A review of Chasing the Singers: The Transition of Long-Song (Urtyn Duu) in Post-Socialist Mongolia, by Sunmin Yoon.
Sunmin Yoon’s dissertation examines issues of continuity and change in urtyn duu (literally “long-song”) performance in Mongolia, during and after Socialism. Focusing on the lives of prominent singers and songs, she explores how the transformation of long-song into a national icon of traditional culture embodies the transitional processes that marked the fall of Socialism. Following other scholars of the post-Socialist world, she argues that transition did not constitute a paradigm shift in long-song performance, but instead resulted in the adaption of Socialist-era styles, institutions, and ideological frameworks for the uncertain conditions of the Democratic era. Combining historical research, musical analysis, and ethnography in Ulaanbaatar and the countryside, Yoon’s contribution to the growing literature on Mongolian music in English is a detailed examination of the diverse social and sonic roles that long-song has played in the re-formation of Mongolian society and identity.
Long-song is a melismatic vocal genre that is “long” not for the duration of a performance, but for how the syllables of poetic texts are extended over lengthy, heavily ornamented melodic passages. Once only sung in nomadic settings by herders, as Yoon details, the genre first became a significant matter for domestic and international cultural politics due to Socialist cultural reform beginning in the 1950s. While the animist elements of long-songs were heavily suppressed, the government also supported and shaped performance in order to create a national culture by introducing a public education system, a ranking system for titled singers, salaries, radio stations, and competitions, wherein both participant artists and officials exercised influence on performance norms. As a result, select state-honored singers who toured internationally, like Dorjdavga and Norovbanzad, became cosmopolitan models of success for aspiring rural and urban singers by securing official favor, familial support, and through their own personal initiative. These matters, norms, and institutions persisted under the market economy, when some singers also began fusing rock or pop idioms with long-song for commercial or creative aims. Yet as Yoon makes clear, these developments have not homogenized nor diminished performance throughout Mongolia, despite a general decrease in stylistic diversity. Today nomadic singers still sing for life-cycle and everyday occasions, while professional singers continue to pursue national and international careers as arbiters of tradition in an urbanizing society now seeking to reconnect with the “deep” or indigenous past (see Caroline Humphrey, “The Moral Authority of the Past in Post-Socialist Mongolia,” Religion, State & Society 20, 1992, pp. 375-389).
Building on the work of many scholars in ethnomusicology, post-Socialist and Mongolian area studies, Yoon explores these developments in five body chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2’s literature review details her theoretical framework, particularly the relevance of several historically formative concepts (modernity, folk, nationalism), a theoretical focus (social identity), and a recurrent theme (urban/rural migration) for the study of long-song. The first three are not only widely-used theoretical “frames” for scholars but also concepts that the Mongolian intelligentsia, the government, and performers have used to formulate the values and meanings of first a Socialist, and then later a post-Socialist national culture. Using the concept of social identity, Yoon focuses her attention on the complex relationship between collective belonging and individual expression, national and regional (or idiosyncratic) style in long-song performance. Lastly, urban/rural migration is her means of investigating the dynamic between urban and rural social positioning among singers, along with the ideological significance of the countryside as an imagined space of indigenous tradition. In the remaining chapters, Yoon examines how singers have altered, embodied, and employed these concepts in relation to prevailing cultural frameworks.
Chapter 3 consists of a brief and highly useful history of relevant cultural, social, and political developments — particularly the public education system, class formation, state media, Khalkha-centrism, and cultural policy — that underlie the transformation of long-song. Chapter 4 is a much-needed comprehensive introduction to the main characteristics of the vocal genre in nomadic and professional settings based on Yoon’s own research. Chapter 5, which is arguably the centerpiece of her dissertation, juxtaposes the careers of a wide variety of professional and nomadic, established and aspiring singers through ethnography and historical research as a way to articulate transformation and transition in long-song performance. How older singers collaborated with Socialist cultural initiatives and created a professional (mergejliin) musical elite, in addition to how younger ones have negotiated democratic-era market conditions by exploring pop or rock idioms constitute its main foci. Chapter 6 examines whether transition is also evident in the musical styles and repertoires of singers, as documented in Mongolian National Broadcasting’s archive, several seminal publications in Mongolian (see primary sources), and ethnographic work among urban and rural singers. Yoon ultimately concludes that changes in style and repertoire due to transition have been nominal in the urban national style, while rural nomadic styles persist within continuous traditions dating back to pre-Socialist times.
There are many reasons why Yoon’s work is necessary reading for anyone interested in Mongolian expressive culture or post-Socialist studies. Besides providing the most in-depth discussion of long-song’s musical features in English to date, her interviews with singers in transition reveal the surprising intricacies and interactions that enabled Socialist cultural reforms, engendered professional traditional music, and revitalized nationalist discourses in the Democratic era. In one example, prominent singer Sum’ya states how, “when we toured a lot during the Socialist period, we could leave when husbands were willing to take care of our children and support our tour; otherwise, it was very hard…” (p. 182) Top-down imperatives from officials did not simply force singers onto the stage to sing Bowdlerized long-songs. Personal cosmopolitan aspirations (albeit acquired through the education system), desires to travel internationally, and the crucial support of family were the preconditions that made professional careers possible as well as meaningful for singers and society. In another notable example, Yoon relates Sum’ya’s response to the question of whether Socialist officials ever suppressed the vocal genre:
She answered that nobody really liked singing traditional long-song, although this would not be called “suppression.” She said that is was just not quite welcomed by the audience. In concerts, she used to be asked to sing only two verses instead of eight verses. Also, she said that people did not pay much attention to long-song singers, being more eager to listen to ensembles and Western tunes. (p. 201)
Despite the erasure of animist elements and references to Chinggis Khaan, less Draconian issues were also at play in the transformation of long-song. Yoon even argues that Socialism positively affected long-song performance by promoting it as a marker of national culture, which then provided Democratic-era nationalists with a ready-made marker of indigenous tradition.
This dissertation contains many more such revealing moments, which scholars of Socialist modernity and expressive culture in Mongolia are now obliged to familiarize themselves with. Until Peter Marsh’s recent biography of the horse-head fiddle (morin khuur), there were no other extensive publications in English with which to contrast Carole Pegg’s encyclopedic observations on Mongolian musical culture (see Peter Marsh, The Horse-Head Fiddle and the Cosmopolitan Re-imagination of Tradition of Mongolia. New York: Routledge, 2009; Carole Pegg, Mongolian Music, Dance, and Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 2001). Lucky as we are to have both, Yoon’s work is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Mongolian expressive culture.
Visiting Faculty/PhD Candidate
Mongolian National Broadcasting Archive
J. Dorjdavga, Urtyn duu [Long Song]. Ulaanbaatar: State Publishing, 1970.
S. Tsoodol, Ardyn urtyn duunuud [Folk Long Songs]. Ulaanbaatar: State Publishing, 1959.
Ts. Tuyatsetseg, Asaryn öndör: Mongolian ardy urtyn duu [“The Height”: Mongolian Folk Long-song]. Ulaanbaatar: Best Publishing Ltd, 2004.
N. Norovbanzad, Talyn mor’thy duu [Songs of the Steppe Horsemen]. Ulaanbataar: Ikh Urlag Tovchoo, 2000.
University of Maryland, College Park. 2011. 362 pp. Primary Advisor: Robert C. Provine.
Image: Sambuugiin Pürevjav of Altai Khairkhan (an overtone singing ensemble from Mongolia) playing a morin khuur near Centre Georges Pompidou in 2005. Photograph by Eric Pouhier, Wikimedia Commons.