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Urna Chahar-Tugchi

"I first heard URNA perform live fifteen years ago and have since been following her career with interest, tracking her latest news through social media. She is an unique artist. Her unique view of life remains rooted in the Mongolian steppes of Ordos, Inner Mongolia, and her long-term collaboration with artists from different backgrounds all over the world has evolved her superb vocal ability.
The last live performance of URNA I saw was a concert in Shanghai with the Polish group Kroke, with whom she collaborates. The intense atmosphere onstage was heightened by intense collusion between the onstage musicians. Compared to these exciting live shows, her studio albums are more gentle and expansive. What affected me most was
that URNA had achieved a state of freedom in her singing; though her stage performance looked improvisational, her vocal presentation was entirely accurate.
Within a deep humming, almost silent and still, URNA demonstrated a terrifying power, almost more dynamic and precious than her high-pitched vocals. With sophistication, expansive freedom and energy, URNA has entered a golden phase as a vocalist."
Huo Liangzi - Journalist from China

It is late summer in Ordos, in Inner Mongolia. The young URNA has riddenout with her mother at sunset to round up the family`s herds and drive them to the stables. Several hundred sheep, a small herd of cows and two herds of horses start moving. The animals know the familiar calls, a mixture of beckoning and driving. URNA rides slowly around the herds so that the circles become gradually smaller. Around her resounds a whole orchestra of animal noises and running sounds.
The two women rest for a while in the grass before devoting themselves to the chore of milking the cows and sheep. They gaze into the endless distance. The steppe to the east and the gently rising dunes of the Gobi desert to the west merge in the light of the setting sun to form a brilliant red carpet. Her mother looks at her tenderly and asks: “Do you think that any other places are like this, the air so clear, the water so pure, the sky so blue?” URNA is silent, preoccupied by something very different. Something that is more important to her.
URNA finished school in early spring and then shocked her parents by expressing a definite wish: to study. She does not know how her parents are going to react. As yet, neither her father nor her mother have responded to her suggestions. From experience she knows that in Mongolia such things take their time. At her age, URNA would normally get married and start a family, like all the others. But URNA definitely wants to study, possibly even music. Months have passed, months without a response. But today is that kind of day, a day that could harbour a miracle. Her mother sings a song, looks at her child and says: “You can go to the city for one year.”
A few days later she sets off on her journey to the capital, Hohhot, the so-called “Blue City”. First, she travels two hours by horse and cart, then three hours by bus. She immediately contacts the teacher who has been recommended to her. She wants to learn how to play the Chinese dulcimer, but she cannot afford to pay for lessons. The teacher, touched by the determination of this girl from the far distant steppe, makes her an offer. URNA can look after her daughter, and in return she will give her music lessons for free.
The months that follow are difficult: she looks after the child almost the whole day, has daily music lessons and practises at night. Sometimes she is so tired that she falls asleep, exhausted, her head resting on the dulcimer, so that when she wakes up in the morning the marks of the strings are on her face. But she makes great progress in master - ing the instrument, which is none too easy to play. Six months later, however, comes the bad news: her teacher is given a position in Shanghai. Several months later, URNA receives a telegram from there. The teacher has not forgotten the great talent exhibited by the girl form the steppe. She writes: “Come to Shanghai, apply here, you should be attending the Music Academy.”
The subsequent journey is even longer than the first. On her arrival in Shanghai, she finds herself alone in a lively anthill of people. No one comes to meet her, and she cannot speak the language. All she has in her hand is the crumpled telegram with the address. She takes different buses, but not quite sure to where. That evening, exhausted, lost, and fearful, she sits sobbing on a bench. Finally, a kind old man looks after her, reads the note with the address and accompanies her to her teacher.
That is how URNA`s life in Shanghai begins. In a foreign city, a foreign culture, she has to learn a foreign language, Mandarin. She also has to look after the child, study and practise. Much later in New York, when URNA meets her teacher again at a concert in the Metropolitan, the latter confesses: “I lured you to Shanghai not just because of your talent, but also because our child missed you so much. She was always crying and asking, `Where is URNA, where is URNA, where are her songs?`”
After some difficult months, URNA finally achieves her goal of studying at the Music Academy. She attends concerts and listens in on other students` public examinations. When the students sing she realises that, although they are from different ethnic groups and traditions, they all sound the same at the end of their studies. The young musician realises that the singing technique taught at the Academies smoothes out the differences in the voices and the expressiveness of the artists, making everything sound similar.
She recalls her childhood, singing in the steppe. She remembers the songs she sang with her grandmother: they all sounded different, much more beautiful.
URNA can only visit her family once a year. Far from home, the memories of her childhood live on in her day and night dreams: sitting on her grandmother`s knee waiting for her grandfather, who often only returned from the desert after many months with the camel caravan transporting salt. She recalls the many songs her grandmother used to sing. The long way to school on horseback. At the age of seven she was already able to ride alone to the respective yurt where the lessons were being held. She always looked forward to the other children and the guest family who would prepare a meal for all the schoolchildren. She missed looking after the little lambs and kids. And she missed riding. She had to be quick to keep her herds separate from the others and to catch animals that had run away. And URNA was quick, even when the biting wind was against her body and face.
Meantime she can speak Mandarin very well. While still studying, URNA gives her first solo concert in her hometown of Orodos in 1992, playing the Chinese dulcimer, yangqin. On completion of her studies at the Academy, she works with the National Orchestra of Inner Mongolia. During that period she also gives concerts, singing in a small ensemble with friends she studied with at the Music Academy. Later she performs with international musicians and presents her songs on the world`s stages. That was the start of a career which later took her to the world’s stages, along with the respective ensemble or as a guest musician. Her performances excited audiences and critics alike, transporting them on a wonderful journey.

