but adding their own individual vibes and twists. What makes Altain Orgil interesting to me, besides loving their music, is that they often wear authentic-looking Mongol shamanic clothing when they perform. Unfortunately, I could only find a couple images of the group, but there are a number of videos on YouTube and I’ve posted a few of them below.

It’s Naadam Weekend In Mongolia!

This is the biggest holiday in Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar pretty much shuts down for a few days while everyone celebrates and attends competitions in the Three Manly Sports: horse racing, wrestling and archery.

I got to see all of it, including a local celebration, in 2009. Here’s some photos, ending with a wonderful music video by one of the most famous singing groups in Mongolia, Nomin Talst. The group is no longer together and this video was made some years ago, but it still gets played on the music video channel around this time of year. And it’s one of the things that hooked me on Mongolia. I had to find out more about the kind of people who are shown in it and who clearly know how to have a good time today, while preserving their ancient traditions and sports.

The horsetail standards are brought out of the Parliament Building
Soldiers on matched palomino Mongol horses ready to take the standards to the Naadam Stadium; one of the Best Government Buildings Ever, which includes a big statue of Chinggis Khan
Ladies who had been in a traditional clothing fashion show watched from the sidelines
The horse tail standards are set in place for the duration of Naadam
The President of Mongolia addresses the crowd
There was a parade of famous athletes and celebrities; I was told this man is a very famous wrestler
Where else but Mongolia? In comes the Mongol Queen and her warrior entourage
A display of the national flag; on horseback, naturally
Then it out to the valley for the horse race; almost to the finish line
I was told that close to half the population of the country was in and around this valley that day; judging from the traffic we hit getting there, I can believe it
Back in UB, a mom starts her little one off right
The winner of the archery competition, a Buriat man, accompanied by his wife, both looking great!
Then it was my turn. For about a dollar, I got to shoot a real Mongol bow and arrow and got a pretty good distance
Mongol wrestling (Bokh) is pretty simple- first wrestler to have a body part touch the ground other than the feet loses- but within that simplicity are endless subtle complexities; I'm definitely a fan
Going down....

And now….Nomin Talst singing “Minii Mongol Naadam” (My Mongol Naadam):

Mongolia Monday- Mongol Musicians Cover American And British Rock Songs

One of the fun things about exploring and learning about other cultures is seeing how familiar things like rock music are taken up and reinterpreted.

I’ve found a number of gems on YouTube:

A Sound, a particular favorite of mine who I would love to see live sometime, takes on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by George Harrison and pulls it off very nicely:

Another group, Signal, created this dramatic video cover of Daughtry’s “Over You”:

A Sound seems to have gotten their start on the Mongol version of American Idol, “The Universe’s Best Songs”. Fun to see them in the beginning and how polished they’ve become in the first video above. Here’s their performance of Maroon 5’s “This Love” from the tv broadcast:

Finally, this young Mongol guy kept it simple. Nice voice, a guitar, the Mongolian flag in the background and Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”:

Mongolia Monday-On The Road…

I’m in New York for both the jurying of the Society of Animal Artists’ annual show “Art and the Animal”, which will be tomorrow and then, the following day, the board of director’s meeting and review of applications for membership and “promotion” of current members from Associate to Signature Status.

Afterwards, I’ll be hitting the road with two artists friends and colleagues, Guy Combes and Andrew Denman, heading south to the Delaware shore where we will visit Assateague and Chincoteague Islands and then up to the Philadelphia area for a couple of art museums and other sights.

I’ll try to post a few photos as we go, depending on internet availability.

Mongolia Monday’s regularly scheduled programming will resume on May 16. In the meantime, here’s one of my favorite music videos, which is one answer to a question I sometimes get: “Why Mongolia?”

Personal and Professional Essentials For Traveling In Mongolia

But first, to help everyone get in the mood for Naadam, which begins a week from tomorrow, here’s a terrific music video from Nomin Talst called “Minii Mongol Naadam” or “My Mongol Naadam”. This is a great example of why I love Mongolia:

On Monday, I’ll do my last post before I leave. It will include one video for each of the Three Manly Sports that are held during Naadam: Horse racing, wrestling and archery.

I leave next Wednesday, so the organizing and packing has begun. Over on Facebook, a friend asked what I consider essential, both personally and professionally. FWIW, here it is:

Personal Essentials:
I don’t go there anymore without a Thermarest pad, even for hotel stays. The beds, everywhere, are HARD, seriously hard. My hips don’t do “hard” anymore. I also take my 20F rated down sleeping bag. It’s a rectangle, not a mummy bag, so I can use it as a comforter on a ger bed if it gets nippy.

Drugs for all the basics: cold, flu, sinus plus bandaids, antibiotic cream, sunscreen, Cipro, etc. and medical emergency air evacuation insurance, which I get from my tour company. There’s essentially no western standard medical care in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, except for an SOS International Clinic and something called the Russian Hospital. In the countryside, well, I don’t know much about traditional Mongolian medicine yet.

For anything serious, like a sprained ankle (yes, that can be serious) or a dog bite, you’ve gotta get to Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok, Seoul, you get the idea. And that can run, so I’ve heard, around $10,000 to get flown out, so $40 a month for the insurance is a pretty reasonable deal, I think.

My one major preference that I indulge is the ability to have a cup of coffee when I get up in the morning. This has proved iffy at times at the ger camps when I’ve gotten up early and haven’t been able to score a thermos of hot water the night before. I now take an Esbit stove, which is basically a small metal stand that one can put a small stainless steel camping pot on and that uses solid fuel cubes, which travel in my checked luggage. Heats enough water for two large cups of coffee in about 8 minutes. I buy packets of three-in-one coffee and milk tea at a grocery store in UB before I head out to the countryside. I take a coffee mug, too. Oh, and matches.

