Lenny Pickett’s Mongolian Tour Diary

Not-so-strangers in a strange land

Lenny Pickett, Dr. David Schroeder and the Morin Khuuriin ensemble in Mongolia. Photo courtesy of Lenny Pickett image 0
Lenny Pickett

Lenny Pickett, Dr. David Schroeder and the Morin Khuuriin ensemble in Mongolia. Photo courtesy of Lenny Pickett

This is my brief diary of Combo Nuvo’s Mongolian visit. Combo Nuvo is: Dr. David Schroeder-soprano sax, chromatic harmonica, e-flat flute and composer; Rich Shemaria-piano, composer and arranger; Brad Shepik-guitar and Bulgarian tambura; Mike Richmond-electric cello; John Hadfield-percussion; Lenny Pickett-tenor sax, e-flat clarinet and jaw harp.

On Friday, May 30, at 2:00 p.m., we embark on the first leg of our trip, a long coach flight to Seoul, Korea (Korean Air flight #82) with several very cool and diligent flight attendants. We arrive in Seoul at 5:20 p.m. on Friday, May, 31 to connect to our 7:55 p.m. business class flight to Ulaanbataar (Korean Air 867), arriving in Mongolia at 10:30 p.m., 20.5 hours after our departure.

We are met by our documentarian, Ikhbayar (he asks us to call him “Ike”), his documentary film camera crew, by Ganaa, our host’s (Mr. Ganbat, the club owner’s) brother, by Bodi (Bodibaatar Jigjidsuren), who would be our constant guide and Mongolian culture interpreter, and by Amy and Mochi (not their Mongolian names), two students with English language skills, who act as translators and explainers. We ride into Ulaan Bataar along a bumpy, dark road with poor air quality to a comfortable hotel and go to sleep almost immediately.

On Sunday, June 1, my wife Kathryn and I go first thing for a morning walk around and through the main town square and its immediate vicinity and we are approached by several artists selling their work, a tour guide who gives us his card and an older gentleman in a suit with an interesting story and cataracts. The square is dominated by a statue of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan to Westerners). His face is on all of the money, and any Mongolian school child could tell you his history. He conquered more of the world’s ¬landmass in less time than anyone else in history.

From 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. we go on a tour of the Parliament building and its museum and the National History Museum. Both are very interesting, with collections of artifacts from Mongolia’s illustrious history, including arrowheads, armor and costumes.

At 1:00 p.m. we go to the UB Jazz Club. We are met there by Mr. Ganbat, the club’s owner, and our very generous host for the duration of our stay. He has arranged all of our lodgings, meals and many interesting encounters. He is both a musician and a businessman with the ambition to bring jazz to Mongolians.

We have lunch, including a traditional vodka toast (a shot finished in one gulp), offered by Mr. Ganbat, welcoming us to Ulaan Bataar and encouraging the meeting of traditional Mongolian music with American jazz. Lunch is delicious: soup and meat (they really like meat in Mongolia). At 2:00 we rehearse with Oyuka, a talented (but apparently nervous) young female Mongolian singer.

At 9:30 we play a set to a smallish audience. This was originally pitched to us as a jam session, but it turns out to actually be a set of our repertoire. For the second set, which I guess is the jam session portion of our performance, we are asked to play with the singer that we had rehearsed with, but she doesn’t show up (perhaps a case of nerves?). Neither does anyone else, so, we play another set, this time with Peter Cobb from NYFA playing alto saxophone. (Peter was instrumental in coordinating our collaboration with our Mongolian hosts and has joined us on our journey.)

On Monday, June 2, we have breakfast at the hotel (featuring soup) and then we travel by small bus to a rehearsal hall where the National Orchestra and the Morin Khuuriin ensemble rehearse. We rehearse from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. with the Morin Khuuriin ensemble plus members of the brass section from the National Orchestra. There are about 14 morin khuur players, a hammer dulcimer, several harps similar to the Japanese koto, four two-string triangular-shaped upright basses, one cello, a tympanist, a flutist and an ever buree player.

The morin khuur are two-string fiddles that are held in the players’ laps at an angle and bowed German style. The strings are bundles of white horsetail hair, and tuned to an F below middle C and the B-flat a fourth above that. There is no fingerboard, and so the left-hand technique involves pressing the strings from the sides with the fingernails and reaching under the near string to get to the far string. They all have a carving of a horse’s head where the scroll on a violin would normally be.

The ever buree is an instrument that is based on ancient instruments made from animal horns, now fitted with a single reed mouthpiece and a complex system of fingerings, that uses rings and keys somewhat like a clarinet. The modern version usually has an external body made with carved painted wood around a brass bore, with a bell made from the large end of a cow horn, and brass keys and rings.

We play through the material that Rich Shemaria and Dr. David Schroeder have arranged and composed for our concert on Thursday. Some of the music is drawn from music made for past performances with other more conventional orchestras, and some of it has been recently created with the intent to find a meeting point between the largely pentatonic traditional Mongolian music that is the staple of the Morin Khuuriin ensemble, and the highly chromatic modern jazz that Combo Nuvo plays.

During a break, Ashit, the concertmaster for the Morin Khuuriin ensemble, takes out a two-stringed instrument played with a stick for a plectrum, and decorated with a swan’s head where the tuning pegs are, and begins accompanying himself as he demonstrates his skill in traditional Mongolian throat singing.

From 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. we have lunch at a restaurant called Modern Nomads. It’s a “traditional Mongolian meal” (soup and meat).

In the afternoon we go to a music store. As it turns out, jaw harps are an instrument that I play and they also happen to be a traditional Mongolian instrument. They are played all over the world, from Norway to Vietnam, in one form or another. I buy three jaw harps, including a “professional” model with an interesting design on it. I also ask about a mouthpiece for the ever buree, as I am interested in trying to play the instrument that is being used in the Morin Khuuriin ensemble. They have a mouthpiece and I purchase it. We also try playing the valved version of a long trumpet-like instrument that resembles a traditional ceremonial horn. I can get some sounds out of it, but Mike Richmond can really play it. It turns out that he played valve trombone when he was young and the instrument is close enough to a valve trombone that Mike can get around on it. Brad Shepik finds a traditional guitar-like instrument, John Hadfield picks up a frame drum, Dr. Schroeder plays a traditional Mongolian flute, I play my new jaw harp and Mike starts playing one of the two-string horse-headed basses and we have an actual jam session in the music store.

We do our second performance at UB Jazz Club starting around 8:30 p.m. We play another set of prepared music, and this time our second set has several Mongolian guests. The most amazing event is an improvisation with the throat-singing concertmaster Ashit, who we heard at our morning rehearsal. It’s difficult to describe, but it was one of the funkiest world music collaborations that I have ever heard. It is truly transcendent and alone is worth the journey to Mongolia.

Narka, a Mongolian singer who clearly admired Frank Sinatra, sang a rather startling version of James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” ending with the repeated “So good, so good, I got you” refrain, replete with 7/8 bars. We also accompanied Tsojoo, a young Mongolian rock star from the group Mohanik, wearing a Bob Dylan t-shirt and singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as well as one of his own songs. A very rich evening of music.

On Tuesday, June 3, after another hotel breakfast (that again included soup) we rehearse from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. with Morin Khuuriin. I brought my newly acquired mouthpiece and tried out the animal horn instrument. It has the craziest fingerings that I’ve ever encountered.

Today is our only cloudy day of the trip. After our rehearsal we go to lunch at the jazz club. We meet Badamkhorol, a young woman who sings the traditional Mongolian “long song.” She explains that these songs contain the narrative history of the Mongolian people.

After lunch Kathryn, John and I visit the Temple Museum. It’s near the main square but not immediately obvious to someone passing by. It’s tucked behind the fanciest hotel in town and adjacent to several major construction projects. The exterior has pagoda-like roofs and doesn’t show any signs of recent renovation. The main enclosure sits behind an ancient-looking wall with carvings on it that we are told protect the temple. (In fact, the large public square, where Parliament is located, was built so that it would benefit from the magical protection that it provides.)

This museum is one of the few temples that survived the Soviet presence in Mongolia. Eighty percent of Mongolians are Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition. The artwork and iconography are intense and reflect an animistic aspect of Buddhism. There are many-armed figurines, and brightly colored masks decorated with skulls, and scenes of various versions of hell.

In the evening we perform another set of our music at the jazz club followed by a “jam session” featuring an improvisation with Badamkhorol, the “long song” singer. Saruul-Od, our conductor from our Morin Khuuriin ensemble rehearsals, sits in with us on alto sax. Mr. Ganbat, our host and the jazz club’s owner and manager, sits in with us on both drums and piano and accompanies Oyuka, the young woman singer singing a popular Mongolian song while the audience sings along.

On Wednesday, June 4, we rehearse with the Morin Khuuriin ensemble one last time, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Our conductor is mysteriously late after our jam session the night before. Rich Shemaria gets up from behind the piano to conduct the orchestra through his arrangements.

After our rehearsal we ride to a military installation through very heavy traffic, and we have lunch with the director of the military music program. There are more vodka toasts. After lunch we crowd into a room on the military campus with a phalanx of reporters and cameras, and listen to the military big band jazz ensemble play a rendition of “Summertime,” with a remarkable blending of strings and saxophones. We then play for them, using their amps, keyboard and drums.

After we play and Dr. Schroeder speaks to the press, we walk down the hall, and listen to a small traditional Mongolian ensemble rehearse. It is quite beautiful. We visit the director of the program in his office and I have another chance to try playing an ever buree there. I’m beginning to get the hang of it, but not really.

We return to the hotel and walk to a gallery to see a photo and video exhibition by Nyamka, a friend of Mr. Ganbat’s.

Another dinner at the club, and another set of our music, and another “jam session,” this time featuring a Mongolian “long song” played by Atka, a talented young guitarist, a Mongolian rock singer’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and Oyuka, our newly confident young woman singer, performing “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Lullaby of Birdland,” again with Mr. Ganbat on drums. He continues playing with us on “Take The ‘A’ Train” and an uptempo version of “The Blues Walk.” The film crew records the entire evening.

On Thursday, June 5, we arrive for a sound check and a rehearsal around 11:00 a.m. at the National Opera House, and we rehearse and work with the sound technician until around 3:00 p.m. We break for lunch at a shabu-shabu restaurant that features horse meat and some very interesting organ meats. After lunch, more sound check. Apparently, in our absence, there had been some changes in the sound system, and we have to revisit it.

At 6:30, we change into our tuxedos and at 7:00 we perform. First we accompany Oyuka, the once shy young woman playing her Mongolian song, then, Narka (“Mr. I-Feel-Good”), sings another popular Mongolian song, and now comes the culmination of our week of rehearsals with the Morin Khuuriin ensemble. It goes very well, and we play four encore numbers from our book without the orchestra. A reception hosted by the Mongolian Minister of Culture follows, and then we head to the club for more vodka toasts.

On Friday we have the morning off and we go shopping for souvenirs, have lunch in an Indian restaurant, and then we spend the afternoon at an orphanage. The very bumpy dirt road ride to the orphanage takes us through ger neighborhoods on the outskirts of Ulaan Bataar. Many people live in the traditional movable homes called gers (the Russians call them yurts). They are ringed with a folding latticework frame, and have a dome-shaped roof with a hole in the middle for the stovepipe exhaust to exit the ger. The outside of the structure is covered in felt made from sheep wool. The wood-burning stove goes in the middle of the circular structure, and beds, Buddhist altars and other furniture sit at the perimeter.

