[weekly world music 5: women’s laments]

Topic: Music

Khongorzul and Baterdene: The River Herlen
(The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan)

La Macarena: Andalusia: Saeta
(World Library Of Folk & Primitive Music, Vol. 4: Spain)

Seopyeonje (Film): Sonchangka

Mongolian singer Ganbaatar Khongorzul.

It’s hard to imagine a voice more perfect for the Mongolian steppe than that of Ganbaatar Khongorzul, whose extraordinary vocal performance sounds as if it were designed to carry over great windswept distances. This recording was made as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, a fascinating musical journey that began with field recordings and eventually developed into the Silk Road Ensemble.

According to the Silk Road Project website:

Khongorzul Ganbaatar began her professional musical studies at the age of twenty-two. She was raised in the Mongolian province of Khentii where singing urtiin duu [OOR tin DOO] (a Mongolian vocal genre, literally long song) is ubiquitous as entertainment. She never sang publicly during her adolescence. On an impulse, she auditioned for the Than Khentii Folk Ensemble and was accepted as a member of the group.

“Saeta” is a field recording made in Andalucia by the great folklorist Alan Lomax, who is probably best remembered for capturing numerous Southern blues musicians. The Saeta, a mournful serenade to the Virgin Mary, is a traditional part of the Andalucian celebration of Semana Santa, or Holy Week. This particular recording may have been the inspiration for the gorgeous “Saeta” on Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s classic Sketches of Spain.

And finally, we have “Sonchangka,” a wrenching Pansori performance from Im Kwon-taek’s film Seopyeonje. Pansori is a Korean musical form that is part opera, part griot. It developed in the southern province of Jeolla-do, long considered a backwater and neglected by both the Joseon dynasty and modern governments until its native son, Kim Dae-jung, was elected president of South Korea in 1998. Supposedly many pansori songs are satirical attacks on the ruling class, but when I attended an outdoor performance in Jeongeup, the home city of pansori, a man sitting next to me helpfully filled in the plot of each song as it began. Invariably, the story was that the woman’s husband had gone away, and she was lamenting his absence.

I don’t speak Korean nearly well enough to understand the lyrics of this particular piece, but it might help to know that abeoji (아버지), which the singer cries out several times, means “father,” and that in the film, the singer’s father tries to inspire his daughter to more impassioned, mournful singing by giving her a drug that blinds her. (Remember, eo in Korean romanization is pronounced like the a in all.) Certainly that’s one way to get han, but I don’t recommend trying it at home.