Saturday, June 08, 2013

Nomadic Voices of the Steppes and Mountains at Fes Festival

It takes a great deal of inspiration to forge musical links between Sardinia and Mongolia, but the performance at the Batha Museum today did that  - and successfully. The  concert featured the polyphonic work of the Sardinian Cuncordu E Tenore de Orosei and diphonic Mongolian khöömii chanting from singers Ts Tsogtgerel and Nergui Ganzorig of Mongolia.

Only the sky sees the sparrow hawk’s back - Mongolian proverb
Sardinian polyphonies date back to the Nuragic age when nuraghi or round towers were built, in the form of truncated cones. These megalithic edifices remain the symbol of the age between 1900 and 730 years BCE (between the Bronze and Iron ages).

On the Gobi-Altaï steppes, where the Altaï mountains meet the immense Gobi desert, legend has it that overtone chant was born. There it is known as khöömii, meaning larynx.


It is accompanied by the morin-khuur or khiil-khuur, the horsehead fiddle of the poet and soothsayer. The overtone chant is a musical metaphor for this land: the hilltops and the valleys, the vastness of the steppes, the herds, the tumult of nature, its rumbles and its murmurs. Close your eyes while listening and you can hear the galloping of horses and the rustling of wild grasses.

Surprisingly, in the heart of these two traditions, we find the instrument known as the guimbarde or Jew's harp, familiar to nomadic shepherds all over the world.

The Concert

The Batha Museum was packed with an audience curious as to how seemingly dissimilar musical and cultural traditions would combine. After the first five minutes even the most sceptical of musicologists was convinced. The bringing together of the Mongolian diphonic Khöömii and the polyphonic Sardinian voices was a extraordinarily natural fit.

The afternoon’s concert combined the khöömii artists’ incredible vocal abilities with the warm, deep polyphony of Cuncordu E Tenore de Orosei; a group of tenors from Sardinia’s central east coast.

Cuncordu is best described as ‘sacred ritual music,’ often sung at religious occasions and celebrations.Today, the Tenors of Orosei sung about their countryside, pastoral culture and the beauty of Sardinia’s mountain ranges.

It is this vocal homage to nature, from its delicate birdsong to harsh, unforgiving terrain that unites the Mongolian khöömii artists and Sardinian tenors. The shared tradition of documenting the ‘good and evil’ of one’s environment orally – to respect and honour it through song - combined to create a truly unforgettable experience.

Ganzorig and Tsogtgerel

The Mongolians, Ganzorig and Tsogtgerel, were dressed respectively and resplendently in gold and red robes. A stark contrast to the sober black trousers, white shirts and black waistcoats of the five Sardinians.

Opening with the morin-khurr or khiil-khurr, a Mongolian horse head fiddle, Nergui Ganzorig pierced the air with a longing, melancholic sound. One of the Sardinian tenor’s vocals added a warmth to the piece, his voice harmoniously gliding over the ancient Mongolian instrument. Then, Ganzorig’s deep, throaty vocals added a different texture to the oral fabric; the combined melody between the two groups was astounding.

At times, the difference between vocal and man-made instrument was indistinguishable. Ganzorig and Tsogtgerel’s vocals sometimes emulated a moog synthesiser, with high notes dipping low and back up again. At others, the lute and wooden piccolo used by both groups could be mistaken for joyous birdsong.

The range and gift of these artists, both vocally and in terms of their skill with man-made instruments was extraordinary. When Tsogtgerel played the morin-khurr with his fifth and first finger dancing on the strings while singing in a deep, fast-paced voice, he appeared in a state of catharsis. Both Ganzorig and the Tenors of Orosei couldn’t help but beam at his transcended state.

The Mongolians ability to produce a multitude of sounds simultaneously is made even more extraordinary by the fact that there is little or no apparent lip movement. What is also remarkable is the ability to depict landscape - and celebrate it. At times accompanied by their khiil-khuur (horsehead fiddle) and at others chanting unaccompanied, they still managed to evoke the sound of horses galloping over the windswept steppes.

The landscape evoked by the Sardinians was mountainous, with their polyphony soaring over peaks, plateaus and into valleys.  Their crystal clear harmonies combined to produce a soudscape greater than its individual parts. Then, when they came together in a huddle, the Mongolian overtone chanting became the solid drone base for a new landscape of steppes and, somewhere in the musical distance, the mountain peaks.

It sometimes seemed that a single Mongolian voice was producing an entire choir. When the two voices combined, it was. Then out of nowhere, came a mellow bird call, mixed with a cavernously deep bass.

The audience was enraptured. Towards the end of the concert, the voices painted a landscape of vast empty spaces and longing, which was visited by what sounded like not one, but flocks of birds.

It was obvious to all that the musicians were having a lot of fun. They engaged in musical banter, their faces wreathed in smiles. One of the Mongolians joined two Sardinians playing the guimbarde or Jew's harp. In another section, the combination was a moving and mournful duet on whistle and flute.

The final combined piece was a masterpiece of longing and it didn't matter that you could not understand the words, for the meaning was in the music, and the music was divine.

A standing ovation and calls for more

A standing ovation brought the performers back on stage for an encore performance that finally brought all the singers into a huddle of harmonies.

The harmony of the music also spilled over into the crowd who stood beaming at each other afterwards - strangers no more, the audience were united in happiness and the energy was alive with positivity.

The Audience have their say

Julie and Tim Moltmann from Hobart in Tasmania

"Mumtaz Fes! It was just wonderful It sounded like somewhere else - do you know what I mean? Fantastic. It makes me want to come back and do the whole festival again next year."
Julie Moltmann, Hobart, Tasmania, Aus. 1st visit to Festival

"I have been dreaming of this for four years and after this experience I will come back every year. It was improbable and very rich, a real meeting between two different cultures. A true life lesson through music."
Carole Aina, Ardeche, France, 1st visit to festival

"Fabulous! It was so interesting to hear the blend of two cultures and how well they went together, while still keeping their own characteristics. The way he played the fiddle sounded like the galloping of horses and made me imagine life in Mongolia, riding across the mountains. We will be using this performance as inspiration for the next session of our writing workshop."
Kinga Bisits, Sydney, Aus.

Note on the art of "throat singing"

Khöömii or Xöömij " throat singing " or " jew's harp singing " - is a type of diphonic singing practised by the Mongols, the Tuva and other neighbouring peoples. This vocal technique involves the simultaneous emission of several sounds, several voices. The singer emits a basic sound from the throat, above which he modulates the melody using the harmonics. Even the untrained ear will hear clearly that the melodic line is composed of several harmonics. A singer may emit up to forty or more harmonics, which he obtains mainly by modifying the mouth cavity.

Khöömiy (also known as chakkur) may be seen as an imitation of the jew's harp, and, by analogy with the latter, which has divinatory power, it probably possesses, or at least once possessed, capacities of the same nature. A Mongolian legend also says that khöömiy is man's imitation of the sound of a river flowing between two hills.

The diphonic technique is often used for songs without words, but also as ornamentation for songs of praise to the glory of man or race-horses, or to the singer's native land. The Mongols possess at least six techniques for diphonic singing: khöömiy using the nose, the pharynx, the thorax, the abdomen, narrative khöömiy, and isgerex or nasal flute voice. The Tuva probably possess even more.


A Cultural Walking Tour of the Fez Medina

The Spirit of Fes Foundation, in partnership with the Heritage and Tourism and Communication Department of the University Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah and Guides Association of Fes, is offering visitors to the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music small group tours of the Medina.

Group size is restricted to fifteen people at a time and will be accompanied by two friendly and knowledgable hosts on a journey of three hours during which you will discover or - rediscover - Fez.

In addition to immersing yourself deep in the historical and architectural intimacy of the city, you will meet musicians, Sufis, artisans and people who have agreed to share their stories, their talents and skills.

And this is a tour for all the senses, so treats and refreshments will be available.

Remember the places are limited so book early! For more information and to register, follow this link:

For reservations contact Layla Skali at the Spirit of Fes Foundation:

Art Exhibition at Café Clock 

Click image to enlarge

Fes Festival program
Fes Festival Medina Map
Fes Festival Food! 
Fes Festival Site

Text: Sandy McCutcheon, Natasha Christov, Vanessa Bonnin
Photographs: Vanessa Bonnin, Sandy McCutcheon

The View from Fez is an official Fes Festival Media Partner

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