Huh. Y’all were so quiet after the last post. I thought for sure someone would have some reaction to the sheep fat pacifier. Stunned silence, I guess.
Well anyway, like I said, the Mongolian Tsagaan Sar New Year’s celebration is a three-day affair, and on days 2 and 3 I hung out with the city slickers.
Got a call Thursday morning from Erka, my friend and apartment patroness (I almost typed “flat patroness” and then mentally cocked my head at the phrase like the RCA Victrola dog) to come to her family’s place at 10. “Like, really 10?” I asked. “Well, no,” she laughed. “Mongolian 10. Around 11.”
Happily, this journey only involved descending three flights of stairs, and at 11 I was surprised to find I wasn’t the first guest. All told about eight of us joined Erka and her husband Sharavdorj, everyone but me (at least in this life) linked by their deep ties to the South Gobi. The usual pattern was followed: greetings, toasts, mutton dumplings...
...but that’s where the similarity of the gathering ended, owing to the presence of one very special guest. We were graced by Tserendorj, acknowledged as the greatest living player of Mongolia’s traditional instrument, the morin khuur, or horse-head fiddle. I was told that one special State Morin Khuur is kept under lock and key at the Parliament House and Tserendorj bears the title, roughly translated from the Mongolian, of The Only Dude Allowed to Touch the State Morin Khuur.
I kept thinking that he looked very familiar, and then it struck me. At the previous day’s countryside shindig, I had seen him on TV, performing at the official State Tsagaan Sar ceremonies. It seems on that day he had offered a new instrument to the nation, and the one he brought to Erka’s that morning, and that you'll see in a moment, was the previous State Morin Khuur. It was explained that Mongols feel it’s auspicious to hear the sound of the morin khuur at some point during the new year’s festivities. As usual with such things, no one can quite explain why such things are auspicious, they just are. And who was I to argue? I’d just dropped into a situation akin to Isaac Stern turning up to play at your Thanksgiving dinner.
But we weren’t just treated to Tserendorj. Turns out his handsome young son Soyolerdene (“Jewel of Culture” – Mongol names are so fabulous) is also quite the prodigy on the instrument. You simply can’t believe the range of melodies and effects that can be wrought from two strings and a horsehair bow by accomplished hands (fun fact: the use of bows on string instruments is a Mongol innovation spread during its imperial days; if you like Isaac Stern or Yo-yo Ma, thank a Mongol).
The two began with a duet...
...after which Sharvaa asked Tserendorj to play on his own instrument.
This is a very fancy one, with a Buddhist twist to the design. Notice the three green horse heads instead of one at the top. This is meant to echo a detail of the the iconography of the wrathful Buddhist deity Hayagriva:
At one point Tserendorj introduced an old Gobi song with a joke, translated to me thusly: “It used to be said that it was better to be born as a yak in the Khangai than a person in the Gobi. These days, I think it’s better to be born as a camel in the Gobi than a person in the Khangai.” Everyone found this uproariously funny. I, on the other hand, was reminded of one bit from the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s CIA operative Gust Avrokatos is discussing with Tom Hanks’ Charlie Wilson and other agents the difficulties of working with tribal alliances in Afghanistan:
Agent: He’s Tajik, so he’s not well liked by the Pashtuns.
Hanks: So, what? The Tajiks have a problem with the Pashtuns?
Hoffman: Well, they say when a Tajik wants to make love to a woman, his first choice is always a Pashtun man. [beat, shrugs] It’s funnier in the original Pashtu.
After Tserendorj, Soyolerdene took up his axe, and I was happy to get a couple shots showing the incredible quickness of motion in the playing:
And here’s a taste of what the morin khuur actually sounds like, though obviously with different players:
Finally, I wanted to show you something of the elegance of Mongolian clothing. Here are Erka and her company manager Munkhbat (I went the next day to her office gathering) really rockin’ the threads:
Coming soon: Spiritual Tsagaan Sar