In the spring of 2018, a Mongolian heavy metal band called The Hu released two music videos on YouTube. Their lyrics alluded to fighting off lions, tigers and elephants by drawing on the prowess of Mongolia's national hero, Genghis Khan. Within a year, the clips had been viewed 25 million times.
What's remarkable about that isn't the fact that the songs' guitar and drum-heavy beats made listeners want to ride into battle on a Mongolian pony or sling arrows at marauding invaders. Nor is it that the leather-clad band members ride Harley Davidson motorcycles, and not horses, across the barren Asian steppes. Instead what transpires, after a long introduction, is that the band's ponytailed frontman – a Mongolian Roger Daltrey – is playing a horsehead fiddle while utilising a folkloric form of vocalisation known as throat singing.
After decades of being muzzled during the Soviet Communist era, when Mongolia's best singers were sent to Eastern Bloc countries to study opera, throat singing has undergone a renaissance in recent years – something The Hu cleverly tapped into. But with a population of just three million people, fans of the band clearly aren't confined to those who live inside the borders of the world's second largest landlocked country.
One man at least partly responsible for that resurgence is Dashdorj Tserendavaa. Tserendavaa's apprenticeship in overtone singing, as throat singing is otherwise known, began when he was just six. After years spent learning how to bend his vocal cords to alter its pitch, he turned professional at 24 then toured through Europe, America and Japan. Now aged 65, he is one of just three living throat singing masters.
It's mid-morning when Tserendavaa parks his four-wheel drive outside our ger camp overlooking Durgun Lake, in Mongolia's western province of Khovd. To our north are the snowy Bumbaat Mountains. Immediately south are the ruffled desert dunes of the Mongol Els. The rest is just rolling, treeless plains.
Accompanying Tserendavaa is a mixed band of troubadours. Most are students of his, the youngest just 10 years old. All have driven north from Chandmani, the birthplace of the popular khöömii style of throat singing that mimics the sounds of the mountains, rivers and streams peculiar to that area.
Each of the singers and musicians are dressed in elaborate silk deels (robes) beneath an assortment of headwear. Eight are male and two female – a sign that Mongolia is beginning to move with the times. In the past, women were forbidden from throat singing for fear that it would deliver misfortune to their menfolk, including infertility.
We're seated on folding chairs on the lake's pebbly beach, then treated to a succession of solo and group performances that collectively last close to an hour. From one person comes two notes – a low, steady drone that sounds eerily similar to a didgeridoo, overlaid with higher-pitched tones that mimic the wind when it whistles through marshy reeds, or a kite's wing slicing through the air.
Some grimace or close their eyes while harmonising about love or horses or nature, drawing on the sounds they would hear as nomadic herders. Tserendavaa massages a bow across an upright, two-stringed fiddle that looks worn from years of use. A carved horse's head sits atop the fiddle's slender neck.
As soon as the performance has finished, most in our group line up for photographs with Tserendavaa and his troupe, after which he slips away quietly for a cigarette that he pulls from inside his robe. He draws on it slowly then purposefully exhales a lungful of smoke into the crisp, desert air. It's about as rock 'n roll as things get out here.
Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong from Sydney or Melbourne and codeshares with Mongolian Airlines for onward connections to Ulaanbataar. See cathaypacific.com
Intrepid Travel's expedition range specialises in remote adventures such as Mongolia: Wilderness of the West. Travel nomad-style through mountains, deserts and steppes. Starting and ending in Ulaanbaatar, the 15-day expedition is priced from $5,635. See intrepidtravel.com
Mark Daffey visited Mongolia courtesy of Intrepid Travel.