by Steven Pisano
On March 30, the World Music Institute hosted a fascinating concert at Merkin Hall featuring the Mongolian musical group Anda Union, whose nine members represent different nomadic ethnic groups, many from the grasslands of Ar Horchin in Inner Mongolia. Back in the 1200s and 1300s, Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan established a vast Mongol Empire that included China itself, until the start of the Ming Dynasty when the Mongols were expelled.
Anda Union is comprised of musicians who go by only one name: Nars, Chinggeltu, Saikhannakhaa, Uni, Chinggel, Biligbaatar, Tsetsegmaa, and two named Urgen. They play exotic-looking string instruments and reeds with names such as morin huur, tobshuur, ikil, moadin chor, and tobshuur. Because much of traditional Mongolian culture has been absorbed in the geographical areas that were once part of Mongolia but are now part of China, many younger Mongols have been researching and celebrating their traditional customs, to keep them alive for future generations. In this vein, Anda Union has been blending traditional folk music of the region with modern music written by members of the band.
In addition to singing traditionally, Mongolian singers are noted for hoomei, or throat singing, in which the vocalist sings two pitches simultaneously. On most songs the band performed, the seven main musicians sang together as a group, or one or another would take the lead. But on a number of songs, there were two featured singers who brought something special to the performance.
The featured female singer was Tsetsegmaa, who was dressed in a traditional robe of aquamarine silk and a fur hat with a conical top. Whenever she sang, the audience sat in rapt attention, particularly when she sang a song about mothers that was mesmerizing, even not knowing the words she was singing.
The featured male singer was Biligbaatar, an award-winning long-song singer introduced as a "cowboy," whose rousing performance of "The Herdsman" had the hall rocking. He was dressed in a long blue cloth wrap, and wore a brown cloth hat on his head.
As part of the rousing finale, the band played a high-energy piece that was a tribute to the importance of horses in traditional Mongolian culture, with the musicians capturing the speed of the horses, the thundering hooves, and the high whinnying sounds as they race across the steppe.
The concert was a strong reminder of how different cultures around the world approach what we all experience in life as people, and each culture brings to the table its own unique traditions. The many great shows that the World Music Institute puts on throughout the year in New York are an opportunity to experience these cultures a world away.
More photos can be found here.