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Recording Traditional Mongolian Music

“I want to make a documentary about nomadic herders performing traditional Mongolian music.”

This was the idea I had about a year before actually going to Mongolia. It was bold and pertinent, but conceived and approached by a naïve twenty one year old college student. I had several years of recording music in a studio setting, but no field recording experience, and little to no experience doing video work. My first recording session with a herder, Tseveng, highlights what I learned regarding the complexity of working in the field and the state of traditional Mongolian music.

Tseveng and his herd

Tseveng and his herd

Tseveng sang a few songs, which were followed by an interview. He was the first herder I interviewed, and during this first session I was honestly a little over zealous while interviewing him. Listening back to the interview I hear myself eagerly and tactlessly try to prove that herders, represented by the first and only herder I had interviewed so far, are upset that Mongolian music is changing, that traditional music is somehow more significant to them than to people living in cities. While my interviewing techniques were less than professional, Tseveng still seemed eager to separate himself from urban Mongolians. A few questions into the interview, I asked how traditional music has changed as people move into cities. Tseveng responded by saying “I think it’s wrong [that people are moving into cities]…they [are] just looking for the easy life…you have animals, you have a herd…but you’re leaving the herds here and moving to the cities to find the easy life…it’s so strange to go to the polluted city [Ulaanbaatar] for example…rather than to be here, there’s more fresh air”. In later interviews, he repeated this sentiment.

Dimitri's favourite recording of Tseveng - using only the RØDE Lavalier

Listening back to the interview, it’s hard to tell if something was missed in translation, but I got the impression that Tseveng’s ideas about city folk are largely unfounded. He mentioned that he hates hearing people complain about meat prices, but other than that he gave no concrete examples of urban laziness. Thinking about his words, my impression was that he simply did not understand the choice to move to a city. That idea was something totally outside of what he was comfortable with. No other herders I interviewed expressed any negative views of people living in cities in the way that Tseveng did. It should be mentioned that my translator was from Ulaanbaatar and would often condense a minute long conversation into a sentence or two. He knew Tseveng pretty well, so sometimes it seemed like they were just having a conversation outside of the interview, but some things were definitely left out. I don’t think the translator, who I knew well, intentionally left out information that indicted Mongolians living in cities, but it’s possible that he left out details he didn’t think were important. The details he considered unimportant could have been biased by his urban worldview.

Towards the end of the interview Tseveng explained that as people search for easier lives, they miss the “deeper meaning” in traditional music. He explained, “Everyone can understand, even you [Dimitri] can understand. When you sing the words of the song…you can imagine…the [literal] meaning…Usually the people are saying ‘Oh, this is a nice song, this is a good song’, but they really don’t want to see deep. What does it [the song] mean? They want to live in an easy way…not working hard, just a simple life. That’s the effect of their lifestyle…because they are becoming very lazy”. Even though he didn’t expressly say it, Tseveng implied that there is something about working hard, specifically through herding, that allows him to see that deeper meaning. I took “deep” to mean something spiritual or ethereal. In an informal conversation with Tseveng, he described feeling used by local officials who would ask him to sing one or two songs at yearly events or holidays. That use of traditional music turns it from a tradition into a prop and comes from the lack of understanding Tseveng described.

Traditional Mongolian Living

Traditional Mongolian living, with Tseveng's family

As a devaluation of the natural world takes place in Mongolia, herding and herding culture become less a part of identities defined by statistical realities–how many herders there actually are–and more a part of imagined identities. This shift is reflected in Mongolians’ reception of traditional music. Hearing a musician who is well known throughout his county and has even won some medals in state competitions say that he believes a shift towards easier, city lifestyles has affected how people understand traditional music makes me believe that a shift is happening. It’s impossible to quantify how deeply Mongolians understand their traditional music, but Tseveng made it clear to me that the change happening in Mongolia is affecting the reception of tradition music and how it is performed.

Dimitri Staszewski is a recording engineer and producer, aspiring filmmaker, and adventurer. Born and raised in San Francisco he graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans where he majored in Music Industry Studies. Appreciating the positive and negative cultural weight music can carry Dimitri strives to be part of musical projects that have significant cultural impact nationally and globally. Learn more about Dimitri and his journeys at www.itsdimitri.com.

Products mentioned in this article:

Lavalier