The Tumen Ekh musicians are skilled in a host of traditional instruments:
Morin Khuur (Horse-head-fiddle) – The most ancient musical instrument of the Mongols is the morin khuur, invented during the Hun period over 2000 years ago. When Mongolians were an entirely nomadic nation, the horse was their basic means of transport, as well as man’s best friend. Many songs and poems were written extolling the horse. There are a number of legends about how the morin khuur was first created, all based on a man’s love for a dead horse. So central was (and still is) the horse to Mongolian culture, that the head of the horse was placed on top of the nation’s principal musical instrument, and its tail hair used for the two strings. The larger one or the ‘male’ string has 130 hairs from a stallion’s tail, while the ‘female’ string as 105 hairs from a mare’s tail. It is said each tail hair fiber should be processed until it “starts talking.” Traditionally, the frame would have been covered with camel or goat skin, but in modern times, an all-wood sound box is more common, in a style similar to European stringed instruments, including the carved f-holes.
Much of the canon of Mongolian performance art (song, dance, drama, stories, even blessings) is inseparably entwined with the music of the morin khuur. It is not simply a traditional instrument; but considered to be an enchanting art and a precious treasure and its special sound contributes much to the quality of modern music.
This instrument is often used to perform pieces which imitate animals’ and nature’s appearance and behavior, including rivers, stallions, camels, bulls, elks, and especially the horse. In eastern Mongolia melodies have such names as ‘The Snake Realm’, ‘The Hawk Strong Stallion’, ‘The Bogd Khaan’s Brown Trotter’, ‘The Gobi’s Spotty Trotter’, ‘The Young Male Camel’ etc.
There are dozens of traditional long songs named after legendary horses. The most respected ceremonial song sung at the beginning of any ceremony and festival is the ‘Tumen Ekh’, the leader of ten thousand.
The morin khuur and the long song are Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity identified by UNESCO.
One legend about the origin of the morin khuur is that a horseman named Khukhuu Namjil had a magical winged horse; he would mount it at a height and fly to meet his beloved. A jealous woman had the horse’s wings cut off and the horse died. The grieving Khukhuu Namjil made a horsehead fiddle from the now-wingless horse’s skin, tail and bones, and used it to play poignant songs about his horse imitating the gallops and neighs of his magical horse.
Bishguur (Trumpet) – A richly ornamented metal trumpet, the bishguur is called “shell trumpet” in Mongolian.
Ever Buree (Horn) – A reed instrument, the ever buree is a folk oboe with a conical body made of wood or horn (‘ever buree’ means horn), widening towards the end. It has seven finger holes and one thumbhole. A metal staple carries the reed and a lip-disc in the shape of a funnel. In short form the instrument is known as ‘haidi’ meaning ‘flute of the sea’.
Shudraga / Shanz (Lute) – The shudraga or shanz is a long-necked spiked lute with an oval wooden frame with a snake skin covering stretched over both faces. The three strings are fixed to a bar, which is inserted in the body. The instrument is struck or plucked with a plectrum made of horn or with the fingers. As the tones do not echo, every note is struck several times.
Khuuchir (Violin) – In years past, the khuuchir, or snake skin violin or horsetail violin, was used extensively by nomads. It is tuned in the interval of a fifth and is small or medium-sized. The khuuchir has a small, cylindrical, square or cup-like resonator made of bamboo, wood or copper, covered with snake skin and open at the bottom. The neck is inserted in the body of the instrument. It usually has four silk strings, of which the first and the third are accorded in unison, whereas the second and fourth are tuned in the upper fifth. The bow is coated with horsetail hair and inseparably interlaced with the string-pairs.
Yatga (Zither) – The yatga is a half-tube zither with a movable bridge. It is constructed as a box with a convex surface and an end bent towards the ground. The strings are plucked and the sound is very smooth. The instrument was considered to be sacrosanct and playing it was a rite, bound by taboos. The instrument was mainly used at court and in monasteries, since strings symbolised the 12 levels of the palace hierarchy. Shepherds were forbidden to play the 12-stringed zither, but they were allowed to play the 10-stringed zither, which was also used for interludes during recitals of epics. Mongolians traditionally play three types of this zither, differentiated by their resonators or hollow bodies in which the sound is amplified. Designs include the master yatga; ikh gariing yatga, the national yatga; akhun ikh yatga, and the harp, called the bosoo yatga.
Limbe (Flute) – The limbe is frequently used in accompaniment and occasionally as a solo instrument. In earlier days, it was made of bamboo or wood but is usually made from plastic these days. These flutes (transverse flutes) are closely associated with the nomads of Central Asia. They are approximately 64 cm in length and have nine holes. One of these is a blowhole and another two are used for the tuning. It is often played using circular breathing*. The sound reflects what is heard in nature or the sounds of the natural and social environment.
*Circular breathing (bituu amisgal): one note is blown while the musician inhales through his/her nose. The air is collected inside the cheeks and exhaled using with the pressure of the cheek muscles (same principle as for the bagpipe). The base of the tongue is used as a valve.
Yoochin (Dulcimer) – The yoochin is a box zither or dulcimer with 13 double-wire strings. The strings are struck with two wooden sticks, so-called little wooden hammers (comparable with the santur of the Persians). It has a black wooden soundboard richly decorated with ornaments. Originally, the instrument was only familiar to townspeople who were the first to play it.
Tovshuur (Lute) The tovshuur is a two-stringed instrument similar to the lutes of Tuva, Altai or Kazakhstan. The body and the neck are carved from cedar wood and the body is often covered with the leather of wild animals, camels or goats. The head of the neck is formed like a swan. The Mongol legends say that they originate from a swan. The strings are wound from horsetail hair and tuned in the interval of a fourth.
Khulsan khuur (Jew’s harp) Nowadays, a Jew’s harp is made of brass or steel, but in earlier days it was made of wood or bamboo. A spring, acting as a vibrator, is fitted into a horseshoe-shaped metal holder and is called a ‘tongue’. The player places the long part of the instrument close to his or her mouth, touching it with the front teeth and manipulating the tongue with the right hand. Changing the shape of the mouth cavity, which at the same time acts as a resonance chamber, can vary the pitch.