The last few days have been good enough that they alone would have made this trip to Mongolia worth it.

Not only have I met, interviewed, and recorded a bunch of astoundingly talented musicians and throat singers, I've had some a chance to play tunes with some one of them for many hours until near dawn, time at which of course music sounds best.

Oh, and swapped my banjo for a morin khuur too, fulfilling some critical corner of my destiny and, more so, the destiny of the banjo in Mongolia. What unleashing the banjo here means is hard to guess, but it isn't too hard to envision a Chingiss style reconquest of most of the world's surface, no?

The banjo is now in the hands of a guy named Jontsan, one of the throat singers from this band:


I didn't film that, this band has a bunch of stuff on youtube including some pretty over the top music videos.

They play every night, which is a grueling schedule. They are very good, playing a Tuvan sounding style of western Mongolian music. With some changes too, to be sure, since they have a dumbek. It is made to look very rustic and nomadic by being covered in fur and all, but it is still a dumbek. I have seen a few bands here that use them.

One of the members also plays in the National Orchestra show which is also every night, so he runs between the two shows. Musicians work hard here, no doubt about that. But they also work a lot, which is hard to complain about if you're a musician.

Jontsan is from Hovd, in the west, the heart of the music. He's superbly talented, plays all the traditional Mongolian instruments but is a specialist and teacher of the limbe, a flute. One of his real specialties is the tsuur, which is an end blown flute that is pressed against a tooth and used while also throat singing. Very interesting and strange sound. The tsuur almost disappeared it was so archaic but he is one of the newer players of it.

I have some pictures and great recordings of it, both solo and also alongside banjo and morin khuur, but I am a bit gunshy about trying out the photos on this borrowed computer after the weird experience of having my computer seize up and crash because of pictures and video. (the Dell technical help rep in the Philippines who I talked to via Skype diagnosed it and the drive is kaput). So Nunal is going to be all text for the duration, sorry.

Jontsan is a dombra player, which is a Kazakh lute that is not terribly dissimilar from a banjo only absent the drone string, and so he really picked up clawhammer pretty quickly after a couple of nights. Some really fine morin khuur players struggled in the same amount of time so clearly he was born to add the banjo to everything else.

I think the western Mongolian folk and dance songs have an old timey sound and many of them can translate fairly well to banjo. The topshuur, which is a two stringed instrument for accompanying songs and throat singing, has a banjo like essence and even used to have a skin head. But long songs, forget it, the banjo ain't built for that.

What is interesting is that when you drive around with Jontsan he listens to the most brutal varieties of Euro pop. Hard to comprehend. Togbokh, who plays igil in the band and is also from Hovd (and who is the one who drives between shows every night) drives around listening to Tuvan music, which makes a bit more sense.

The other guy who was over playing is a professional morin khuur player named Bayart. He is an astounding player too. I can't post the stuff I recorded from him but fortunately he has put a lot of his stuff on youtube (the young guys are pretty stoked to show you their stuff on youtube):



and another great horse song


As yet another fruit of Milo's limitless circle of friends among the musicians in Mongolia, the other day I ran into a shanz player named Otgunjav, who was the #1 shanz player in Mongolia for the national orchestra for three decades before retiring. (She is still pretty young, in her mid-60s, but retired.)

She ran through some tunes on the shanz for me and I was transfixed. It is a three string fretless lute, not too dissimilar from a fretless banjo, and the same as a Chinese sanxian. I played her some banjo at her request. She said "But how can you be a professional musician playing such simple music?" She played a tune for me (called 'folk melody') that actually is nice modal ones for the banjo once I figured it out--though that was a full day after she had marveled at my slowness. But no doubt well deserved but still pretty rough....

But Otgunjav did agree to come by the next day and show me more music, and she was amazing. I also got her life story, which is amazingly similar to the musicians I have been talking to.

She was from a nomadic family way out in western Mongolia, born in a ger. She started the Music and Dance College in Ulaanbaatar at age 11 after winning a contest, and then spent 8 years playing shanz for eight hours a day. I asked her if she studied any other subjects and she said "of course I didn't study anything else, I barely even learned the Russian alphabet. The people at the Music and Dance College were all amazingly gifted with great ability and played music." So she stuck with the music and became the best player of her generation.

After an interview and after she showed us her photo album of playing all over the world, Otgunjav changed into her dress deel and full adornments to play the shanz for us. She said it makes the music sound better to be dressed appropriately. And she was truly transformed too--she showed up wearing a baseball cap and carrying a shoulder bag which read in English: "I am WANT a Hustler" and she took on a truly dignified presence.

I wish I could post a photograph of her dressed in her stunning and colorful deel incongrously sitting in the kitchen of my apartment playing shanz. Surrealistic and incredible. He playing was as great as you'd expect, to my ear especially the western tunes which sound particularly magnificent on the shanz. I'll get something posted online when I get a chance.

Otgunjav really wants to come to the United States and I am going to see about getting something arranged to make that happen. People in the U.S. should hear her play and she likewise more than deserves to play for people.

The best shanz player of her generation and the top player alive in Mongolia, and she lives in an apartment in UB without hot water.

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