If you have been looking for a CD with music from Mongolia to round out your world roots collection, I'd recommend Zazal by Egschiglen, a group formed in 1991 by a handful of instrumental students at the Ulaan Baator Conservatory in the capital of Mongolia. This CD contains 13 tracks, including both traditional and contemporary works. It has been four years since the group's previous release, Gobi. Much of this time has been spent in research as well as travel between Mongolia and Southern Germany, where Zazal was recorded.
I find the meaning of the title interesting. According to the liner notes, "'zazal' is a ritual executed every morning by the women in Mongolia. With a special ladle called a 'zazal,' fresh butter tea is tossed to all directions of heaven. The 'zazal' ceremony is also used when a friend or a member of the family begins a long journey." Considering all the travel the group endured over four years to create this album, I think the title aptly fits.
The instruments on Zazal includes the morin khuur, a horse-head violin that is played like a cello. The yoochin is an instrument of the dulcimer family. The ih khuur provides bass while the tobshuur is a two-string lute.
More than the instruments, you will notice the peculiar singing style known as khoomii. This throat singing requires "...a complex interplay of abdominal, breast and body breathing, of vocal cords, glottis and throat, of tongue, lips and oral cavity." The best way to relate this to Western ears is to ask you to remember Froggy from the Little Rascals; his deep, monotone, throaty voice was very distinctive. But once you got used to it, it wasn't that bad. And so it is with khoomii (although the khoomii vocals do vary quite a bit if you take the time to listen).
One song that I particularly like is "Talin Salhi." The khoomii vocals are dominant in this tale about several episodes that occurred during the time of Genghis Khan, approximately seven centuries ago. The drum beat is somewhat mesmerizing when combined with the drone of the khoomii chant. Add in the occasional female vocals and this quickly becomes one of my favorite selections on the CD.
To be completely honest, though, the best pieces are the instrumentals. The beautiful melody of "Manudhai" brings to mind what the steppes of Mongolia might be like in the spring and summer months. I also like "Setgeliin egshig." This instrumental actually dates back about 30 years and is considered one of the earliest examples of Mongolian modern classic music.
The six musicians on this CD include Tumenbayar Migdorj (moriin khuur, vocals), Tumursaihan Yanlav (morrin khuur, aman khuur, vocals) Uuganbaatar Tsend-Ochir (ih khuur), Batbold Wandansenge (percussion, denshig, vocals), Amartuwshin Baasandorj (khoomii vocals) and Sarangerel Tserevsamba (yoochin, vocals).
Several of the pieces on Zazal are quite good. I will admit that some of the CD is a little slow, a little monotonous. Some of the selections sound drawn out. But what is good is, in my opinion, excellent. It's too bad the sound wasn't consistent all the way through.
[ by Wil Owen ]