Portrait of a morin khuur master

Morin khuur master Jigjiddorj


Jigjiddorj Nanzaddorj, “Jiigee” as he’s known to friends and fans, is one of Mongolia’s living national treasures. He is a young morin khuur (horse head fiddle) virtuoso and has been honored numerous times with top prizes in Mongolian performance competitions. He has received multiple honors from the Government of Mongolia for his dedication to the art of the morin khuur and his exceptional skill in playing the iconic Mongolian instrument.

Since 2007, he has been a prized member of the State Morin Khuur Ensemble of Mongolia, and in 2009, he co-founded the ethno-jazz band Arga Bileg. While performing with these two award winning musical groups, and accepting invitations for solo performances, Jiigee has traveled all over the world. He has brought the ethereal sounds of the steppe to stages in Japan, South Korea, Italy, Vietnam, Germany, and China. He has also performed for audiences at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, United Nations Headquarters in New York City, and UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

Jiigee was named a leading Cultural Officer by the Government of Mongolia in 2012 and he has lived up to that honor, exposing new audiences to the traditional and modern music that can be made with the morin khuur, taking the ancient instrument boldly into the 21st century.

Currently residing in the U.S., Jiigee has been performing live concerts on the East Coast and has also been busy recording for the score of the second season of the Netflix series “Marco Polo”. The UB Post spoke with him to learn more about his art and where it has taken him.

Do you remember the first time you picked up the morin khuur?

When I was sever years old, I picked up my first morin khuur. I grew up in Orkhon Province, and I always dreamt of having a morin khuur of my own. One day, my father surprised me and bought me my first morin khuur. That first night I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited. I woke up multiple times in the middle of the night just to make sure it wasn’t a dream.

What role did music play in your family and in your childhood?

I am the first person in my family to pursue music as a professional career. My parents are public school teachers, specializing in history and Russian. My love of music started when my grandparents gave my father a bandoneon from Russia. It is a kind of concertina from Germany, similar to the accordion, but somewhat more complex in its sonic range. When I was six years old, I learned to played the “Uran Khas” waltz on that instrument in kindergarten for the New Year’s celebration and performance at our school. But from seeing it on television and listening to the radio, I knew that I wanted to learn to play the morin khuur, so I began studying the morin khuur at age seven.

What is the most challenging thing about being a professional musician?

Being a professional musician is a big responsibility. Each day, we must train and keep our minds properly structured. When I was studying at the Music and Dance College in Ulaanbaatar, I learned about music notation, theory, and how to play from my teacher Yo.Batbayar, a State Merit Teacher of Mongolia. In 2007, I joined the State Morin Khuur Ensemble, where I learned what it means to be a professional musician. Our conductor Ts. Batchuluun trained me and taught me a lot.

What inspired you to begin incorporating different musical genres into such a traditional and uniquely Mongolian art form?

I’ve loved music since I was a child. I learned how to play the morin khuur at a very young age, and I don’t remember why I chose the morin khuur. I first became involved with the Music and Dance College in Ulaanbaatar when I was in sixth grade. Once I began music school, I started taking an interest in classical music, especially compositions for the cello. There was no understanding of classical music where I grew up, so I used to look for and listen to cassette tapes of well known classical composers and musicians. The college properly introduced me to those composers and musicians. In my opinion, the music of these great composers and musicians influenced my playing style and inspired me. The sound of the morin khuur and the cello are resoundingly similar.

Your music and talent have taken you all over the world. What is it like to introduce foreign audiences to the sounds of the morin khuur?

The morin khuur is unique and sounds amazing. It’s strings are made of horse tail hairs, and you must understand that the sound that comes out of a morin khuur is lively because no metal is used to make the instrument. This is the reason why I think the morin khuur touches people profoundly.

You were invited to perform at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, a museum dedicated to the art and culture of Central Asia and India. How do performances like the one at the museum differ from performances with the State Morin Khuur Ensemble or Arga Bileg?

In my performance at the Rubin Museum of Art, I included traditional Mongolian long and folk songs, a solo morin khuur piece called “Tatlaga” , scores written by Mongolian composers, as well as two pieces written by international composers. I think the major difference from my performances with the State Morin Khuur Ensemble and Arga Bileg was in the form itself, as I performed mostly solo and in a piano duet. This was my second overseas duet performance with a pianist, and also the second time I got to perform with an international pianist. The first time was in Tokyo with a Japanese pianist, and this time was in the United States with Russian-American pianist Anna Shelest.

Your Rubin Museum of Art performance helped you connect with producers of the Netflix series “Marco Polo” and you’ve finished recording sessions for music for the second season of the show. Are you a fan of the series?

It is inevitable that a morin khuur melody would play a role in the music score of a series that depicts a dramatic time in Mongolian history. The music for the series is recorded in New York City, and the fact that I happened to be living in the same city lent itself to an interesting coincidence. Being able to make the musical contribution of our Mongolian horse-head fiddle melody to a project of such tremendous scope makes me happy and grateful for this opportunity.

As my schedule keeps me fairly busy, I don’t watch much television or many movies. In my spare time, I like to listen to music and attend concerts and musical performances. However, during the “Marco Polo” recording, I watched particular scenes to better understand the mood depicted in those scenes, as it helps to better emote and match my performance to the scenes.

You’ve played music for Mongolian films in the past, what was the “Marco Polo” experience like in comparison?

Most film music is similar. As far as “Marco Polo” is concerned, some parts I had to improvise, and that is different from following a composition or conductor. When I improvise, I play based upon the different feelings that are expressed in the film.

What does the future hold for your work? Will you continue to pursue a career in the U.S.?

While I’m in the United States, it’s my objective to perform as much morin khuur music as I can, and I  would love to keep playing with other international musicians. I owe special thanks to Ariun Sanjaajamts, Reghu Raman, Bob Brockman, Peter Nashel, Eric Hachikian, Duotone Audio Group and Soundcat Studios for helping me pursue this goal. These people have helped me a lot for making the Rubin Museum of Art concert and the “Marco Polo” recording session possible.

My goal is to introduce the Mongolian morin khuur to as wide an audience as I possibly can. My dream is that one day the morin khuur will be accepted in the United States, and that my music could become eligible to one day win a Grammy. In this manner, people will learn that the morin khuur is a heritage that traces its roots back to Mongolia and not to China.