The Sheep Whisperer

13 Oct 2006

Imagine this: you’re a Mongol herdsman out on your camel, getting ready to move your flock to a new pasture. It’s April, lambing season on the steppe, and you notice one of your ewes lying down a hundred yards from the group, next to a hummock of dried grass.Beside her rests a newborn lamb.

The ewe jumps and runs away when you approach, leaving the lamb bleating helplessly in the dust and covered in birthing goo. In most cases ewes accept newborn lambs as their own, but occasionally, as in this case, they find reason to reject the lamb, refusing to give it the care it needs to survive. This is the time to break out in khoomei (pronounced hoo-mee), or Mongolian overtone singing, also known as throat singing.

I’m here in Chendman district of Khovd, western Mongolia, to learn the local tradition of singing orphaned livestock into a happy home. This is the wing of the modern overtone singing that does not involve flashy costumes, dance routines and techno over-dubs (as I witnessed at the khoomei festival here in late-March) but what it lacks in glamour it makes up for in an improbable, practical beauty.

If you’ve never heard khoomei you might have a hard time imagining exactly how it sounds. When properly done, a throaty drone creates the bass over which the melody of a Mongol tune is, flute-like, warbled over the top. When poorly done it sounds like someone gargling the theme to Star Wars.

‘Star Wars Gargle’ is about the level of my own proficiency, and it has occurred to me that when I return home my newfound skill may amount to nothing more than a mediocre late-night party trick. But in fact good khoomei is much more than a nifty gag: here in Mogolia it’s a studied and respected musical form performed at festivals and in universities across the country. And it’s an important part of the work of a Mongol herdsman.

My teacher, a herder-musican named Tserendavaa (traditionally, Mongols do not keep surnames), uses khoomei whenever a newborn sheep, goat, horse, cow or camel is orphaned or rejected. This is a quiet affair, different from the pageantry of festival khoomei, aimed at calming the mother-to-be and getting her familiar with the newborn.

There are a number of steps in the whole process. The first I call ‘abandon and pray’. You try dropping the lamb out in the open, in rough proximity to the ewe, and walk off whistling as if you don’t care about the lamb and will not take care of it. The ewe always perks up and looks around as if to say ‘Could that thing really be mine?’, and she goes up to sniff it. But this first approach seldom works. Generally she turns heel and runs off, leaving the lamb in the open. This calls for the next step, which I call the ‘forced proximity’ approach.

You tie the ewe to a stone or bush, and put the lamb beside her. The hope is that over time she’ll just give in and start nursing the thing herself. Sometimes this works, other times you have to try the third approach: “khoomei and hum.”

Typically Tserendavaa kneels down beside the ewe and grabs her hind legs to keep her from running off. He begins with a series of quiet purrs, hums, coos and clicks, and he guides the lamb under the ewe in an effort to get it to take a drink of milk.

And he starts up his khoomei quietly, gently, almost like a lullaby. He will warble the melodies of his favorite tunes, or he will improvise melodies and sounds on the spot, using six different kinds of khoomei (from low chest vibrations to high, soft, nasal whistling) and intermittently inserting more hums, coos, clicks and purrs.

This is a different type of musical labor from what I experienced in Ghana and Tanzania. It feels more open, more reflective, almost like an incantation or a prayer. Part of this feeling comes from the lack of a heavy beat in the music: Tserendavaa orients his tunes more around phrases than the idea of a strict rhythmic pulse.

Another part comes from the fact that the music does not settle easily into the familiar chord progressions common to the music in Africa and the West. This khoomei seems to focus more on the tension between the drone and the whistle rather than quick chord changes and complicated melodies, emphasizing mostly the V-I cadences than come in the middle and at the end of the tunes.

Finally khoomei is connected to the landscape in a different way from other musical labor I’ve experienced. Tserendavaa hears it all the time out on the steppe, in the wind whistling through the grass, in the frozen lake which grumbles low on windy nights, and in our stomachs after too much mutton stew: ‘Oops,’ he’ll say, ‘tummy khoomei‘.

And in the same way Tserendava hears khoomei in the landscape, I hear the landscape in the khoomei. The treeless expanses, the dynamic lakes, and the wind through the cracks of the door to our round house are all reflected in the sound of this music. And all of these things, the phrases, the drone/whistle dynamic, and the connection with the landscape, give khoomei the feeling of a whispered recitation, as if the singer is speaking with the ewe herself.

When Tserendavaa senses that the ewe has finally calmed, he lets her go and backs up slowly, turning to walk with his hands behind his back, watching cautiously to see if the ewe accepts the lamb or just kicks it away. Sometimes it takes a few days to complete the process, repeating various tactics until something works. And sometimes nothing works and they resort to hand-milking the ewes and feeding the milk to the lambs from a baby bottle.

But out of hundreds of lambs, this only happened twice so far this year. Tserendavaa is a large, gregarious, but gentle fellow, and though I have no way to prove it, I get the feeling this helps his rate of acceptance for orphaned youngsters. Sometimes when we’re out herding the animals from one corner of the steppe to another he will burst into song, tunes about the mountains and horses and beautiful women. He’ll weave khoomei into the songs as we walk along, and he insists that this is the best way to practice, out in the fresh air, walking behind the animals.

And I believe that this connection he has with his livestock, the companionable singing while herding, makes it is easier for him to khoomei those mothers into taking on new children. Watching him at work with the flock and alone with the orphans and mothers I can’t help but feel that somehow, like me, the sheep really like it.

Kennet Erwin Konesni (Bennet) is an American musicologist

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