Guest Post by Sunmin Yoon
Musical Mobility and Continued Dialogues Between the City and the Countryside in Mongolian Urtyn duu
E. Khurelbaatar is a long-song (уртын дуу) singer who was in his early 30s when I first met him in 2010. I met him at the UNESCO conference in Ulaanbaatar, where a large number of long-song singers and other traditional musicians from the countryside had been invited to participate. He was the only singer in his 30s, while the majority of the other countryside singers were between their late 50s and 70s. He talked of his pride in keeping the long-song as a part of the cultural heritage, and about the importance of local culture. Somehow, for this reason, he seemed to me like a singer from the countryside, yet he was living in Nalaikh now, a district of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar (hereafter UB), where he was teaching younger children in the Nalaikh cultural center. The second time I met with E. Khurelbaatar, he told me more of his stories as a singer in the countryside. He was born in Sharga sum in Gobi Altai province, into a singer’s family. He started singing when he was five, learning from his grandmother just like other traditional long-song singers in Mongolia. He rode horses and sang the horse-racing gingoo song, and he practiced his singing while herding animals and he trained his voice by imitating the animals’ sounds.
Long-song (urtyn duu) has on the whole traditionally been practiced in Mongol’s open steppe by herders, by elongating the vowels and by ornamenting the melodies in different ways. Through this process, the long-song draws 2-3 minutes of song from a verse of 6 or 7 words. Ornamentation, then, is a key technique among long-song singers, and they practice it in a variety of ways, and singers in the countryside especially practiced by harmonizing natural/animal sounds with their environment. For this reason, long-song was developed with a variety of different features among different regions and by different singers.
As he demonstrated to me how he practiced and imitated the sounds of the countryside, Khurelbaatar regretted that the singers who studied long-song in UB would not understand the context of this music-making. Throughout the conversation with Khurelbaatar, the connection between long-song tradition and the countryside became clear to me, expressing the idea of locality and its importance to the singers’ musical development. His movement from the countryside to the city, however, seemed contradictory to this philosophy, although it also seemed a necessary and unavoidable step, considering how Mongolia had weathered the collapse of the socialist system around 1990. Life in the countryside during that time had become decollectivtized and the economy had turned towards the free-market. Khurelbaatar continued his story, adding that he had had to come to Nalaikh. He said he had not been expecting to continue his singing career, but had hoped to get a better-paid job that would have made enough for him, as around 1990 he had also been struggling financially, like many others. He said he had struggled to settle in UB, having no useful skills in the city, but that luckily he had managed to get a job as a singing teacher in the Nalaikh cultural center. He mentioned happily to me that he was now singing “professionally”, and settling down as a promising long-song singer in UB.
The story of the movement of singers away from countryside is not only limited to E. Khurelbaatar. Every year, a number of young singers move to the city to become “professional” singers. Coming to UB and studying with an established singer from the musical conservatory has now become a rite of passage for contemporary long-song singers. Some of them learned singing from a teacher locally or from a family member, and then moved away voluntarily just like Khurelbaatar, or some of them moved to UB through some kind of social mechanism such as musical competitions. In this way, UB is understood among singers as a place where it is possible to stage performances, a performance environment for a “professional” singer’s life. This urbanized movement and professionalization of the musical tradition had already begun under Soviet period through the establishment of music schools, including the creation of workshops and competitions, the encouragement of National Radio Stations and so on. Through this process, UB had become not only the geographical center for singers within the urtyn duu tradition, but it also has become a space which is understood among younger students to be a far more promising environment for their future performances and as a place to live.
Despite younger singers’ relocation to UB for the reasons shown above, the search for a traditional understanding of the long-song has not disappeared. With the process of the establishment of a new Mongolian tradition, symbolic images of the countryside as a focus of nostalgia and longing for their homeland (нутаг) had become an essential aesthetic of a singer’s performance in post-socialist Mongolia, especially among UB singers. From time to time, UB long-songs singers go to the countryside on tour, to seek out and revisit local techniques and songs as well as to forge a connection with local singers. When I interviewed one of the members from the modern long-song pop group Shurankhai, she even informed me that most of their rehearsals took place in the countryside simply because the singing acoustics work better on the open steppe, and because to be out on the open steppe of Mongolian landscape brings out their “proper emotions.” The rare and rapidly disappearing regional song repertoire is also therefore becoming more and more important to current UB singers as well as to countryside singers. At the end of our interview, Khurelbaatar sang a song titled “Erdene baakhan sharga” (Precious Yellowish Horse). He emphasized that this song has been sung only in his hometown, and had it never been circulated in UB, nobody would now know this song. His voice was clean, and his improvisatory ornamentations were subtle yet sophisticated, distinguishing him from other conservatory singers in UB.
Last year, in 2012, when I revisited Mongolian, I discovered another twist to the story. I learned that most of the college-educated urtyn duu singers with whom I had worked in 2010 had begun to return permanently to the countryside and were teaching local singers, bringing the techniques they had learnt in UB back to the countryside. The dialogues and exchange between music scenes in the countryside and the city did not, then, simply fade away, nor did they newly appear when Mongolia entered the post-socialist era after 1990.
Mongolians, as we all know, are nomads. They move through the seasons, according to the availability of food and survival in the environment. Singers are also nomads, not only because they are traditionally herders, but because they also move in their role as singers, following their nation’s history. Then their songs also follow. The mobility of urtyn duu singers is seen, however, neither as a simple movement nor as a simple exchange between two physical different venues in history, such as professional and amateurs or old and new. Rather, through this tradition of long-song singing, the singers’ mobility shows that the dialogues between the countryside and UB, and the resulting music scene, are much more complex negotiations of a sudden decision to survive, an impact of ideological and social transformation, and both individual pride and the long memory of their tradition.
About Sunmin Yoon
Sunmin Yoon is an ethnomusicologist, specializing in Mongolian long-song (urtyn duu). She has worked with about 50 long-song singers both in the Mongolian countryside and in Ulaanbaatar, collecting their songs and stories. While continuing her research on long-song, furthermore, she is now extending her research into other vocal genres such as ardyn duu (ардын дуу), khuree duu (хүрээ дуу), and zokhiolyn duu (зохиопын дуу), in order to understand the overall history and politics of the tradition of vocal music in Mongolia. Currently, she is teaching at Kent State University as an adjunct professor.