Horse Head Fiddle

Mongolian Morin Khuur - Galloping Horses



One hundred competitors will take part in the morin khuur music competition - April 28 - May 5, 2010 in Ulan Bator.
The morin khuur (translates as horse-head fiddle) is a two stringed musical instrument associated with Mongolian traditions and culture.

Competitors together with researchers, composers and morin khuur makers from Mongolia, China, inner Mongolia, Japan, USA, Russia, France, and Germany will participate.

The morin khuur body and  neck are carved from wood. The top of the neck is made in the form of a horse's head, which gives the instrument its name. The sound is similar to that of a violin or a cello. It is played with a bow made from the willow, traditionally stringed with horsetail hair coated with cedar wood resin. Modern professional horse-head fiddles use a bow made with synthetic strings.

The winner of the competition will win a prize of MNT1.5million, second place MNT1million and third place MNT800,000. Sponsors of the competition have added several more prizes in various categories.

The music the competitors will play will include self selected pieces together with Mongolian melodies and western classical music.

The Mongolian traditional melodies, will include “Tsonkhon deer suusan yalaa”, "urtiin duu" “Uykhan zambuu tiviin naran” “Asriin undur” and others.

The classical music will include “Melancholy Serenade” composed by the Russian composer Tchaikovski  and "Marcello Concerto" in D minor  by the German composer Bach.

Festival Events
April 28, 10:00, The first round of the Morin Khuur competition will take place at the concert Hall of Culture and Art University of Mongolia
April 29, 10:00, The second round of the Morin Khuur competition will take place at the concert Hall of Culture and Art University of Mongolia
April 30, 10:00, The third round of the Morin Khuur competition will take place at the concert Hall of Culture and Art University of Mongolia
May 4, Contest of Morin Khuur Makers will take place in State Philharmonic Hall
May 5, 17:00, The final performance of the competition ending with the awarding ceremony will be held at the Palace of Culture Center.
May 2-5 10:00-17:00 Morin Khuur art show at the Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery  (Fine Arts gallery)

Jamiyan – the Music Master
Photo: from book -
"The horse headed fiddle"  by peter k. marsh

The festival is named after Jamiyan G. who is the Mongolian master music teacher who modernized the Morin Khuur music tradition.
Until the 1950's Mongolian musicians played traditional and folk music with no clear distinction between amateur and professional methods. It was Jamiyan the dominant music teacher who incorporated methodology into his teaching of morin khuur. These included developing ways of holding the instrument and it's bow, methods of fingering the notes on the string, and of moving the bow over the string. These methods were influenced by methods of playing a violin and cello. These changes enabled Morin Khuur players to perform European styled classical music. Jamiyan also developed a series of fundamental exercises that he used in teaching. These were later published in what became the standard method handbook  for playing morin khuur. His ideas contributed to the modernization of the morin khuur traditions.

During the competition the competitors will show their skills and capability of mastering the techniques developed by Jamiyan.

The video at the top demonstrates  what can be achieved with the two string morin khuur. It is a piece named "Galopping Horses" performed with a morin khuur and played with an orchestra. This piece was developed by the famous morin khuur player Chi Bulico. In 2001, Chi Bulico won a Guinness World Record by performing the  "Galloping Horses" together with 1,000 horse-head fiddle players. The melody resembles a wild herd of horses roaming the steppe.

Morin Khuur Origins Mythology

The horse head fiddle is evident in sources dating from the 13th century during the Mongol empire.
There are several variants of the mythology explaining the origins of the instrument. All the stories tell about the love of a man to his horse.

The dominant story tells about Sukhe who found a young horse besides his dying mother. Sukhe adopted the young foal and took good care of him. One day he took part in a horse race and to the dismay of the professional horsemen, Sukhe won the race, even the local governor, noted as an evil man, was defeated.  That night Sukhe  found his beloved horse dead, having been shot with arrows. In his grief his horse came to him in his dream. The horse "told" him to use its bones, skin and tail to create a musical instrument similar to a fiddle. In that way Sukhe and his horse could remain together. Sukhe did so and the instrument is said to have a sad sound.

A more romantic variant tells about a shepherd named Namjil who received as a gift from his lover a magical horse that could fly. He used it at night to fly to meet his beloved. His jealous wife (and in other variants, a jealous lover) cut the horse's wings off, so that the horse fell from the sky and died. The grieving shepherd made a horse-head fiddle from his flying horse skin and tail.




Morin Khuur in Mongolian culture

The fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument, for it is traditionally an integral part of rituals and everyday activities of the Mongolian nomads. Playing the morin khuur is accompanied with dances, long songs (urtiin duu), mythical tales, ceremonies and everyday tasks related to horses. To this day, the morin khuur is used to tame animals.

The use of morin khuur for taming animals came to the attention of the public in the West with the introduction of the "Weeping Camel" movie made as a graduation project by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorn.  The movie tells the story of "Botok" a white baby camel.  During the breeding season several healthy foals are born.  The last birth is difficult. The nomad family helps  deliver a rare white colt. The mother camel rejects it and refuses to nurse.
In order to save the baby camel, the herder family spends the little money they have to get the morin khuur player from the nearby village to try to reunite the mother and her offspring,
In the movie, a unique method is used by Mongolian herders: they play music using a horse head fiddle, with a special song, they serenade the camel mother and the reluctant mother starts to weep large tears before reuniting with her own calf.
The words of the song are:
"Why are you rejecting your beautiful little offspring?
Your offspring weeps when it gets up in the morning.
Please let it suckle your tastey milk!
HOOS, HOOS, HOOS..."


A Mongolian saying shows how central  the morin khuur is in the Mongolian heritage.
"A ger with a morin khuur is complete, while a ger without one is like a widow".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie last night and was amazed.