Singing Cowboys and the Mongolian Steppe

By Zhaoyang Liu

What is the relationship between music, migration and culture? In 2005, a group of musicians from the American West visited the Mongolian Steppe in order to sing with the herdsmen there. Two years earlier, they had hosted the Mongolians in Elko, Nevada. Hal Cannon, from the Western Folklife Center, chronicled the journey in the following NPR Music story. He speaks about the significance of music in the lives of those descended from steppe nomads and the similarities between Mongolian and American folk music.

Reflection Questions:

1. Ron Kane, a fiddler, described the Mongolian landscape as such: “I saw cattle, I saw yaks, I saw camels, for the first time, goats, sheep, and then no fences — it’s amazing — kind of a cowboy fantasy.” In what ways is the Mongolian Steppe similar to the American West? How might the similarities in both lifestyle and landscape help the Americans and Mongolians both connect with and understand each other?

2. After listening to the podcast, why do you think that music is such an effective tool of cultivating cultural exchange and understanding? What about music makes it special for communicating people’s unique experiences and identities?

3. In what ways is music integral to the lives of migratory peoples, such as the Mongolians? How does Mongolian folk music reflect their day-to-day activities?

4. Why is it important to hear the music of other cultures and peoples? What can we learn from traditional folk music? How can the stories and emotions conveyed by song give us a better understanding of the world and its complexities?

Additional content about traditional folk music can be found at the link below: