Arts & culture

A national culture that can enchant the entire world


B. Sükhbaatar pointing to his favorite Morin Khuur. Photo by O. Anudari. ©TMO

Mongolians believe in symbols. They are optimists which is reflected in their folk culture, customs and traditions, and even in the dresses they wear, and strive towards the Heavens. They love their national uniqueness, freedom and independence, but at the same time, they have deep tolerance for pluralism. Their symbol is the fiddle, with horse-head, dragon-head, swan-head and so on and so forth. And the acme of all this symbol in music is the Morin Khuur – horse-head fiddle.
“My dream is to make the Morin Khuur a popular musical instrument like the guitar,” remarked B. Sükhbaatar, the director of the Morin Khuur Museum in Ulaanbaatar. His happy look was an evidence of the joy and happiness he gets by doing what he believes is his favorite work. The enchanting melody of the Morin Khuur had left such deep impressions in the heart of young Sükhbaatar that he made his own instrument when he was an adolescent. He mentioned about the ‘magical power’ of the melody played on the Morin Khuur on anyone, old or young, Mongolian or foreigner, who happens to listen to it. Sükhbaatar said that arts and culture or the so-called soft-policy can lead today’s smart society in the right direction in his exclusive interview with an intern reporter Oidovsüren Anudari of The Mongolian Observer.


The first contemporary Morin Khuur at Sükhbaatar’s museum. Photo by author. ©TMO

Do foreigners come to your center?
Yes, they do. Mostly expats living and working in Mongolia are our frequent guests. In fall this year, we plan to expand and turn our center in a Morin Khuur Academy. We plan to have classes in Morin Khuur, 1 to 2 year courses. We also plan to issue certificates to those who pass through our center. Our hands are full.

This means you plan to train professionals?
Yes. Our doors are open not only to Mongolians such as the Kalmyks, Tuvinians, Buryats but also foreigners. At present, we have running introductory classes. Some spend two weeks, while some two months learning to play the Morin Khuur. Every year we have a Japanese musician who comes for a week and he has been coming for the last 4 years.

How are foreign students, what makes them different from the Mongolians as students of the Morin Khuur?
There is no difference, because they all are playing on a musical instrument. Most of our students are professional musicians and so we have no problem as such.

You must be surely playing on other musical instruments too?
I am a khöömii singer (overtone) and I not only play the Morin Khuur but also make the instrument. I have been making professional Morin Khuur in the last 10 years. There is a khöömii class in the United States and I have been invited to come and teach there. But here I have my own school where we teach the Morin Khuur, the folk long song – Urtyn Duu and the biyelgee dance. I plan to turn it into a full-scale school and so I think I am needed here more than anywhere else.

How different is traditional Mongolian Morin Khuur from that of the similar instruments made and used by other Mongolian ethnic groups?
They are different. For example, in Inner Mongolia, Chinese musical instrument elements can be found in their Morin Khuur. Accordingly the color and tone of the tune are also different. In Tuva there is Russian music influence. In recent years, the color and tone of the Morin Khuur in Mongolia proper has changed too. Mongolian artisans have spent the last almost half a century trying to make the Morin Khuur at the professional level.

At our museum, we have a Morin Khuur made by the first contemporary Mongolian artisan. In 1965 several Russian academic visited Mongolia and made a Morin Khuur for professional use. Since the Morin Khuur has a wooden sound board, which initially used to be made of hide. Today we have our own standard and the Morin Khuur used today has become a classical instrument. But we may, one day, have an electric Morin Khuur.

How much has the Morin Khuur undergone changes from its original type? Or has it become much more refined?
In general, it has retained its originality but at the same time, it is slowly becoming a perfect classical instrument. Naturally, the traditional forms are varied. For example, the fiddle had heads in the shape of dragon, lion, swan and horse. The term Morin Khuur or horse-head fiddle originated somewhere around the beginning of the 20th century only, after the 1921 People’s Revolution in Mongolia. Before that the instrument was called the Khuur or the fiddle. Why it was renamed into Morin Khuur was because, first, the Mongolians conquered almost half of the world on horseback, and second, Mongolian revere the horse, which we can even find it on our State Emblem, and third, horse is the most reliable and a true friend of a man.

According to researchers, the term Morin Khuur originated in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It was gradually refined to take the form of a classical musical instrument. In other words, the Morin Khuur, as it is today, evolved over many centuries and generations to become an instrument similar in its color and tone to other musical instruments around the world. Therefore, we cannot guess what form it will take in the future. But this is dependent on us since the evolution of music is determined by the people. People-supported music becomes a property of the people. When I set up my museum, sometime I would ask myself, “what am I doing?” but when I think that there is the next generation that will take forward the work I am doing, I feel I am doing the right thing.

Why did you become a khuurist?
When I was a child, one day my mother took me along to our neighbors who used to make the khuur and play music, which impressed me immensely. Since then I used to draw only Morin Khuur at the back of my school copies and when I was in my ninth grade, I made my first real Morin Khuur. In other words, Morin Khuur has become a part of my life.


An old Morin Khuur with leather soundboard. Photo by author. ©TMO

Do you think we Mongolians as a whole do not care much for the Morin Khuur?
Almost every family in the country has a Morin Khuur in their homes but without understanding why. And I have been doing research into this for the last decade. What’s important is not to hang the Morin Khuur in a place where everyone can see it but it must be played and then only can we say that we are paying respect to this instrument. Every Mongolian knows the Morin Khuur as a musical instrument and it’s important to learn to draw the bow at least. I am not saying that each one of us must become professional khuurist.

Can the Morin Khuur become as popular as the guitar? Should it become so? Why and if not, also?
I personally feel that the Morin Khuur should become a global instrument. I know that a foreigner had approached a Mongolian asking him to teach him how to make the instrument, but his request was turned down, which I think was wrong. What’s the point keeping the Morin Khuur as only Mongolian? If Morin Khuur is also used as one of the instruments in an orchestra, then wouldn’t the world know that it is the Mongolians who created this wonderful culture?


An old Morin Khuur with wooden soundboard. Photo by author. ©TMO

Russia, besides sending it troops to Syria has been sending its artists to perform in the war torn Syria. So, how does the Morin Khuur influence the psychology of a human?
Why only the Morin Khuur? Anyone playing music can become an upright person, secondly, one can become educated. Someone who plays the Morin Khuur can improve the functions of the right temporal lobe. This means that person would be able to perform multi tasks, and will never lag behind in societal development. And so if we Mongolians, all of us, learn to play on the Morin Khuur, our national ideology and intellect will expand and develop. I find a subtle difference when I teach the Morin Khuur to an urban child and a rural child. I feel when a child from the city performs, he or she sounds dull. But a rural child is close to the nature. This is why our center besides teaching how to play on the Morin Khuur, we want a child also to understand the horse. We have to show the child the gait of a horse. How can anyone master the technology of the instrument without understanding what it is all about. When the Japanese first came to me, I told him, “First learn to ride a horse, then learn the horse-head fiddle.”

This is the way to learn to play on the Morin Khuur better, because it’s a stringed instrument and every single string is important, and that is why it touches the heart. If I play the Morin Khuur now, you will most probably get this sensational feeling. And when someone has this kind of emotion then that person’s attitude towards the society is also likely to change. When a person begins to listen to his own heart and feelings and once you develop this kind of feeling, then you will feel happy when you hear or see something good and vice versa. In other words, you develop self-control.

Did you ask from your Japanese student about his emotions and feelings? Or did he ever express what his feelings were changing?
He did say so. He is in love with Morin Khuur because he comes here every year. We have a Frenchman in our band. He has been playing on the Morin Khuur for the last 3 years. You will be surprised, he is better than me. He says jokingly, “I don’t need a wife. Morin Khuur is all I need.” I want everyone, Mongolians as well as foreigners to feel the same about the Morin Khuur. The watchword of our center is “Every Mongolian a Morin Khuurist.” A smart society as ours can be driven by arts and culture alone. Gone are the times to force someone to deliver. Therefore, it’s now up to the government to think how to carry forward this smart society.

How many kinds of Morin Khuur are there?
Our center makes three types of Morin Khuur. Small, medium and standard sizes for children aged 5 to 8, then adolescents 8 to 15 and for adults over 16 years of age. The fiddle heads are different too – lion, dragon, horse etc, and accordingly the design and make are also different, but this does not affect the quality of the sound. I only want to see the Morin Khuur become as popular as guitar and violin.

But why the Morin Khuur only?
The horse has always been and remains to be an important element of our life. Take also, for example, Mongolian folklore and literature, they too are all related to or are about the horses. Mongolians since hoary past have not only used the horses as a draught animal but also revered them, no wonder when a horse would die, the head of the dead horse would not be thrown anywhere, but placed on top of a high mount, hillock. And most importantly, the hair and skin of the horse also go into making parts of the Morin Khuur.

Morin Khuur

what-is-moring-khuurThe two-stringed fiddle morin khuur has figured prominently in Mongolia’s nomad culture. String instruments adorned with horse heads are attested to by written sources dating from the Mongol empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument, for it was traditionally an integral part of rituals and everyday activities of the Mongolian nomads. The design of the morin khuur is closely linked to the all-important cult of the horse. The instrument’s hollow trapezoid-shaped body is attached to a long fretless neck bearing a carved horse head at its extremity. Just below the head, two tuning pegs jut out like ears from either side of the neck. The sound board is covered with animal skin, and the strings and bow are made of horsehair. The instrument’s characteristic sound is produced by sliding or stroking the bow against the two strings. Common techniques include multiple stroking by the right hand and a variety of left-hand fingering. It is mainly played in solo fashion but sometimes accompanies dances, long songs (urtyn duu), mythical tales, ceremonies and everyday tasks related to horses. To this day, the morin khuur repertory has retained some tunes (tatlaga) specifically intended to tame animals. Owing to the simultaneous presence of a main tone and overtones, morin khuur music has always been difficult to transcribe using standard notation. It has been transmitted orally from master to apprentice for many generations.


Different Morin Khuurs with different heads at Sükhbaatar’s Morin Khuur museum. Photo by author ©TMO

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