By Aminaa Khatanzorig and Michelle Borok

Altai Ethnic Music and Dance Group is a six-member band, formed in November 2011, that takes the “ethnic” music label to new heights by treasuring and preserving indigenous Mongolian musical traditions.

The band is named after the “Altai” harp, a curved harp dating back to the 7th century that was discovered at Jargalant Mountain in Mankhan soum of Khovd Province, in 2008. The band’s founder was pivotal to the harp’s restoration and reintroduction to the Mongolian music archive.

Altai has performed at UNESCO Hall and in Germany, France, Turkey, the Sakha Republic, the Russian Federation, and China’s Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. Their awards of note include the “2015 Best Group” prize of the World Throatsinging Association and the Grand Prix from the Olonkho Festival held in the Sakha Republic.

There are some 60 songs in the band’s repertory. This year, the band released their first album, “Zolgoy Doo”, meaning “Let’s Greet” which can be found at Hi-Fi Records in Ulaanbaatar, and online on iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, Google Play, Tidal and Amazon Music. Altai is A.Sanchir (morin khuur, female vocals), B.Baasanjargal (harp), M.Davaadalai (khoomii, tsuur, harmonica, bamboo fiddle, drum), T.Arvan (khoomii, morin khuur, male vocals, rhythm), B.Gurbazar (bii biyelgee, khoomii, harmonica, rhythm), and B.Ganzorig (bii biyelgee, ikel khuur, rhythm).

As Altai celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, we interviewed D.Ganpurev, founder of Altai.

What was it about the discovery and reproduction of the harp found in 2008 that inspired the founding of Altai?

When the remains of an ancient harp were found in 2008, I did my research. Historically, it was the second unearthing of an ancient instrument in Mongolia. The first was a harmonica made of bone. The second was the curved harp. We named it the “Altai harp” because it was found in the Altai Mountain Range.

After a lot of research, I decided that the instrument should be made known to the public, and I wanted to do that through and indigenous musical group. I could have popularized the instrument by introducing it through modern musicians, but Mongolian folk – indigenous music – is familiar and close to the hearts of Mongolians. So, I gathered these indigenous musicians in October 2011 to initiate the idea of an indigenous musical group which could popularize the Altai harp. On November 11, 2011, a day when six 1s collided, we officially established the band. That day we determined our mission, which was to reintroduce the forgotten and lost traditions and indigenous culture of Mongolian nomads. This year, Altai celebrates its fifth anniversary, for which we’ve released our first album and staged a concert.

Since the establishment of Altai, we’ve been accomplishing our goal. So far, we have reignited three different cultural phenomena: the Altai harp, the Ahu harp, and Toirom (circle) dance.

The original Altai harp is kept at the National Museum. The Ahu harp is an ancient instrument which was played in the royal palace, an forbidden from being played for the public. We made a reproduction of it, and now we can actually play an instrument that was only played for kings. The harp is a musical instrument that has long been played and developed by Mongolian nomads. The third specialty of Altai is Toirom dance, which dates back to the Neolithic Age. Many sources, including petroglyphs and the Secret History of the Mongols, make references to it. Mongolian folk culture has been shrunk to a familial level, but Toirom dance is something that unites families. As such, we will continue expanding and enriching attitudes toward folk and indigenous traditions.

Is the production of traditional instruments something that’s being treasured and continued?

There is no preserved technology for making an Altai harp or an Ahu harp now, because the tradition was lost over time. The discovery of the Altai harp merely indicates that Mongolian nomads played a bowed harp, so we worked on the artifact to come up with a reproduction. The Altai Mountains are home to diverse fauna, including ibex. When we reproduced the Altai harp, we designed the curve of the harp to be inspired by an ibex horn, which is a pretty rare object. The real horns of an ibex would be too big, so we crafted it from the horns of cows.

Many of the band’s members are carrying on family traditions in music. What kind of formal training is available to musicians who play traditional instruments?

Training for playing all traditional instruments is available at the Mongolian Music and Dance College, if one aspires to be a professional musician. Some 90 percent of the musicians in Mongolia are graduates of the Music and Dance College. Because the expertise in music of Altai’s members derives from family traditions, they should be perceived as indigenous artists. They’ve inherited the legacy of as many as 12 generations. They weren’t trained in college, but the traditions are in their blood.

The majority of the band’s members are from provinces outside of the capital. Does a closer connection to a traditional Mongolian lifestyle change the way that the music Altai plays is understood by its members?

All the members of Altai come from the countryside. They all grew up in nomadic households from Khovd, Uvurkhangai, Uvs, Gobi-Altai, and Dundgobi provinces. Around 70 percent of Altai’s music is intended to reinvigorate the indigenous culture of the Altai region. For example, Altai combines “The Hymn of Altai”, one of Mongolia’s most popular folk songs, with a morin khuur chord from “Four Oirats”, a song popular with the Oirat people of the Altai.

Who selects the majority of the songs Altai records and performs?

My specialty is musical composition, and I am presently the Executive Head of the Union of Mongolian Composers. As the founder of the band, I determine the vision for Altai, as it is my ambition to retrieve the indigenous culture of Mongolian nomads and reintroduce it to the public. The musical composition and arrangements all begin with me.

Altai with President Ts. Elbegdorj
Altai with President Ts. Elbegdorj

Are there plans to write and perform original compositions?

We are composing songs together. In ten years, we will have enough experience and expertise to do everything.

Which audiences are most receptive to Altai’s music, foreign or Mongolian?

Both audiences receive our music well, but I would say that Altai generates more curiosity and interest in the international arena. There are many ethnic musical groups in Mongolia now, but Altai is distinctive among them, because their music is more on the indigenous side, and they are preserving family legacies. All the band’s members can dance bii biyelgee, for instance.

What are the challenges for a band, like Altai, that plays and performs independently – not being associated with one of the state’s sponsored orchestras or schools?

Bands like Altai confronted a lot of challenges in their first three years, challenges such as the group’s integration and building a repertory, and the acquisition of musical instruments and performance costumes, as well as many other issues that can be mentioned. Now, the band is five years old and is considered a relatively experienced group.

Altai is more than a band, it includes musicians who also dance during performances and also demonstrate some of the traditional games of nomadic herders. What role does dance play in the presentation of Altai’s music?

The people living in the Altai region perform a specific dance called bii biyelgee, a cultural heritage registered with UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. It is perceived as a dance by foreigners and other outsiders, but for the people who practice it, it is not a dance, it’s a means of expression – a custom based on their lifestyle. Since the members of Altai grew up in that environment, learning to do bii biyelgee from a young age, dance is a very important part of their performances.

While bands like Altai play an important role in preserving Mongolia’s musical traditions, what role do you think they play in modern Mongolian music?

Folk and indigenous culture certainly influence modern culture. The roots of modern music go back to folk music. For instance, specific moves of bii biyelgee can be seen in modern dance. After so much development and the evolution of mainstream music, people begin to replay the old, traditional music, because it is more natural and original.

What’s the band’s next project or performance?

The band is currently participating in Mongolia’s Got Talent on Mongol TV, and so we’ve had to cancel some of our shows abroad. In early 2017, we have some performances in Taiwan. This past summer we performed for “Tent Palace of Ancient Nomads’ Music” at Choijin Lama Temple Museum. We get tons of invitations to perform abroad, and we are planning to enter the international music scene in early 2018.