The Mongolian Morin Khuur /Horsehead Fiddle/
The morin khuur, also known as the horsehead fiddle, is a traditional Mongolian bowed stringed instrument. It is one of the most important musical instruments of the Mongol people and is considered a symbol of the Mongolian nation. The morin khuur is one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity identified by UNESCO.
While practicing nomadic pastoralism for hundreds of years, Mongolian communities greatly revered and perpetuated the horse in their coat of arms and musical creations. One of the manifestations of this respect is the horse-head fiddle. The term morin khuur means fiddle with a horse-head. The morin huur has two strings. The strings and bow are both made of horse-tail hair. It is an instrument that features an expansive musical range, excellent sound expression, and perfect harmonization of its melody. A well-known Mongolian poet Tsedendorj Mishig celebrated the charm and power of horse-head fiddle and its player in a poem, writing:
Only its two strings express All the events of the world.
The instrument consists of a trapeziform wooden-framed sound box to which two strings are attached. It is held nearly upright with the soundbox in the musician's lap or between the musician's legs. The strings are made from hairs from nylon or horses' tails, strung parallel, and run over a wooden bridge on the body up a long neck, past a second smaller bridge, to the two tuning pegs in the scroll, which is usually carved into the form of a horse's head.
The bow is loosely strung with horsehair coated with larch or cedar wood resin and is held from underneath with the right hand. The underhand grip enables the hand to tighten the loose hair of the bow, allowing very fine control of the instrument's timbre.
The origins of the horse-head fiddle are traced to ancient times. Tan Dynasty historical records mention that the Huns, who existed in the Mongolian territory around the third century BC, and Donghu people, who existed there around the first century BC was using a fiddle called the Hün-khuur (kun-heu) or fiddle of the Huns. Moreover, an abundance of records mentioning the horse-headed fiddle and musicians are found in the oral and written sources pertaining to the Great Mongol Empire around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as well as the diary of the French missionary Guillaume de Roubruck, who visited Mongolia between 1253-1255.
An ancient legend about the origin of horse-head fiddle says: ‘Once upon a time, there was a man on a long journey. On the way, his horse died. While watching his horse, a grieving traveler noticed that the mane and tail of his horse were whistling in the strong blowing wind. Inspired by this, the traveler crafted his horse head with wood and coated the sound-box with the thin skin of groin of his horse and furnished it with his horse’s tail hair as strings. He stroked the instrument with a stringed bow and melodiously described his horse’s neighing sound, steps as well as trotting and cantering, and consoled his heart. This is how the horse head fiddle originated’
The morin khuur is the national instrument in Mongolia. Many festivals are held for celebrating the importance of this instrument on the Mongolian culture, like the biannual "International Morin Huur Festival and competition", which is organized by the "World Morinhuur Association". First held in 2008, second in 2010 - with 8 participating countries (Mongolia, Korea, China, Russia, USA, Germany, France, Japan) - and planned for May 2012. Here many amateurs come and play freestyle pieces, but also a professional contest is held and an instrument-making competition.
In the Mongolian Gobi farmer's daily life the Morin Khuur has another important use. When a mother camel gives birth to a calf sometimes it rejects her calf due to various natural stress situations and Mongolian camel farmers use Morin Khuur-based melodies alongside special low harmonic types of songs called "Khoosloh" to heal mother camels' stress and encourage it to re-adopt its calf. This re-adoption of farm animal practice is widely used in various nomadic civilizations worldwide but for Mongolian Gobi farmers' cases, only this instrument is used on camels. In other cases, if a mother camel dies after giving birth to a calf, a farmer would use this Khoosloh technique alongside Morin Khuur melodies to encourage another mother camel who has its own calf to adopt the new one. The practice is well documented in a documentary called Ingen Egshigdirected by Badraa J. in 1986 and was also remade in 2003 by director Byambasuren Davaa with a different title of The Story of the Weeping Camel which nominated for 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary.