First published in the Guardian on 2 January, 2018
Last summer, a video from Cardiff went viral in Ulaanbaatar. It showed the opera coach Mary King moist-eyed and lost for words during the finals of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. The man who had moved her to tears? 29-year-old Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar: towering, broad shoulders, huge smile, mighty voice. He sang Rossini, Verdi and Tchaikovsky and charmed everyone — including the judges, who declared him joint winner of the coveted Song Prize. “There was something so imposing about the sound,” King later reflected. “Contained and glorious. It’s very unusual to find this combination of presence, power and effortlessness in any singer.”
Ariunbaatar doesn’t have a typical background for one of the world’s most prestigious opera contests. He grew up in the traditional Mongolian way, living in yurts with his nomadic family, herding cattle on horseback across the open steppe. As a child he rode about 60 miles a day, and he was always singing. He won a place at university in Ulaanbaatar but dropped out after a couple of years when he couldn’t pay the fees, became a taxi driver and one night got chatting to a customer who happened to be chief of police. Long story short: he joined Ulaanbaatar’s police ensemble, worked his way back to university then onwards to the grand opera houses of Russia and Europe.
That backstory tugged at my curiosity — enough that three months later I was on a flight to Ulaanbaatar with radio producer Steven Rajam and suitcase full of audio equipment. I had the same basic preconceptions I guess most Westerners share about Mongolia: Genghis Khan, Gobi Desert, furry camels, wild horses, fabulous throat singers. My guide book described a proud post-communist nation, once the greatest empire the world has ever known, now a population of 3 million landlocked between two global superpowers (Russia and China). “It is rude to turn down any offer of fermented mare’s milk,” I read, “for it is considered a gesture of friendship.”
What I wanted to find out that the guide books wouldn’t teach me was why opera is such a big thing in Mongolia right now. Ariunbaatar’s win in Cardiff was no fluke; in 2015 he won first prize in the male-vocalist category of Russia’s Tchaikovsky Competition. And there are others. Amartuvshin Enkhbat, Mongolia’s first-ever entrant to Cardif, reached the finals in 2015, and took home the audience prize. Last year’s contest included an impressive contribution from tenor Batjargal Batsaikhan. The reasons turned out to be a fascinating mix of social, geopolitical, even physiological factors.
Mongolia won independence from China in 1921 and became the first satellite state of the Soviet Union. “Culture was an important tool,” explained Tuya Shagdar, a fiercely articulate young anthropologist I met in Ulaanbaatar. “We’re not talking about Mongolian man, we’re not talking about Russian man. To become the perfect embodiment of Homo Sovieticus, you had to have the best of whatever history had to offer.”
From the 1930s, Mongolian traditional singers were sent to Russia, East Germany and Poland to study opera. I expected to encounter awkwardness around that history — the fact this music was a Soviet import — but not so. Mongolians are adept at picking and choosing how they define themselves. In the 1940s, the country’s script was changed from classical Mongolian (Mongγol bičig) to cyrillic and the population was divorced from its written heritage within a couple of generations. The capital’s central square has been renamed Chinggis to Sükhbaatar and back again, depending on which national hero happened to be in favour with the authorities.
Nations across the former Soviet bloc have had to navigate similar cultural reconstructions, retaining elements of past regimes that suit how they want to see themselves today, so I still wanted an explanation as to why opera caught on quite so successfully in Ulaanbaatar. One answer is geopolitics. “For a small nation,” Tuya told me, “in order to catch the attention of the world, we need to promote our culture.” She stressed that Mongolia must not appear a cultural annex to its neighbours Russia or China, and hinted that beating the Russians at their own singing game is a particularly choice move.
Another answer is that Mongolians are incredible singers — vocal talents dating back centuries in Mongolian traditional music. Like opera, throat singing requires decades of specialist training to perfect the breath and muscle control. Hearing an expert up-close is an almost supernatural experience. We recorded Batzorig Vaanchig, one of the very finest, and the virtuosic subtlety and colour spectrum of his overtones was astounding. His made his voice sound like the wind, then the snow, then an eagle’s wing slicing through the air.
To get to the xoomi source, I travelled 1,000 miles west from Ulaanbaatar across the Gobi to Hovd province. It’s an awesome landscape. I spent several nights in a yurt on the shores of a vast lake watching cranes migrating south from Siberia, glacier-tipped high Altai mountains on the horizon. The journey to Chandmani, a tiny village rumoured to be home of xoomi dynasties, was an endless drive across the cold desert. No roads meant gruesome car sickness, and every time we stopped at a yurt to ask directions I was fed boiled mare’s milk and lamb fat to supposedly calm my stomach.
When we arrived in Chandmani there was a party: vodka, more mare’s milk. And there were throat singers of all sizes and shapes. A grand master sang ancient verse with his granddaughter on his knee. A choir sang pop covers with synthesiser backing track. It was surreal and glorious. What better mark of a tradition in rude health than a gaggle of six-year-olds belting out Born to be Wild in amassed overtones?
Almost everyone I spoke to in Mongolia connected the country’s singing culture with the landscape. Traditional ballads known as ‘long songs’ literally translate the contours of the land into verse: long straight sightlines, decorative ornaments like jagged mountains on the horizon. I’m nervous about any claim that where you are born determines what sounds you are able or entitled to make — reasoning that could tip into to ethnic exclusivity, or plain exotification. Yet I can’t deny the incredibly open and natural sound that Ariunbaatar and other Mongolian singers seem to make.
One musicologist I spoke to, Khatuchuluun Buyandelger, was unequivocal about the reason. It’s down to physical stature, he said, and that’s down to landscape, food, clean air, even historical narrative. Remember Genghis Khan? Mongolians certainly do. “We have a force not only to conquer the world,” Khatuchuluun told me, “but also to sing for the world.”
From the Steppes to the Stage is on BBC Radio 4 on January 11 & 18