A Fozzil bowl that stores flat and snaps together and will hold water. I use it mostly as a place to put my watch and rings and stuff at night, but I can use it to wash underwear and socks in a pinch in warm or hot water that I heated up with the…Esbit stove. The stoves in the gers aren’t really used in the summertime, so I can’t count on access to one of those and wouldn’t want to use fuel for that kind of thing anyway.

Two Travel Towels, each of which fits into its own little bag. I never have to worry about having a towel and I like to have one for my hair. It’s small stuff like this, which is different for everyone, that seems to make travel go more smoothly.

As is true for many places, I always plan to dress in layers. Sturdy pants, light hiking boots or walking shoes, fleece jacket, t-shirts, turtleneck, thermals just in case. Teva flip-flops for going to the shower ger or if it’s hot.

I also always take a couple of del, the long, traditional Mongolian garment. Perfect for a robe in the morning, to wear to the toilet or shower, sit around in in the evening or, and this is really traditional, portable privacy on the road in a country where there are mostly no trees. And it can be really, really flat.

One change from previous trips is that I have lots to do in UB this time with various people. I’ve only had “field clothes” before and always felt like I’d just crawled in out of the Gobi. I really needed a nice warm weather outfit. So, our very own local Bohemian Mermaid, Bekki Scotto, carved out an hour a few days ago before she hit the art festival road and met me behind the Safeway store in Arcata with a rack of tempting goodies to choose from. I bought a couple of her hand-dyed rayon t-shirts, and a matching skirt and scarf to wear in town. She made me promise to get my picture taken wearing her finery in Mongolia.

My iPhone with excellent earbuds. I don’t care about airport delays anymore since I can always zone out to music, play solitaire or Paper Toss if I don’t feel like reading. Or watch my virtual koi pond.

I take a small stack of books, paperbacks that I will mostly leave behind as I go.

A Timbuk2 messenger bag for my non-roll-on piece of luggage, which my purse fits into, so I still only have two items. Clever me. It also holds the laptop, my file folder of trip stuff, all the power and charger cords and USB cables, snacks, a water bottle, a book and…my First Class Sleeper, which is more or less a half-size air mattress that you put between you and your cattle car-class seat back. It provides lumbar support, cushioning and has “pillow flaps” on either side. It has made a huge difference in my inflight comfort and arrival fatigue level. For $29.95. I just wish they’d make it from something that didn’t outgas at first.

My Mongolian-English and English-Mongolian dictionaries, since I’m really trying to learn the language.

Professional Essentials:
All the camera equipment: two Nikon D-80 bodies, 28-300 lens, 80-400 lens, 8, 4 and 2GB memory cards, four batteries, and a charger.

New KATA daypack for carrying same.

MacBook Pro for primary image storage in iPhoto. New Toshiba 500GB portable hard drive for back-up.

Car lighter adapter for charging batteries since not only do the ger camps usually not have electricity, but I’ll mostly be either camping out or in a fairly remote research camp this time.

Sketchbooks, pencils, gel pens, pan gouache, more paper, pencil sharpener, brushes, water-soluble colored pencils, a collapsible water container.

Nikon Monarch 10×42 binoculars.

Final essentials: patience, flexibility, a sense of humor and a willingness to set a goal but let the Mongols figure out how to do it. And my sense of wonder always gets a thorough workout.

Mongolia Monday: Boroo (Rain)

Mongolia gets very little rain and most of what does fall comes in the summer. After the brutal winter zud (a drought year followed by an extremely cold winter with heavy snowfall) that hammered the country these past months, a year of good rainfall would be a blessing, indeed.

Being a herding culture, the Mongols have always depended on rain to grow the grass they need for their animals. The rainy season is short, so I suspect that as wonderful as a Mongolian summer is, it’s also a time for some anxiety.

In 2008, rain came late, at the end of August. My husband and I were at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. We arrived on a beautiful evening. It started to rain at around 3am and didn’t stop for 18 hours (we counted). But we had perfect weather for the rest of the trip.

In 2009, on my Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition, it was definitely the rainy season, even though there wasn’t enough to break the drought.

Here’s a few of my favorite “boroo” photos. (Note: “Boroo” is pronounced more like “baurau”, with a rolled “r”.)

Naadam opening ceremonies, July 2009; the colorful show goes on for everyone, including the Mongolian State National Grand Orchestra
Heavy rain/hail en route from Ulaanbaatar to Arburd Sands ger camp, July 2009
One of the hailstones; roof of vehicle was dented
On-coming rainstorm at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, July 2009; it rained hard for an hour and a half so I just stayed in the cozy ger; the white rectangle in the background is one of the toilet enclosures. Yes, it was a bit of a walk.

Rain has, so to speak, seeped into the culture to the point where it’s a leitmotif in many of the music videos I’ve watched and clearly has romantic connotations. Sometimes it seems like there has been an informal competition between groups and singers to see who can work the most rain into their video.

Here is one from Javhlan. Imagine this singer with an absolutely glorious voice, standing in the woods singing as the crew poured “rain” onto him. I’ll bet he only needed one take.

And, taking it even further, is A Capella’s “Boroo”. Hope it was a warm evening.

Finally, instead of a set-piece like the previous two, Guys 666, who normally seem to be hard rappers, did this video, also called “Boroo”, that tells a story, albeit not an entirely happy one.