SIT Alum Preserves Traditional Mongolian Music

Dimitri Staszewski (Loyola University) studied on SIT’s Mongolia: Geopolitics and the Environment program in spring 2013. For his Independent Study Project, he interviewed Mongolian herders and began recording and archiving their singing performances. Below, we talk with Dimitri about the importance of preserving traditional Mongolian music.



SIT Study Abroad: Why are you interested in preserving traditional Mongolian music?

Dimitri Staszewski: Initially, I saw it as a fundamental part of a shrinking nomadic population. While I still believe that, the term “traditional music” is a lot more complicated than I originally thought before coming to Mongolia.

During a period of socialism that ended in 1991, Russian influence led to the introduction of conservatory-style teaching in Mongolia. Those conservatories taught Western forms of music as well as institutionalizing the teaching of traditional Mongolian music. So, the use of the word “traditional” is actually quite complicated and has been used strategically to a certain extent, promoting Russian/Western culture and teaching methods. That being said, those conservatories have remained a fundamental part of traditional Mongolian music as a whole.

As a result of the Western lens employed by this research and pedagogy, studies of traditional Mongolian music generally lack a sophisticated depiction of the wide variety represented by the overarching category of “traditional.” As notions of what constitutes “traditional” are increasingly dominated by these Western definitions, some forms of Mongolian traditional music are not being understood or preserved. I am interested in helping preserve performances by musicians without formal training, epitomized by nomadic herders, because that part of traditional Mongolian music is currently underrepresented and threatened as fewer Mongolians remain herders and as herding lifestyles continually change. Without recognition, herders’ distinct musical traditions will remain threatened.

SIT: Tell me about your Independent Study Project (ISP).

DS: Initially, my ISP was to film a documentary about the disappearance of traditional Mongolian music by herders and what that will mean for Mongolian culture as a whole. I also ended up writing a paper about the issues I examined during interviews and about how the construction of “wilderness” is leading to a devaluation of the natural world in Mongolia.

Jargal, Dimitri's rural host mother

Jargal, Dimitri’s rural host mother

Right now, Mongolia is moving away from traditionally nomadic lifestyles towards sedentary ways of life. More than half of the country has already shifted, and, as more opportunities are created outside of nomadic herding, fewer Mongolians remain interested in herding lifestyles. In my essay I argue that the ideas of “wilderness” and “civilization” are not just Western ideas. They are universal ideas humans create in order to rationalize destruction of the natural world and create a more “civilized” one. I believe this ideological shift has led to a devaluation of the natural world in Mongolia, which in turn has led to widespread environmental destruction.

SIT: Did you encounter anything particularly memorable as you carried out your project?

DS: The most memorable moments happened when I was recording musical performances. I interviewed a 77-year-old woman who had had eleven children and sang a beautiful long song for me. After interviewing a mother and father, they invited their kids to sing a love song with them to finish the interview. I met a herder who, after an interview, invited me to record him singing to his herd. That performance ended up being one of the most inspiring moments I have been able to be part of, and I felt honored to be able to be the one there capturing it.

I normally work in a recording studio where as an engineer and producer I try to help create a space where special moments can be captured. Recording in the field I found that I had to search for the right people and capture moments that already exist in their lives, but haven’t been recorded.

SIT: Do you plan on traveling back to Mongolia in the near future?

DS: Right now I’m applying for a Fulbright Scholarship to go back to Mongolia next August for at least ten months after I graduate this coming May. I would be creating an archive of musical performances by Mongolian herders and former herders, and their stories. Filmed performances would be paired with written narratives. The idea being to capture songs that are a part of Mongolian culture as a whole, and stories about very specific individuals and seeing them in the much broader context.

Ultimately, part of the reason why this aspect of traditional Mongolian music is going away is because it is not very accessible. I found that it is often very difficult to find talented singers who are herders. Plus, once I found them, it was often difficult and time-consuming to get to them. I want to bring herders’ performances to an online platform, which anyone can access. Ideally, other people would get interested in the project after I got it started and could help add performances to the archive.

The Mongolian countryside

The Mongolian countryside

My goal is to showcase a side of traditional Mongolian music that I feel is currently underrepresented. As Mongolia undergoes rapid urbanization, many Mongolians only experience traditional music performed in staged settings by conservatory-trained musicians. From interviews and casual conversations in Mongolia, I found that for many Mongolians traditional music spoke to a sense of national identity and heritage. However, neither tradition nor national identities are static things. Musical conservatories, Mongolian hip-hop, and ethno-fusion bands are all examples of positive cultural change that is redefining tradition in Mongolia. However, it is important in any culture to remember the past and figure out how aspects of cultural heritage will be preserved and carried into the future. By creating the archive, I hope to help preserve an important aspect of Mongolia’s intangible cultural heritage. As the number of nomadic herders in Mongolia continues to shrink, now is a crucial time to do this project.

See — and hear — more at Dimitri’s blog. Subscribe there for regular updates on his project.

Learn more about SIT’s program in Mongolia.

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One Response to SIT Alum Preserves Traditional Mongolian Music

  1. Karen September 20, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    Thanks for sharing your work, Dimitri. I love the songs captured on the video, and look forward to exploring your website. Best of luck in with your Fulbright application!