Eagle Hunters and Folk Music in Western Mongolia

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A late-January trip to Bayan-Ulgii, Mongolia’s western most province, led to one of my most productive recording trips yet. I was able to capture close to 50 recordings as I traveled through the snow-covered Altai Mountains. This is a song performed by a Kazakh herder, Esilbek, where he sings about the love he feels for his mother.

Bayan-Ulgii is home to Mongolia’s largest concentration of Kazakh herders—famous for the golden eagles they train to hunt. During my 10-day trip I was lucky enough to take part in an eagle hunt, but stayed focused on recording music.

Kazakh folk music is a completely separate tradition from traditional Mongolian music, but its preservation is equally important. Rapid urbanization and easier access to new musical styles have led to a devaluation of traditional forms of music in Kazakh culture. Additionally, herders I spoke with repeated the sentiment that young people in particular are straying away from traditional forms of music.

Jaka, a herder/local entertainer in his countryside community, explained, “People who live in the city, if there’s a wedding they do it in the wedding palaces or in the bar, so there are only modern songs being sang. In the countryside at least a few old songs will be sang. So we can’t say they are completely forgotten [sic].” Here’s a song he sang about growing older, but remembering moments from his youth.

Speaking with Altai, a semi-retired wedding singer, Jaka’s assertion was affirmed. Altai lives close to Ulgii, Bayan-Ulgii’s largest city, and explained that he used to be a prominent figure in his community because of his singing. He said that now everyone in Ulgii has their weddings in wedding palaces. In this new setting a DJ will play “Estrada songs”, contemporary Kazakh pop music, and foreign pop music. Because of this, Altai is no longer asked to perform at weddings.

While traditional music has remained a part of Kazakh culture in the countryside, it is clear that urbanization places value on more contemporary musical styles. As Mongolia as a whole undergoes rapid urbanization, it seems that performers like Altai and Jaka will become harder to find.

As the musical landscape changes in western Mongolia, it is important to preserve traditional Kazakh music as it exists today.

I am still working with my Kazakh friend and translator to finish some more songs. After the translations are done I will be subtitling more videos and will post them. I have also started to get some of my Mongolian folk songs translated, which will only add more depth to this project.

To see Dimitri’s full project visit mongolmusicarchive.com. To get in touch with Dimitri, feel free to email him at dimitri.staszewski@fulbrightmail.org or visit his personal website itsdimitri.com. Get frequent updates about his project by following him on Instagram @dimitri.photo.

One thought on “Eagle Hunters and Folk Music in Western Mongolia

  1. Hi Dimitri. Absolutely extraordinary and inspiring. Congratulation. Feel like a National Geographic Expedition or a Nova show on KQED. Thank you. Can’t wait to show more to my children.

    Like

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