Mongolian throat singing is something that sounds remarkably different live and recorded. I heard samples of the guttural, Cookie-Monster-like vocal emissions on a friends’ itunes. This did nothing to prepare me for the somehow multi-tonal sound that seemed to come from all directions at once when the square-faced young man in traditional dress sat on a stool and opened his mouth in Ulaanbaatar’s cultural show. The show goes on multiple times per week, I am given to understand. My friend Suren is in it.
Suren is the same guy whose elaborate wedding I attended during my first couple of weeks in Mongolia. He’s 29 and studying English. I corrected his homework in a noisy bar the night we met. He’s the one who had the DJ at the nightclub sing me a special song on my birthday. Suren dresses straight out of high urban fashion; he’s a brawny smoker and unequivocally a cool, cool dude.
The show itself was full of traditional dances with heavily made-up, forcibly smiling women. Impeccable dress, impeccable, painful-lookng movements—and this is to say nothing of the fifteen year old pair of female contortionists, who looked about nine years old and torqued into positions that made us shift in our seats. At one point their heads were on the floor facing us. Their toes shuffled the rest of their bodies around their heads in a circle. Their heads smiled at us all the while. It was the most bizarre thing I had ever seen a human body do. They were dressed in bright yellow and purple bodysuits. This, too, apparently, is traditional Mongolia.
Suren was on in a number in which hoots and “hup!”s were part of the dance. It was a flirty dance. Everyone paired off. They had pointed shoes and tunics and pointed hats.
The throat singer, though…man. I still can’t describe his voice, or the place in which something as eerie and uncanny as throat singing came to be. Mongolia. A frozen desertland of Buddhist nomads sandwiched between Russia and China, a land of legendary hospitality and also the legendary Khan empire—the biggest in human history—where the temperature reaches 40 below, the culture prides itself on the sweet stuff leftover after horse milk is boiled, and “the arts” include a body-to-pretzel process and a sort of growling omni-ventriloquism. After the show the dancers appeared with normal, scrubbed faces in their jackets amid the yellow leaves in the parking lot, lighting up cigarettes and piling into cars in the parking lot. I mean, of course, right? Of course.