Glory on the Mongolian Steppe / by Cyrus Moussavi

Jacob and I spent half of our Mongolia shoot in UB, the capital city, and the other half wandering the vast open western portions of the country.  We traveled to the village of Chandiman, where they say Mongolia's most famous musical form, khoomei (throat singing), was developed. 

Many people in Chandiman claimed to be able to throat sing.  Most just garbled in our direction before coughing and turning away red faced.  It was quite a performance.  The real pros only perform for serious cash, apparently. That was out of our budget.  Dejected after hours on the road, we checked out the Throat Singing Museum, a small concrete building with dusty old photos of the legends of the past hanging over artifacts from earlier generations of nomadic life.  The guy in charge of the museum waved a sword around. His wife showed us an old butter churn made from the insides of a cow.  

Back at their ger (yurt) we watched a Mongolian wrestle a Kazakh on the rigged up TV set.  Electricity had come to the area a few years before.  The leader of the museum played through a few songs but seemed more interested in eating a second lunch and watching the wrestlers. I thought the trip was a bust (a huge one -- we had rented a jeep and hired a driver), until I noticed that it was his wife who was tuning the instruments.  Through our translator Byebit I asked if she played.  She shook her head yes.  

In fact, she played every traditional Mongolian string instrument. They kept pulling out new instruments for her to tune and jam out on. She was a music teacher at a nearby school.  And she had won a national award for her long song. Her voice nearly deafened us at close range in the ger.

The Mongolian long song is one of my favorite styles of music. It's literally a really long song.  Words are drawn out over the course of several minutes.  Stories can take days and weeks to tell. It takes incredible control and discipline to perform.  I imagine long songs were a way to pass the time on lonely nights out on the steppe, before you could watch international wrestling matches.  

The woman agreed to sing for us, and we walked out of their house, took a left, and wandered a few hundred feet to the edge of the village.  The steppe stretched out endlessly ahead of us.  Minutes later she joined in her traditional deel. She said it's inappropriate to sing without that beautiful article of clothing. 

She sang this song twice (this is just an excerpt).  We were amazed. I thought a voice would be lost in such open spaces, but somehow it carried, moved with the wind, filled and bounced around us.  It was one of the best musical experiences of our trip. Incredibly powerful.

I lost the notebook where I recorded her name. I'm hoping to find it out, and I wanted to save the video until I did that, but I came across it again and just had to share.  I'm working on getting that name and giving this artist the credit she deserves.