Monday, 26 February 2007

Tsagaan Sar, Darkhan, Mealody

Monday 26th February 2007
I apologise for not reporting sooner on Tsagaan Sar - the Mongolian New Year. One problem has been that it is impossible to write about Tsagaan Sar without writing about buuz and, now that the festival is over, I don't find my mind (or my stomach, more to the point) returning to the subject of buuz with much enthusiasm.

Tsagaan Sar - either 'White Moon' or 'White Month' - is the most important festival on the Mongolian calendar. The practise and traditions go back a long way, and strongly reflect the nomadic culture. During Tsagaan Sar people visit the homes of their relatives and friends, greet each other with a special embrace that shows deference to the older party, and eat buuz. Each home, for the 3 main days of the festival has its dining table loaded with food: a boov: stacked layers of a special kind of bread (one layer for each decade of the senior member of the household) on which are piled sweets; and a lot of cold mutton - traditionally a whole sheep is cooked for Tsagaan Sar. In the houses of the older people I visited there was always the back and ribs of a sheep, in the houses of younger people there was simply a huge bowl with various cuts of mutton in.

White Moon is very much a family occasion, but, hospitality being a deeply ingrained tradition, foreigners are invariably invited to spend Tsagaan Sar with a surrogate family for the weekend. I travelled up to Darkhan with Ganaa, one of my fellow to teachers, to visit with his family there. We caught a taxi there on Sunday evening, along with Ganaa's girlfriend and his brother, who was returning home from work in Korea (there are a lot of Mongolians working in Korea - I heard an estimate of 20,000 workers, from Mongolia's population of 2 million). Darkhan is about a 4 hour drive in a taxi, on what must be a pretty good road by Mongolian standards: single-lane and pot-holed, of course, and also fairly busy with traffic that . I couldn't see much of the countryside in the darkness, but when we made a brief relief stop I stepped off the road into a deep drift of snow. The stars were fantastically bright and clear above - such a profusion of stars that the constellations were almost lost amongst them.

Although we arrived very late, we were still able to visit three homes At each one making the traditional Tsagaan Sar greeting, drinking milk tea, followed by vodka; meanwhile, a big pan of buuz would be boiled. Buuz are boiled dumplings - balls of beef wrapped in dough. They don't taste at all bad, but it is kind of disheartening to be faced by a plate piled with 20 or 30 of the things, accompanied by nothing but cold mutton and maybe potato salad. Small gifts would be given by the host to the guests. More vodka was then drunk, accompanied by a round songs, one from each guest. More milk tea and then vodka - and then suddenly, everybody was putting on their coats to leave, we all piled into a car and slowly drove to the next home, where the whole process began again. From apartment to apartment, to a ger in the old town, back to another apartment in the new - it all becomes a bit of a blur.

There are many small ceremonial civilities that make up the festival, which, broadly speaking, is about reaffirming the bonds of family and friendship. Men exchange snuff bottles with a special open handed gesture. The bottle is always left slightly open, and returned to the giver that way. One of my fourth graders, dressed in the traditional deel, passed me a bottle for a snort at a class on the Friday before Tsagaan Sar.

Monday we saw the sights of Darkhan before beginning the circuit of calling on relatives again. With a population of 100,000 Darkhan is Mongolia's second city. The sights include Mongolia's Tallest Building (a 14 or so storey tower block which I am pretty sure is smaller than the Ulaanbaatar Bank building and numerous new apartment blocks in the capital) and the view of the old and new town from the top of the low hill between the two. Old Darkhan is wooden houses and ger; new Darkhan is a lot of crumbling tower blocks built in the 1980s. The graffiti painted on the wall outside Ganaa's brother's home included Take That and East 17.

It isn't such a pretty city, but the people are certainly friendly, to judge by Ganaa's relatives, and I was made to feel very welcome. By Monday evening, however, I was quite ready to head back home. Vodka-fueled 'negotiations' from my hosts regarding taxi fares finally secured us seats in a Micro Bus headed back to Ulaanbaatar at about 10pm. For the next four and a half hours I did my best to doze - my skull being cracked at every pot-hole along the way. I didn't exactly feel great at school the following morning, but pretty much everyone had a buuz-glazed look to their eyes.

It took me the remainder of the week to recover. By Friday, I was ready to head out in search of Mealody - a small jazz club/restaurant somewhere in the University district. I'd tried to find it the previous week, as Chuluun, the Inner Mongolian musician who played some Monrin Khuur and sang Khoomei at my apartment, had urged me to go and see his friend's band. Unfortunately, I'd gone to a place called Blue Melody, where a girl punk band were playing, not the jazz-fusion I'd been lead to expect. I'd then spent more than half an hour walking up and down (passing Mealody three times as it happens) looking for the place, before finally retreating home with the excuse, at least, that I would have died of exposure had I spent any further time searching. This time I phoned in advance to clarify the location.

Mealody is a very pleasant, cosy little place, and I'm very glad to have found it this time round. Furthermore, the band were phenomenal. The jazz was less experimental than I guess I had feared - it was just good, exciting, entertaining music. 'U-Bop' (I must say that Ulaanbaatar's name really lends itself to musical puns) are an English guy on piano (Steve Tromans), a Mongolian drummer (N. Ganbat) and an American Double Bass player (Andrew Colwell). They play original music, arrangements of popular Mongolian songs and jazz standards. Throughout their playing is characterised by energy, enthusiasm, and sheer talent - they are a bloody good band. For a centrepiece they played a wonderful, moody tune, in which Andrew sings Khoomei - tri-tone ‘throat singing’ - which you should listen to on the JazzMongolia MySpace site to get some idea of (the site’s shared with other bands so I’m not sure who’s doing the singing on it). It was a wonderful evening.

Furthermore, the band very generously allowed me to take things down a notch or two in terms of musical sophistication and play ‘Cumberland Gap’, ‘Down the Road’ and a few others in the break. I’d missed an earlier set by a Japanese player of the Cavalkino (I’m not sure of the spelling, but as all those who attended the Grapes bluegrass jam will remember, it’s the Brazilian cousin of the ukulele), but we chatted and hope to get a chance to jam together in a few weeks’ time.