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Sometimes played to chase away potential evils, the horse fiddle is found in almost every Mongolian home, says student musician

landscape shot of man playing a Mongolian string instrument at Gunstock Ranch next to horses grazing
Yoko Yondonjamts playing his morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle, a traditional Mongolian instrument that embodies the legend of Namjil the Cuckoo.

Yoko Yondonjamts said he can perform songs that sound like a horse galloping, cantering, running and trotting on his unique instrument, the morin khuur. He uses the tips of his fingers and the tops of his knuckles to play the instrument, swiftly changing hand positions to hit every note.

Yondonjamts, a sophomore from Mongolia majoring in business management, said the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle in English, is a traditional Mongolian instrument.

The instrument has two strings made of horsehair and features a carved horse head on the top of the instrument’s neck. Yondonjamts said he holds the morin khuur in front of him while he plays it with a bow like a cello. He said he brought his small, guitar-sized morin khuur as his carry-on when he flew to Hawaii.

He added he might have the only morin khuur in all of Hawaii, and he is the only one who plays the instrument out of all the Mongolian students at BYU–Hawaii.

The lore behind morin khuur

According to the website Mongolianz, the morin khuur has been a part of Mongolian culture since the 13th century. Yondonjamts explained the lore behind the instrument, “There was a guy who went to military service, and during his service, he met a girl.” According to the Mongolianz website, the man became known as Namjil the Cuckoo because he sang so beautifully.

man playing ancient stringed Mongolian instrument at Gunstock Ranch in front of a horse grazing
The story goes that the first morin khuur was carved to memorialize a beloved dead horse.

Yondonjamts explained Namjil and the girl, who happened to be the princess, met up with each other every night. “One day, his mission was completed, and he headed home.” Yondonjamts said the princess wanted to give Namjil a horse he could travel on to visit her. “But that horse was special,” he said. “It had wings so it could fly.”

He said the man took the horse home and came back to meet the princess every night for years. One day, Yondonjamts said the man’s neighbor noticed the horse’s wings. “The neighbor was kind of a bad person, so he took the scissors and cut all the wings, and the horse died.”
He explained Namjil mourned the loss of his pet, and he missed his girlfriend. Yondonjamts said to memorialize the horse, Namjil created a morin khuur by carving the horse’s bone into a small horse head to top the instrument and made the rest of the instrument out of the horse’s skin and hair. He said every part of the morin khuur was made of parts of Namjil’s horse.

He said people who can make the morin khuur “are like gods. I can’t do that.”

Finding music in  tradition

Today, Yondonjamts said the morin khuur is Mongolia’s traditional instrument, and almost every home has one to display and revere, although most don’t know how to play it. “If your house has a morin khuur, it can protect the family.”

Yondonjamts said when people move to a new house, they call a musician like him to come and play the morin khuur. “The sound chases all the bad things from your home,” he explained. He said the morin khuur is an essential part of Mongolian ceremonies, including weddings and celebrations.

Bolor Odgiiv, a sophomore majoring in social work from Mongolia, confirmed almost every home in Mongolia has a morin khuur. “It’s a symbolic tradition to have it. … Horses are very representative of Mongolia because [Mongolians] conquered the world on horse,” she explained. “The horse is very important to us. It’s very unique and treasured for us to have the morin khuur.”
The Mongolianz website says people still use the morin khuur to coax mother camels to care for their babies. Yondonjamts explained he has never attempted to tame any wild animals with his fiddle because he’s from the city, though he has heard of people playing to summon horses. He said the man who taught him to play could play his morin khuur while riding his horse.

Learning to play

Yondonjamts said he started playing the morin khuur in middle school after watching a man play it on television. “One of the guys was playing it, and he made a horse sound with it, and I was impressed.”

He said he told his parents he wanted to learn, and they found a small school near his home where a man taught lessons. “I met the guy who was my teacher, and he tested me on my hearing.” His teacher hit some rhythms on a table and asked him to repeat them, Yondonjamts explained. He said he passed the test and the teacher told him he accepted him as a student.

portrait shot of man riding a horse at Gunstock Ranch
Yondonjamts rides a horse at Gunstock Ranch. He says the man who taught him how to play the morin khuur can play and ride at the same time.

Yondonjamts said he visited the school for private lessons a few times a week for three years, then went on to attend the Music and Dance College in Ulaanbaatar for another three years before serving his mission and studying business management at BYUH.

Flora Enkhbold, a senior from Mongolia majoring in business, said she can tell Yondonjamts loves his morin khuur. She said he started playing the instrument later than most musicians, “But he was passionate about it, [so] he learned it pretty fast.”

Yondonjamts said the morin khuur can be played alongside all different instruments, but most of the time, people perform solo. While he studied music in college in Mongolia, he said he was a part of a traditional Mongolian orchestra.

Yondonjamts has taught several students in Mongolia to play the morin khuur but does not plan to spend too much time teaching until he has retired, he explained.

A plan to combine interests

Though he studies marketing now, Yondonjamts said music remains a big part of his life. Yondonjamts explained he was a member of SION Choir, which competed in Mongolia’s Got Talent in 2016.

He said he also sings and raps on the Mongolian Especially for Youth (MEFY) YouTube channel. On the channel, he said he and other Mongolian church members create musical church videos in Mongolian.

Yondonjamts said he decided to study marketing because “In Mongolia, the musicians are not paid a lot. It’s not like other jobs. It takes a lot of time to learn. You spend your whole life, and it’s really risky. ... [Studying marketing is] a better choice for me.”

He said he plans to use his talent in the future to help him with his career. He said he wants to start an event planning team where he and his team put together entertainment, decorations and food. He said doing this would combine all his interests: music, psychology and business, into a valuable service.•

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