Features of Mongolian Traditional Folk Song – the Urtiin Duu

Urtiin duu

In 1994, the world-famous music band “Enigma” from Germany released the single “Age of Loneliness” as one of the four singles in its second album “The Cross of Changes”. This single was peculiar in a way of containing the unusual female voice singing an extraordinary song in a strange non-western language. Listeners had no idea who the singer of this hitherto unheard song was.

It turned out that the Mongolian traditional long song “Tosongiin oroigoor” (“On the heights of Toson”) was performed in this single by singer Nadmid Dechinzundui.

Enigma – Age of Loneliness

In the same year, the founder of Enigma, Michael Cretu released another single “The Eyes of Truth”. Likewise “Age of Loneliness”, this song also featured samples of Mongolian long songs, notably the “Alsyn Gazryn Zereglee” (“Mirage of a Distant Terrain”).

Enigma’s album “The Cross of Changes”, thanks to these two singles and the use of exotic Mongolian long songs, was sold over 8 million copies worldwide. Moreover, the song named “The Eyes of Truth” was popularized by its artistic use in worldwide trailers of the movies “The Matrix”, and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” in 1999.

Literally, with the singles of Enigma, millions of people from every corner of the world have heard the Urtiin duu or an exotic Mongolian long song.

Norovbanzad Namjil (1931-2002)

Norovbanzad Namjil (1931-2002)

In fact, the real prima and the queen of the Mongolian long song for almost a half century, who has introduced the Urtiin Duu to the outer world was the singer Norovbanzad Namjil.

Born in 1931 in an ordinary shepherd family in Dundgobi aimag (Middle Gobi province), she loved to sing Urtiin Duu ever since of her childhood. It is believed among Mongolians that this province is the homeland of the most talented singers of long songs.

Having no special singing education, she went to Moscow in 1957, the capital of the Soviet Union, to participate at the 4th World Festival of Youth and Students. Jury and spectators were fascinated by Norovbanzad Namjil’s unusual voice and she unexpectedly won the grand prize.

Since then, she has performed on different stages in over 30 countries. Norovbanzad Namjil has given a standing ovation at the Metropolitan Opera of New York, La Scala of Milan, and she was presented with the Asian Cultural Award at the Fukuoka Theater of Japan in 1993.

Later, UNESCO declared to include the long song “Seruun Saikhan Khangai” (“Fresh and Beautiful Khangai”) performed by her in its Golden Fund.

But what are the features of Mongolian Urtiin Duu and why does it fascinate listeners that much?

In the Guinness Book of Records, the Urtiin Duu is singled out among folk songs of other nations in all over the world as the most complex and lengthy one in its performance. Not everyone, even skilled opera singers are able to master this art because of its difficult techniques and great requirements of skills and talents. A proper singer must have a voice range of up to three octaves.

For Mongolians, Urtiin Duu evokes the vast drawn out steppes. Its nostalgic tendency generates a preference for slow tempos, long melodic lines, wide pitch intervals and the absence of measured rhythms. The scale used in long songs is a five-note pentatonic scale with no semi-tones. Long songs are sung by both females and males and are usually accompanied by traditional musical instruments such as the Morin Khuur (Horse Head Fiddle) or sometimes the Limbe (Transverse Flute).

A basic melody of a long song is embellished by improvisations using trills, glissandos and glottal style yodeling effects. Lyrics are treated in a melismatic way with nonsense syllables and vowels to add the overall effects. However, there are strict rules concerning the vowel harmonization.

When you hear the Mongolian long song at first time, it’s hard to believe that such passages can be performed by one voice. The song is sung loudly and breathing needs to be translated quickly, so as not to disturb the effects of the continuous music.

While listening to the Urtiin Duu of a meditative nature, it is easy to fall into meditation by yourself.

This genre of Mongolian folk music is called “Long song” not only because the songs are lengthy, but also each text of the syllable is extended for a long duration. A four-minute song may only consist of ten words. Certain long songs such as “Uvgun shuvuu khoyor” (“Old man and the Bird”) can be sung up to three hours in its full length with complete 32 stanzas.

Lyrical themes of Urtiin Duu vary by its context; they can be philosophical, religious, romantic, or celebratory, and often use horses as symbolic theme repeated throughout the song.

Urtiin Duu is suitable for nomadic life and Mongolian limitless steppe. It is one of the oldest forms of melody, which is believed to be originated more than 2,000 years ago and recorded in literary works since the thirteenth century.​

As a ritual form of expressions associated with important celebrations and festivals, Urtiin duu plays a distinct and honoured role in Mongolian society. It is performed at weddings, inaugurations of new homes, birth of a new child, branding of foals and other social events celebrated by Mongolian nomadic communities. Urtiin duu can also be sung at the Naadam, a festival featured with wrestling, archery and horseracings.

Urtiin duu

Various legends about the origin of the long song are known among Mongolians, since ancient times.

One of them tells the story of a poor young woman who gave birth alone in the vast steppe during a snowstorm. To save her child, she wrapped him in her clothes. As she froze and died, the child was taken by the wolves and sheltered in their lair.

Three years later, some shepherds found the child and brought him to their home. That night, around the shepherds’ ger (home), wolves howled sadly for the loss of their adoptive brother, whom they have saved from cold death by wrapping in sheep’s skin and feeding him for three years. And the boy fell asleep peacefully under howling of his rescuers-wolves.

So, the following night, shepherds imitated the howling of wolves that the boy would fell asleep. According to this legend, the Urtiin Duu first appeared in this way.

Some researchers believe that the old long song “Ertnii Saikhan” (“Ancient Splendid”) was the first hymn of the Great Mongol Empire founded by Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan). For a long time, Mongolians were forbidden to perform this song. But the folks kept the melody of this long song by changing some words in its lyrics. After the democratic revolution in 1990, the Ertny Saikhan has given a rebirth in Mongolia.

The Urtiin Duu, which magically connects the Mongolian nomads with the nature and the cosmos, was inscribed in 2008 on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

1 thoughts on “Features of Mongolian Traditional Folk Song – the Urtiin Duu

  1. Mistelle Hargrove says:

    I am desperately trying to find a translation for Ertnii saikhan (“Ancient Splendid”) performed by M.Dorjdagva. I am writing a paper on how Mongolian music represents the pride of the Mongolian people and I need the words to be able to write about it but I cannot find a translation anywhere.

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