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Jennifer C. Post

Jennifer C. Post

New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University, Wellington


Kazakh musicians in western Mongolia describe locally shared scenes and depict their environment and its resources in their songs and narrative instrumental pieces. This mapping of their landscape reinforces connections to places and lifestyles they value, and expresses their attachment to, and investment in, their homeland. For Kazakh Mongolian residents, the wide steppes of Bayan Ölgii province are well suited for the seasonal migration that frames their way of life. Recently, though, residents have experienced geophysical changes, including reduction in mountain snows and receding rivers and lakes; extreme winter conditions have contributed to the loss of substantial numbers of livestock. Equally significant are growing socio-political issues as international corporations and nearby nations gain access to grazing lands, and as Khalkh Mongolians engage in large-scale nation building, often excluding elements of Kazakh identity.

This study focuses on the social, political, environmental, and musical significance of Kazakh songs that map Mongolian places, many using song genres and performance styles passed down in families and close-knit communities. The songs reflect the spatial complexity of the Inner Asian steppes and the vulnerability of the peoples who share their resources. The songs that reference key issues around cultural and environmental sustainability and lay claim to land identified with Kazakh ancestral history ultimately reveal how residents view and value their landscape in the context of local, national, and global socio-political and ecological events. In performance, songs contribute to maintaining key Kazakh vocal and instrumental forms and styles, a significant issue in an increasingly globalized Mongolia. Older and younger generation Kazakh song-makers address the continuity and disruption in the lives of the Kazakh people today. These singers maintain strong ties to older musical forms, including oral poetic genres zhyr, terme, and tolghau where a melody is typically a vehicle for meaningful lyrics.

In their songs, Kazakh performers name places that can be identified with pathways they have used in the Mongolian steppes and mountains. Their songs also map networks of social relationships and show evidence of concern about local ecology. Paths followed by herders as they manage their livestock are part of an understood network of relationships connected to the complex history of Kazakh people in Mongolia, linked to family and community identification with zhuz (clan) and auyl (residential unit), and to seasonal practice which Kazakhs depend on for their livelihood.

Examples of local songs were recorded in a key region of Bayan Ölgii near the Chinese border, where lives of nomadic herders are currently being impacted by international mining activities, government supported tourism, increasing Chinese involvement in their lifestyles, and devastating environmental degradation. Performers presented composed pieces and nearly all preserved their lyrics in manuscript form. Songs demonstrate a consistent style of delivery, content, and expression of personal and community-based concerns. Their melodies range from a recitative style to tunes closely related to those heard in local lyric songs. Invariably, the long-necked lute dombra provides melodic and rhythmic accompaniment. The use of historical genres, locally meaningful lyrics, and a characteristic rhythmic punctuation compels the audience to listen.

Jangabil, a herder in his 30s from Deluun, has filled notebooks with his terme. Singing at local toyi, he involves his community in dialogues about their landscape and its changes. “My summer place is Tüvshin köl and Bulgan Tashu,” he sings. Jangabil’s map includes named lakes, peaks, rivers, and valleys, referencing visual and social scenes.

Example 1. Jangabil, terme Tüvshin köl 

I walk up to the small hill of Jalgiz Jal
And I am moved and refreshed
When I view auyls as white seagulls
They move in waves among many animals

He sings,

Tüvshin köl sits in a wide steppe
It is like the open sky is sprinkling its light on it;
And the swans swim freely in the middle,
And its geese honk on the shore

Later he sings,

Bulgan Mountain continues to Altai Mountain;
I wish there wasn’t any trouble on your slopes.
When the snow melts it will be thirsty.
I wish the snow at its peak wasn’t taken.

Referencing nearby valleys he warns,

My Urten sai, Khurgakh sai and Suli sai,
I heard lambs on your slopes and hollows,
You don’t turn green and sway as before.
Year by year you are getting worse.

Jangabil summers in the Tüvshin köl (lake) region, a once beautiful body of water surrounded by grazing land that was lush and green. Ten years ago the lake was full and rich with animal and bird life, and within a year it was dry. While herders seek new grazing sites, Jangabil reminds them in another terme, “To Nature":

Nature is created by Kudai.
Humans depend on you.
Blessings and riches are given by Allah,
Yet people waste what he has given.

Oktyaber spends his summer in a nearby grazing area. His terme introduces the place he frequents as well as other sites he is connected to through his family. He sings, “Sari khabirga is my wide valley, when I see you I am filled with emotion.” He uses Kazakh place names to reinforce ownership, looks back historically at ancestral places, and ahead to their bleak future. 

Example 2. Oktyaber, terme Tughan elim

Tari dara is joined with Tolengit;
Ayu Dara, your mountain grouse are grazing like sheep.
Yet it doesn’t turn green and our resources are gone.
Oh what will happen over time?

Ayu Dara has been a popular place for Kazakh livestock grazing for generations. Yet patterns have now changed, and because of the global demand for cashmere, steppes are filled with goats that eat flowers once left in enough abundance to re-pollinate.  The land suffers from overgrazing and some is now of little use to the herders. Oktyaber finishes his terme singing, “I carry my people’s heavy load, I draw my fellow citizens to my side.”

The song-making and map-making that Kazakh musicians offer their communities reinforces local residents' identification with Mongolia. Embedded in place names and expressed in their lyrical style are the most valued and essential elements in their everyday lives, including the need for wide expanses of land for their livestock; high quality pastureland and readily available water; freedom to travel, yet an ability also to return to places filled with personal memories and family history. Their songs encourage listeners to embrace and care for Mongolian land, they emphasize the distinctiveness of the locality, and incorporate social and cultural values connected to nomadic life.