Ulaanbaatar’s urban music scene is buzzing with a new vibe created by a hip-hop duo mixing into their sound the traditional art of throat singing, or “Khoomei,” as Mongolians refer to it.
Rap group Fish Symboled Stamp, named for a fish-shaped seal traditionally used to brand horses in the landlocked nation, incorporates the nearly 1,000-year-old vocal tradition of communities across Siberia and Central Asia.
Khoomei means “pharynx”, and performers imitate the sounds of nature, emitting a melody of harmonics alongside a continuous drone, UNESCO, which added the art form to its intangible heritage listing in 2009, says on a website describing it.
Lead bass vocalist Sanjjav Baatar, 32, founded the group with rapper Battogtokh Odsaikhan, 30, in 2010, when they started experimenting with music styles.
Finding the voice that best suited them took some time.
“I couldn’t understand what voice I should use,” Baatar said. “One day my partner said, ‘Why don’t you rhyme with your Khoomei voice?’ I tried it out, and it sounded really good.”
Odsaikhan believes the cultural reference sets Fish Symboled Stamp apart from other Mongolian hip hop groups.
“Mongolian hip hop is no different from that in the West. It’s just copy and paste,” he said.
The pair say they were inspired by Mongolian folk religion and frequent childhood visits to the vast steppe undulating in every direction.
Mongolia’s climate and environment contributed to the development of Khoomei, said Lhamragchaa, a throat singing teacher at a private school in Ulaanbaatar.
“Our ancestors were herding their cattle in the open grasslands and were hearing the sounds of nature, like wind blowing, and trying to imitate them,” said Lhamragchaa, who has only one name, like many Mongolians.
Bataar and Odsaikhan are proud of their culture, nationalism and Mongolia’s historical legacies, which predominate in their lyrics.
Fish Symboled Stamp represented Mongolian art at the recent opening of an art gallery, drawing favourable comment for their skills in folding together traditional and modern music.
“Such performances can make Mongolians proud of their cultural heritage,” said Otgonbileg, a 50-year-old teacher.