Musical Treasures: Mongolia, India, and China

"Deer stones" in Mongolia

By Elizabeth Doyle

Enkh Jargal

I think Mongolian throat singing is absolutely incredible. For one thing, the sound makes you very glad you’re not on the wrong side of a mob of angry or determined Mongolians many centuries ago.  I think hearing a group of them singing like this in their nearby camps, the night before they planned to raid my land would be enough to make me pack my things and go. But there’s much more to it than that. It really is a powerful sound whose fearsomeness is almost mystical.  And indeed, its origin is exactly that. The nearly inhuman vibrating sound that’s created in the throat is intended to mimic the sounds of nature, and stems from a belief that nature is the ultimate source of power, and a power that can be summoned through sound.  Enkh Jardal was born and raised in a very small village in Ulaanbastar, Mongolia, and studied under the most famous horsefiddler in the country: Click here.

Zakir Hussain

Zakir Hussain

Here’s somebody who may be well on his way toward becoming a legend. He’s an Indian tabla player, he’s from Mumbai, and he’s been blowing a lot of people away with his talent for a pretty long time.  In fact, some people would say that he’s the greatest tabla player in the world.  (Though I’m sure there’s some competition for that title!) He’s very funny and likeable in interviews, and the speed at which he moves his hands is just incredible.  I know that every time I hear him play his instrument, I think, “That seems impossible.”  Of course, it seems somewhat impossible whenever almost anyone plays the tabla – it’s a very difficult-looking instrument. It’s a type of drum, but you have to use all sorts of complicated finger and wrist movements to make it sing. It’s played incredibly fast. But to play it as well as Zakir does seems especially impossible. Here, take a look:

Temple incense burner in China

Min Xiao-Fen

The pipa or Chinese lute has been played in China for more than 2,000 years! It has a distinctive sound that we all instantly associate with the music of China.  It takes tremendous skill to play it well; even the movements of the musician as he or she plays are considered critical to the overall aesthetic.  Min Xiao-Fen is one of the best pipa-players out there.  She was taught by her father, who instructed students at Nanjing University.  And she was such an outstanding pupil that the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra invited her to be a soloist when she was just 17 years old.  She played with them for more than ten years. And since then, she has worked hard to introduce this once nearly-strictly-Chinese instrument to the whole world. She astounded an audience at Lincoln Center in New York City by being the first traditional Chinese musician ever to play jazz for them.  She played the music of Thelonious Monk on her pipa!  Here she is playing something much more traditional: Click here.

Top photo: “GAMMA” Agency / Wikimedia Commons / Deer stones, Mount Uushig, in  Mongolia, from around 1200-400 BC.

Second photo: Sven.petersen /  Wikimedia Commons /  Public Domain

Third photo: Sharon St Joan / Temple incense burner, Chengdu, China

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