Travelling through Mongolia with two gramophones

written by Europeana Sounds on February 23, 2016 in Content and Guest post with one Comment

Enjoy a guest post by Sabine Schostag, Statsbiblioteket, edited by Imogen Greenhalgh. A version of this post appeared first on February 4, 2016 on Europeana Sounds blog.

This is a story about Danish traveller and adventurer Henning Haslund-Christensen and his expeditions to Inner Mongolia. During his travels, Haslund-Christensen collected voices. In fact, this is the story of a unique and awesome collection of traditional Mongolian vocal and instrumental music recordings.

A Mongolian farm

Haslund-Christensen, born in Copenhagen in 1896, spent several long periods in Mongolia. Under the direction of Dr. Carl Krebs (1889-1971), he journeyed to Outer Mongolia in 1923 to help run an experimental agricultural project. During his stay at this farm in Mongolia, Haslund-Christensen learned the Mongolian language, and from there began to sing their songs and listen to their traditional tales.

Haslund-Christensen on camel back. Photo: Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA

Haslund-Christensen on camel back. Photo: Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA 

“The Sino-Swedish Expedition”

Haslund-Christensen left the farm in 1926. He met Sweden’s most celebrated Central Asian explorer, Sven Hedin (1865-1952). Hedin hired Haslund-Christensen as a camel caravaneer for the “The Sino-Swedish Expedition” (1927-1929). However, thanks to his fascination in Mongolian culture, Haslund-Christensen  became involved in collecting Mongolian cultural artefacts and recording music on a phonograph.

Haslund-Christensen’s independent expeditions

By 1930, Haslund-Christensen decided to branch out on his own for the first time. Plans were delayed when he was badly wounded in an avalanche and had to return to Europe for surgery and to recuperate, but after that, he returned to Mongolia, taking with him state of the art recording equipment to record the music and oral legends of Inner Asia. The lacquer disc recordings, which Haslund-Christensen produced on his expeditions, now form the oldest collection of Mongolian folk music, a unique collection housed at Statsbiblioteket in Denmark.

Haslund-Christensen travelled with two gramophones, one for recording, and one for replaying. Photo: Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA

Haslund-Christensen travelled with two gramophones, one for recording, and one for replaying. Photo: Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA

Two gramophones and a petrol motor

Haslund’s sound recording gear was impressive: he had two disc machines (gramophones), one for recording and one for playing back the records. Because of the machines’ heavy weight, he needed to bring along a motor too, and as well as petrol canisters, to operate the disc machines. Last but not least he brought a carbon microphone and 300 lacquer discs. All of this specialist equipment was provided by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation (Svensk Radiotjänst).

Mongolian music

Mongolian music is in pentatone and song texts obey poetic rules. Two kinds of songs dominate: ”long songs” with melisms and free rhythm and ”short songs” with a fixed rhythm and strophic construction. Some vocal genres differentiate themselves with their own specific vocal register; for example the overtone song chöömij, which has both a deep bordun and a flute-like melody.

Below, you can enjoy some fascinating recordings from Haslund-Christensen’s travels.

1927-26

1: Man (lama) reciting speech with a big frame-drum, a pair of small cymbals and a thighbone trumpet.

2: Man from Khoten Sume singing

3: Short modern song with the long-necked lute siduryu/sanja and a larger lute dörben cikitei quyur. 

1936/37

4: Dzakhchin-Mongolian singing an old ballad about the four seasons, accompanied by a zither.

5: Instrumental version of a ballad with two flutes. 

6: Woman from Wang-in Sume singing

Woman singing. Photo: Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA

Woman singing. Photo: Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA

1938/39

7: Female singer accompanied by morin khuur. 

8: Two men singing together.

9: Man singing and whistling.