“URNA’s songs thrive on the extra -ordinary breadth of variation in her fouroctave voice and its perfect intonation. From the highest pitches with a clear and piercing intensity, to powerful eruptions whose volume and timbre sound scarcely human, to warm, sometimes merely whispered pianissimo passages, URNA unfurls the whole range of her art in front of fascinated audiences. Caprioles, such as gliding swiftly up and down between head and chest voice or constantly changing the timbre within one piece, combine to create an astonishing work that carries us off to other spheres” (Frankfurter Rundschau).

“Rarely does a voice sound as varied as a small orchestra; and even rarer are the vocalists who still retain a grip on reality and are not absorbed by an artificial craft. URNA is one of these exceptions. The secret of this highly qualified musician consists of a charm influenced by Buddhist philosophy, a self-evident aware ness of tradition and a range of melodies which, though earthed in the central Asian steppe, is almost surreal” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung).

URNA satisfies her listeners thanks to her more than perfect mastery of her singing techniques, her gift of associative interpretation, her charm and charisma. Hers is a heavenly music best perceived with eyes wide shut. We then experience a world which may seem to us like a sign of another time, a time when man still lived a holistic life, balanced, and bound to nature.
Recently Urna played the main role in the film 'Two Horses of Genghis Kahn'. She worked on the touching story together with the film-maker Byambasuren Davaa (who also made 'The Story of the Weeping Camel' and 'The Cave of the Yellow Dog'). The song 'The Two Horses of Genghis Khan' uniquely incorporates the history of the Mongolian people and a paradigm shift. URNA regards this song as a wonderful part of her cultural identity, given that she had promised her grandmother that should would restore the old destroyed horse head violin, of which only the head and neck had survived, by giving it a new body and strings of white horse hair. During the dark era of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, her grandmother had not succeeding in preserving the complete horse head violin, only fragments of it and of the verse engraved on it. Now the time had come to fulfil the promise she made. She visits a famous Mongolian State Morin Khuur Ensemble in the hope of learning more about the old song, contacts an old horse head violin maker and then travels to the nomads in the hinterland. She continues her search by attending weddings and visiting a shaman. Finally she meets a very old enchanting woman who knows many Mongolian songs and still sings them today.
URNA realizes that the life of the nomads in Mongolia is under threat these days. Once different mineral deposits, called “rare soils”, had been found, larger areas of land were fenced off and so became inaccessible, especially for the nomads and their herds of animals. The restriction of their habitat, the confinement of grazing sites for their ani mals, the blocking of trails they have to take, depending on the season and the grazing, and the pressure exerted on them to settle down around cities, all of this puts pressure on a culture that has survived for thousands of years and in which people live in harmony with nature. URNA still sees herself to this very day as a nomad. She frequently changes her place of residence; she lived for five years in Cairo and cur rently Berlin is her home and the point of departure for her international concerts.
Most of URNA’s songs are from the huge repertoire of her beloved grandmother and celebrate her Mongolian homeland, the pastoral life, the steppe, the customs and dreams of the people in those vast expanses.

by Christian Scholze (Network Medien)
translated by Pauline Cumbers


Ser, 2018, URNA & Kroke, URNA Chahar-Tugchi / CTU, Germany
URNA Portrait: Tenggeriin Shivuu, 2012, Network Medien, Gemany
Film, The two horses of Genghis Khan, 2009, Germany
Amilal, 2004, Trees Music & Art (TMCD-333), Taiwan
Hodood, (re-issue) 2002, Trees Music & Art (TMCD-320), Taiwan
Jamar, 2001, Trees Music & Art (TMCD-278), Taiwan
Hodood, Oriente, 1999, Germany
Crossing, 1997, KlangRäume (30330), Germany
Tal Nutag, 1995, KlangRäume (30200), Germany