Amongst today’s Mongolian music groups, Altai Khangai stands out in that it remains very attached to a specific region of Western Mongolia: the Altai and Khangai Mountains, where throat singing was established long before it expanded to other regions of the republic. Formed in 1995, the band notably comprises Ganzorig Nergui, Ganbold Muukhai and the lady musician Garavkhuu Badmaabazar. They are well aware that tradition is a living thing not to be confused with dead-still folklore, and this is clearly shown by Ganzorig Nergui’s compositions featured on this album. They can just as well interpret ancient forms that were forbidden during socialist times, such as a magtaal praise song for a Buddhist deity, or innovate and use the tovshuur lute to interpret a tatlaga usually played on the morin khuur fiddle. The morin khuur fiddle is the emblematic instrument of Mongolian culture. According to the legend, this “horse-fiddle” was made by the epic hero Khokhoo Namzhil, with the bones, skin and mane of Jonon Khar, the winged horse killed by a jealous woman. Its wooden (formerly skin) sounding board has two sound holes like Western violins. In the steppe, one can occasionally come across instruments whose sounding board is made of skin. The left hand slightly presses the side of the strings to modify the pitch of the notes, yet not against the neck.
The yatga is a zither with movable bridges, equipped with thirteen metal strings. It can be played with the fingers, sometimes with plectra attached to them, or with a bamboo stick. The modern-day yatga is very close to the Korean gayageum.
The yoochin is a trapeze-shaped zither with twenty-one sets of three metal strings, played with sticks. It comes from China, where it was probably introduced by Western missionaries.
The tovshuur lute has two strings, now generally made of synthetic material. The former horsehair strings can still be found occasionally. The one-sided frame drum called hets is the favourite instrument of shamans, who also play the aman khuur mouth harp, made of metal or bamboo.
The specificity of the end-blown flute tsuur (which is also to be found amongst the Kazakhs, in the Siberian Altai and in the Tuva Republic) is that it is accompanied by a vocal drone and thus evokes throat singing, which notably originated in the Altai and Khangai Mountains. Ganzorig Nergui interprets several forms of throat singing: khuumii, uyelzuur khuumii, kharkhiraa, tsur kharkhiraa, and shakhaa. Badmaabazar Garavkhuu sings the other songs. Throat singing consists in a singer voicing a fundamental note from which he (in Mongolia, throat singing is the privilege of men) emits a series of harmonics. The forms vary with the zone where the voice resonates (chest, mouth cavity, palate, larynx, lip vibration) and the fundamental note. Breathing is also important, whether normal, puffing, tight, very long, and whether or not it makes use of a rhythmic pulse. Likewise, the phonemes used vary depending on the forms, and the melody can include six to twelve harmonic tones. Khuumii makes use of the high-pitched register, shakhaa uses the medium register and kharkhiraa the bass register. Other forms combine these three basic techniques. Henri Lecomte