Papers & Speeches


The morin huur is the musical history book of Mongol culture. In its strings, the joys and sadness, pleasure and pain, music and the mental motility of the nomadic community have come down to us over time. That is to say, the instrument is filled with history, colleceted in song. A recent performer, my father Dugars¨rengiin Gombojav (1912-1983) , composed many such song texts about horses and camels.

I should say a few words about how the place of the morin huur from the viewpoint of material culture. The modern tyform of the instrument has developed over history, and Mongol nomads have now reached a point where they are now integrated with things of value to them such as historical culture, aesthetic enjoyment and philosophical understanding..

1 The origin of the morin huur is of great importance. In Hööhöö Namjil, a story about the origins of the morin huur, the head of a belovèd black horse is carved into the head of a fiddle. This tradition is still current today. My grandfather Chansangiin Dugarsüren, gave a carved fiddle to my father when he was twelve years old, and I now have this instrument. This fiddle is said by our elders to be the subject of a story by Injeneerov, “The Little Creamwhite Horse from Dariganga. Those who play the morin huur today say, if someone is interested in the head of their fiddle, that it’s to commemmorate all of the fastest and most famous horses. It is always said, for instance, that the famous instrumentalist D.Tsogbadrah memorialised the head of a fast horse in his “Sürenhor’s Chestnut.”

2 The body of the morin huur is about equal in size to a shaman’s drum. While the shaman’s drum functions as his horse to the spiritual world, so the body of the morin huur is a musical horse. The body of the instrument, then, shakes melody from the horse’s hair and carries the mountains and rivers and families into the human mind. The head of the instrument grants us heaven, the its body grants the land and the mountains. 

3 The so-called “arrow” of the morin huur joins the head with the body. The hairs are stretched from the head part-way down the body. The reason why this part is called the arrow is because the bow, which resounds against the two strings, has a similar role to the bow in archery. As the instrumentalist draws the bowfiring the arrow of melody shoots upwards, flashing outwards from the drum. The head of the instrument is the horse which takes the melody and shoots upwards into the sky, and it returns to the earth. This was how our ancestors conceived of the morin huur when they first developed it. 

4 When the pegs which control the strings of the morin huur, which are called the instrument’s ears according to the Mongol idiom, are well positioned, they look like wings. When the instrument maker realises the thought of the winged horse, this thought is able to become absorbed into the instrument. The horse soars and the sounds fly up, and they are as one in the air. The winged horse is depicted in the head of the morin huur. Such an instrument is in the collectio of Ts.Batsaihan.

5 The strings or hairs are the living soul of the morin huur. According to the Mongol tradition, th elders say that there are 360 horse hairs in the two strings, as there are days in the year, there are ninety-nine shaman drums and 108 strings on a Buddhist rosary. It is very meaningful to correctly select the strings on the instrument. They take hairs from a fast, strong horse who can cover long distances. The two strigs should be dense and fine, and well-balanced. They must also certainly be taken from the tail of a living horse, since such hairs possess life-force. There is also the situation where hairs are taken from a fine horse which has died, in which case they should be taken when the horse is still warm, and before it has begun to cool down. My own father used to say, “I much prefer to take hairs from the horse who neighs well.” These words of his are of great significance.

6 At the two extremes which join the arrow of the morin huur with the body and with the head there is traditionally carved a zeebad, a round motif with te face of a monster. These links the strings to heaven and earth, tightly tied. At the two ends on the upper part of the body, above the strings, there are two bridges, one small and one large. These work to keep the hairs away from the body and arrow of the instrument. This is because it is the nature of music to join the mountains of the physical earth with the mountains of Heaven. The bridges are made in the form of two mountain peaks.

7 The morin huur graces the place of honor at the rear of the Mongol ger. When a person plays the instrument, they sit in this place of honor, position the morin huur on the ground, and play their music in the direction of the Seven Buddhas, the Mongol name for the Great Bear. The performer bows with the right hand and with the left hand holds the arrow of the instrument, and as the melody resounds, it flies towards Heaven and returns, and thus the wheel of music sounds. 

This is how the morin huur embodies that which is most valuable in the Mongol tradition.

At University of California, Berkley, USA
Feb, 2011