Exotic Morin khuur, the horse head fiddle and the legend of Namjil the Cuckoo

Perhaps the most exotic bowed string instrument in the world is the Mongolian Morin khuur with the headpiece made in a shape of a horse’s head and an unusually deep and rich sound that can even imitate a horse neighing.

The exact timing of the emergence of Morin khuur is still unclear, but there are many legends about the origin of this musical instrument among the Mongols. One of the most famous is the legend of Namjil the Cuckoo.

Once upon a time, a horse herder Namjil from the eastern outskirts of Mongolia was drafted into an army and began to serve on the westernmost border of Mongolia. He sang so beautiful that people called him Namjil the Cuckoo.

During the years of military service, he and the daughter of a local prince fell in love with each other. When the period of military service ended, Namjil’s beloved gave him a magic winged horse, which made him possible to meet her by crossing a long distance in a short period. The wings were hidden on the hip sides of the horse, and they appeared outside only by special orders.

After returning home, Namjil secretly flied to his beloved on his winged horse almost every night. But once, an insidious woman from a rich family in his neighborhood tracked his arrival, and cut off the wings of his horse after he fell sleep, when it was not hidden on the sides.

Bronze horseman statue originated by the legend of 'Namjil the Cuckoo', in Darkhan province.

Bronze horseman statue originated by the legend of ‘Namjil the Cuckoo’, in Darkhan province.

When Namjil woke up, his magic horse was already dead. The grieving herder made a horsehead fiddle from his horse’s skin and tail, and used it to play poignant songs about his horse and his beloved.

In that way, the very first Morin khuur was made according to this legend.

Also, it should be noted that the khuur is mentioned and spoken many times in Mongolian ancient epics and tales such as ‘Jangar’, ‘Geser’, ‘The khuur musician Argasun’ and ‘Story of Two Male Horses’.

The first recording about Mongolian khuur is related to “Hou hanshu’ or the story of Han dynasty (6 to 189 CE) in Eastern China, where it’s written that ‘the king Ling likes Hun dwelling, Hun bed, Hun tent, Hun khuur, Hun flute and Hun dance’. Hence, the ministers have lots of arguments and fights to entertain the king’.

The Huns, ancestors of the Mongols had the Hun khuur or Shanagan khuur, the Swan head harp, but also there were other stringed, percussion and wind music instruments like flute, harp, Mongolian zither and biivaa. The Shanagan khuur or the ladle fiddle is named after its shape similar to a ladle, which originally was made of ladle, covered with processed animal skin. It is believed that a Morin khuur is originated from this fiddle.

The Chinese officer Li Ling, who was prisoned by the Huns in the 1st century AD, once wrote in his letter that ‘In autumn, it is heard loudly that the sound of horn trumpet of Hun warriors and horses neigh’. In this case, the sound of horse neighing might be a description of a melody played by Morin khuur.

In ‘The Secret History of the Mongols’ (13th century) and in ‘Altan tovch’ or ‘Golden Chronicle’ by Luvsandanzan (17th century), the khuur musical instrument is also mentioned.

Urjingiin Yadamsuren, “Uvgun Khuurch” (Old Epic-Teller, 1958)

Giom de Roubruc, an envoy from the French monarch Louis IX, who visited the capital of the Mongol Empire Kharkhorin (Karakorum) in 1253 wrote in his book, called ‘Visiting the Eastern World’ that ‘During summertime, Mongols make airag (fermented mare’s milk) and a khuur player sits next to the door of the ger. They have numerous music instruments that are very strange and unknown to us. As a servant in the king’s palace give a sign, there would be a music performance and men dance in front of the king and women dance in front of the queen’.

There’s also a statement that khuur wasn’t originated from the Shanagan khuur, but the Morin khuur had a bow from the beginning or the body was made of horse skull in ancient times, thus it was called as Morin khuur.

At first, the body of Morin khuur was covered with skin of goat, young camel or calf as their skin was more elastic and easier to process. The skin is soaked in curdled milk for a week and is covered in its wet form on the body of the khuur, and it will be painted with mineral color, mostly green or brown after being dried. The body was ornamented with symbolic patterns. Later, the horse head would be painted in green as this color is the symbol of peace and fertility. But also green color might used as symbol of the green horse of Maitreya, the Buddha of Future.

The larger two strings are called male strings and are consisted of 130 hair from a stallion`s tail as a symbol of the active or manly principle of Arga (Chinese Yang). While the female string has 105 hair from a mare`s tail and symbolizes the passive or female principle of Bilig (Chinese Yin).

Nowadays, the instrument consists of a trapezoid-shaped, wooden-framed sound box in which the two strings are attached. Khuur is positioned nearly upright of the sound box in the musician’s lap or between the musician’s legs. The strings are strung parallel, and run over a wooden bridge on the body up to its long neck, pass the second smaller bridge to the two tuning pegs in the scroll.

The bow is loosely strung with horse hair, coated with larch or cedar wood resin, and it is held from underneath of the right hand. The underhand grip enables the hand to tighten the hair strings of the bow, allowing them to have a very fine control of the instrument’s timbre.

Some parts of the bowing technique is unique – the little and the ring finger of the right hand usually touches the bow hair, which is used for setting accents. Traditionally, the strings were tuned a fifth apart, though they are more often tuned a fourth apart in modern music.

The traditional playing method of a ‘tatlaga’ is considered as the alphabet of learning Morin khuur. This unique method can produce diverse tunes and melodies in one movement through the bow and express the idea and content by its diverse playing methods of ornamenting, glissando and double moves etc. Tatlaga resembles the galloping, cantering, running and trotting of horses.

It is interesting that the Morin khuur is used to tame animals until today. Herders, from the Gobi region of Mongolia, face a vicious problem when a mother camel unexpectedly rejects her newborn colt because of a particularly difficult birth. There is a traditional coaxing ritual to encourage the mother camel to make her accept the newborn or to adopt an orphan. The mother camel is tied closely to the calf and the singer with Morin khuur begins a monotone song, accompanied by certain gestures and chants. The use of Morin khuur as a coaxing ritual for baby camels came to the attention of the public in the West with an introduction of the Oscar nominated docu-drama movie 2004 “The Story of the Weeping Camel” by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni.

It should be noted that Ulambayar, a Morin khuur creator, has conducted an interesting test about Morin khuur’s origination. He used tail hair of horses from different regions of Europe, America and Asia in order to make a Morin khuur. Tail hair of horses from Texas and Colorado of USA, Germany, Japan, Korea and Southern China couldn’t undergo the test and only the tail hair of Mongolian horses could resist the test of attaching them to the fiddle, tuning and playing of Morin khuur. It was an interesting study and a test to prove that Morin khuur is a native music instrument of Mongolia, which was originated thousands years ago, in ancient times.

The World Association for Morin Khuur was established in 2008 and in the same year it has organized the first biannual International Festival-Competition of Morin Khuur. Since that time, more than 700 Morin khuur learners, teachers, researchers, bands from Mongolia, Russia, China, Japan, USA, Korea, Germany and France have participated in the following six festivals.

The Morin khuur is more than just a musical instrument, but also an aggregation of the Mongolian traditional customs and culture. Nowadays, Morin Khuur is one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, identified by UNESCO.

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