I would like to talk about Mongolian horses, but for some reason my thoughts circled around a musical instrument “morin huur” or horse-headed fiddle. The history of this musical instrument, its components and design, and also a feature of the sound all are closely connected with the horses. If I talk about this musical instrument this would not be so far from my original intention.
There exist many legends about the origin of the morin huur. One tells the story of a fairy racehorse with magical wings, on which his owner could fly to meet his sweetheart every night. Other talk about the horses sold to distant foreign lands, and how they returned home, overcoming the challenges of high mountains and wide valleys, vast steppes and endless desert. The third states the fact that a horse can be the best friends of a human. Almost all these legends praise the horse’s beautiful gait and allure, and include its amazing abilities and incredible endurance. When this or that horse died, the grieving man made a musical instrument from the horse’s bones in its neck, the hair as strings, the skin as a cover of soundbox, and its scroll carved into the shape of a horse head.
Each legend is interesting, but I like the following. Once upon a time a man discovered that the horse hair vibrating in the breeze blowing across the steppe creates an ethereal melody. He pondered that if a single hair could create such a beautiful melody, then many hairs could create an even more beautiful one. When he returned home, he took a wooden ladle and covered the top with a piece of dried skin. So, the sound box was set up. Then he attached the horse hairs to the two ends of the ladle. He took another bundle of the horse hairs and attached it to a thin from a tree branch. The bow was ready. This was how the fiddle originated.
Initially the makers of the fiddle sound box body had it covered with the soft skin of the horse groins, and used 81 white horse hairs for one string and 81 black for another. They used 81 hairs, because it is a factor of three, which is an important number for the Mongolian people. Examples: father-mother-child, past-present-future etc. According to this culture, everything complete is shown in three and nines. The multiplication of nine by nine to produce eighty one is significant. This number is considered as a gifts presented for the Gods.
From that time on, every family made the horse-headed fiddle, and preserved their horse’s gallops and neighs. In this way they kept the memory of their horses. The sound of this fiddle expresses the feelings and emotions of the people so well that it spread throughout the Mongolian steppe, and all became fiddle players.
Our family, too, owned this musical instrument. My great-grandfather was a connoisseur of horses and had herds of race horses. My father used to talk about various adventures related to incredibly intelligent horses. Such as: grandfather was captured by bandits and they demanded as a ransom famous bay racehorse. As required the bay horse was given, and grandpa released. When grandpa returned, his herdsman said that the bay horse escaped from them and was already home. The other case was a matter of life or death! When armed pursuers fired at grand-uncle, his chestnut horse then knelt so low, then crouched to one side that a stirrup touched into a ground and could evade the bullets, and raced away. I have no idea which horse’s head is carved in our fiddle. Maybe one of these above mentioned? Probably there were many other wonderful horses I have not heard about that our ancestors loved much, and grieved when they’d gone. It is said that not only man grieves when his favorite horse dies, but a fiddle also grieves when its Master passes away. It is a considered, that during 49 days after death the spirit of the dead person has not yet left this world, and it is not allowed for close relatives to feast, make music or sing. In these days of mourning the horse-headed fiddle should be covered. When the time comes to remove the cover, fiddle’s wooden horse’s eyes there were wet with tears. Maybe it’s just damp! But I want to believe that a musical instrument has a soul.
The horse-headed fiddle makes miracale and able to affectes annimals: The two humped Mongolian camels’s birth is very painful, and sometimes young female camels refuse to suckle their newborn. The pitiful small baby camel follows its mother, and the baby is in danger of starving to death. The mother also appears depressed, she stands alone in the pasterland, like a person who is lost in thought, and she eating nothing, too. A ceremony “hoesloh” means to wake up through music the maternal instinct of the mother and bring back a painful memory of her own adolescence, when she missed her mother who was in a caravan for long months. The tune of the melody that performed on horse head fiddle exactly fits the camel’s gait and the verse of it is to persuade and beg the mother camel to suckle, as if she is a thinking creature. This is slow, sad and very peculiar music. After a certain time in the performance the camel mother’s body starts to shake and you might say that the camel is crying, and her eyes fil with big tears. The mother approaches her baby and sniffs it. The camel mother looks so embarrassed and remorseful. The baby camel makes a timid attempt to suckle. The mother finally permits it to suckle. When some baby camels are orphaned, the is adopted a new mother in this same way. Only, a baby should take a cold shower to remove the dead mother’s smell.
Today’s scientifically designed modern horse-headed fiddle’s sound box is made entirely of wood, and the white bundle consist 150 hairs, while the black bundle contains 120 and the bow has 90 hairs. The use of the bundle of horse hair as a string and a bow of the fiddle, makes the sound much richer, because every hair contributes its own microtones. These microtones are unique in the entire world to the horse headed fiddle alone.
On these wooden fiddles it is also possible to play the ancient melodies such as Mongolian long song or throat singing, and also can be used for playing western style classical music. Mostly western music is played in the four scales, while horse-headed fiddle has a pentatonic musical scale. So, to play western music it only needs tuning it. For solo the horse-headed fiddle is often tuned a half tone higher or lower. The original skin fiddles still exists in homes for solo performances.
The horse-headed fiddle was not one of repression even in the socialist period in Mongolia, but after Democratic Revolution of 1990 and become to a degree never seen popular, and is considered a symbol of Mongolian nation and an icon of national identity. It identified by UNESCO one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.