During the first two weeks of November, I had the opportunity to visit Mongolia’s Tsaatan reindeer herders. After two days of driving we made it to our guide, Puuja’s house. Waking up early the next morning, our small party saddled horses and prepared ourselves for the two-days of riding it would take to reach the Tsaatan. We wound our way through wilting pine forests and across the frozen ground of the northern Mongolian tundra long after the tourist season had ended, with winter well underway.
The Tsaatan were not as keen to sing for me as I had hoped, but I was able to capture one song. This Tsaatan folk song is different than my other recordings because it is sung in the Tsaatan language, not Mongolian.
On our way back to Puuja’s house, I was able to capture his son, Sambo, whistling as we made our way across the frozen landscape. Pardon the shaky footage. Sambo was especially shy about singing and my only chance to record him whistling was while I was also riding. I showed him the video afterwards and asked if I could put it online. He laughed and agreed. Despite the shaky footage, I love this video because I think it perfectly captures Sambo’s use of song as a part of his daily life. The performance is totally un-staged.
Our last day in the countryside, Puuja surprised me by inviting two of his friends to come and sing for me before we left. The first performance, by Tulgaa, includes two Darkhad folk songs. The Darkhad are a separate ethnicity from the ethnic majority in Mongolia, the Khalkha, but still herd the same animals as Khalkha herders; sheep, goats, yak, cows, and horses. Tulgaa explained that Darkhad folk songs are different than Mongolian folk songs because they don’t have any composers. Anonymous herders make up the words. The first song is about having pride for land and family. The second song is about being older, but remembering youth.
I love this recording because it was actually the second take. The first take was done inside. After we finished, I told Tulgaa about my website and asked if it would be okay to include his performance. He said it would be fine, but quickly decided he wanted to perform again, but outside. I think this speaks volumes to what my project is attempting to showcase. For so many Mongolian herders, “outside” is their stage. These performances are important to capture as that stage continually shrinks and as fewer Mongolians remain herders.
This last song is a Mongolian folk song that Amarbayar, the performer, learned two days prior. I was incredibly impressed by his voice. He seemed very shy as he started singing, but warmed up a bit as the song went on. I wanted to see if I could record another song without video to try and help with his nervousness, but he left immediately after this song was captured. He didn’t seem to like being the center of attention.
Overall, my trip was a huge success. I plan on returning to Puuja’s community to record more Darkhad folk music in the spring or summer. During the summer, many Tsaatan live together for the tourist season. Hopefully, with a larger group I can find more willing singers.
To see Dimitri’s full project visit mongolmusicarchive.com. To get in touch with Dimitri, feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his personal website itsdimitri.com. Get frequent updates about his project by following him on Instagram @dimitri.photo.