When we arrive at the gate of the orphanage we are greeted by a throng of excited children. They range in age from 18 months to 17 years old. A group of grade school-aged kids is making sounds by blowing on blades of stiff grass that they are picking. I join them and show them how to hold the grass in one hand and blow on it to make a sound. They try it too. There is instant communication with no spoken language. I have my jaw harp with me and Kathryn brought six more from New York. I play it. They are interested. Kathryn hands out the others and for the rest of the time that we are there, they keep coming back to me for help. (Given that the jaw harp is an instrument that is indigenous to Mongolia, we were worried that we would be bringing “coals to Newcastle,” but these kids had nothing, and so, they were receptive to everything.)

Dr. Schroeder brought along enough C harmonicas so that every child could have one. We improvise a blues in G (unplugged) and Dr. Schroeder conducts the kids (I chord = draw, IV chord = blow). Imagine, six American musicians, and 41 Mongolian kids in a big ger having a jam session.

There is a young couple from Ireland helping to care for the children. John Gaffney is a doctor and Éabha McMahon is a singer. They are volunteers who paid their own way to get there. The orphanage is run by the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, and with the exception of a small local group of caretakers, all of the labor is provided by volunteers.

Some of the musicians join the kids playing with a soccer ball and shooting baskets. (Mike hurts his thumb blocking a shot.) As we leave, an 18-month-old boy repeatedly tries to climb on the bus with us. This visit was the absolute high point of our trip.

On Saturday, June 7, at 11:00 a.m., we head for the countryside in our little bus. The traffic is heavy as we leave Ulaan Bataar. There are some notable aspects to Mongolian driving practices. They drive on the right side of the road, but there is a mixture of right-hand drive and left-hand drive cars. The right-hand drive vehicles are purchased from Japan and are not reconfigured for the roads in Mongolia, because it would be too expensive. The winter in Mongolia is very cold, with temperatures remaining around minus-30 degrees centigrade for weeks at a time; consequently, the roads are riddled with really big potholes. Cars often drive down the center of the highway to avoid peripheral potholes, swerving back to the right side of the road to avoid oncoming traffic. We saw the results of one head-on collision.

We arrive in Turlej in the afternoon. It’s beautiful. Our camp is in a glacial valley, surrounded by remarkable rock formations. Kathryn and I have our own ger. There is a central bathroom for the camp and a restaurant. There is also an encampment of nomadic herders very close to us and, we are sharing the campgrounds with their cows.

Over the next three days we hike around, visit a humongous silver statue of Genghis Khan and have a fantastic picnic cookout by a river, prepared by Arthur and Vacho, the two Armenian chefs from the jazz club. We are welcomed into our neighbor nomad’s ger, and we have several impromptu outdoor jam sessions. It was all very fun!

On Tuesday afternoon, June 10, we drive back to Ulaan Bataar. On our way, we stop to look at some of Mr. Ganbat’s land, where he is hoping to create a jazz camp for visiting jazz students. We arrive in Ulaan Bataar in the evening.

On Wednesday, June 11, we visit the Winter Palace Museum, go to lunch at UB Jazz Club, take a sauna and soak in a Japanese hot tub, and then proceed to a Mongolian music dance show that includes a contortionist, all as Mr. Ganbat’s guests.

In the evening we have dinner at the club with some Russians and Arkady Mandjiyev a fantastic Russian singer from the republic of Kalmyk in Russia, where the Kalmyk people of Mongolian origin live. Arkady sang us a song with verses in Russian, English, Mongolian and Chinese! We have more vodka toasts.

Thursday, June 12 is our departure day. Mr. Ganbat takes us out to an excellent Chinese restaurant and we do more vodka toasts. I change some money, and purchase a secondhand ever buree from the military music director. Dr. Schroeder purchases a new one. We stop by the club for a final photo opportunity and goodbye and we head for the airport.

We depart on our flight to Seoul, Korea (Korean Air flight 5866) at 11:55 p.m. and arrive in Seoul at 3:55 a.m., where we experience a six-hour layover and depart Seoul on our flight to JFK (Korean Air flight 85) at 10:05 a.m., arriving at JFK at 11:20 a.m. on Friday, June 13, 23-1/2 hours after we left Ulaan Bataar.

Wow!