Following the Music in a Changing Mongolia

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By Cyrus Moussavi

Ulaanbaatar fills a mountain valley. Mongolia’s capital is a snarl of Soviet housing blocks, boomtown high rises, traffic, smog, and shopping.

As you move away from the city center, concrete gives way to dirt roads and informal yurt settlements, home to an estimated 70 percent of the city’s population. Abruptly, Ulaanbaatar ends. It is surrounded by thousands of miles of pristine countryside.

In the past few decades, hundreds of thousands of nomads have crossed the threshold from country to city. They’ve left the land, pushed out by climate change and overgrazing, drawn to the city by school, an income, and a connection to the world outside this vast, landlocked state. Nearly half the country’s population of roughly 2.9 million now lives in Ulaanbaatar.

With Raw Music International, our goal is to tell stories of change through music. Can you hear this massive social upheaval? What does urbanization sound like?

Deep in the countryside, you don’t hear much of anything at all. Over a month of searching, we couldn’t record a good example of Mongolia’s chief musical export – throatsinging, or khoomei. Plenty of people tried, but what started majestic usually ended with red-faced hacking coughs and, upon recovery, requests for a tip.

It is in the cities, paradoxically, that traditional music thrives. Musically inclined former nomads, freed from the task of survival in one of the world’s harshest environments, wear traditional dress and play weddings and festivals. Traditional music programs are popping up in universities and high schools.

Perhaps it’s a form of museumification – a living art turned into a tool for nationalism and nostalgia. But, despite the challenges and indignities of urban life, no one was complaining on cultural grounds. Education and opportunity trump tradition.

In Mongolia, we saw urbanization not as world historic change, but as a series of hard, individual choices. And we heard it, a tension between memories of a glorious past and hope for an uncertain future, in the few bits of music we were fortunate enough to record.

Cyrus Moussavi is a filmmaker and founder of Raw Music International, a documentary series about music around the world. For more from Mongolia, visit