Music and Mongolia

The level of passionate interest in singing in Mongolia is striking – even at the orphanage yesterday, the children were ready and willing to “sing along.” Likewise at the show on Wednesday at the Wrestler’s Palace, and the bus ride to the ger camp, and the Russian classes I heard singing at the top of their lungs yesterday at the university, and the class I guest taught which sang “Man of Constant Sorrow” with such great enthusiasm….and on and on and on.

So, what’s it all about?

I’ve been watching and listening as Mongolians struggle with daily life – it’s been a rough existence for Mongolians for so many centuries – a truly inhospitable climate, so bad that, I was told today, “there are no rats because they couldn’t survive the winter.” At the orphanage yesterday, the director said they’d found a dead puppy that morning, a frequent occurrence because they get too cold at night and there’s no shelter for all the animals. And other animals die in the winter, and babies, too…it’s just not a good climate for plants and animals. It has made Mongolians rugged, sturdy, and kind of unemotional. They don’t go for niceties particularly; they want to get down to the business of surviving. Getting food to eat is not a “given,” even with the boom in imports, etc. I’m not saying any of the Mongolians I met go hungry, but some of the people in the ger district right outside town definitely do, and probably some people in the city do also.

So, what does that have to do with singing?

I think singing is a safe outlet for unsafe emotions that could get in the way of survival needs. The romantic, nostalgic, and patriotic songs everyone sings at the karaoke bars that are three to a block gives Mongolians a chance to experience romantic, nostalgic, and lofty feelings that can’t really be usefully deployed in everyday life. The singing allows the emotions to be intensely felt but in a circumscribed context….

I’m sure that is true in many cultures, but for some reason it really “clicked” for me in this culture — I can see it at work. Singing allows “softness” in a harsh environment.


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