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SHEILAH KAST, host:

Two years ago, our friend and occasional contributor Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center participated in an unusual gathering in the ranching community of Elko, Nevada. A group of singing herdsmen from the Mongolian steppe visited with a group of singing cowboys from the American West for a musical cultural exchange. This past September, the Mongolian herdsmen returned the favor, hosting their American counterparts. Hal went along and sent us this audio postcard, starting with the arrival of the American cowboys in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, where they received a traditional welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: It's letting the gods know there's a visitor.

HAL CANNON reporting:

After coming halfway around the world, we're hungry to smell the cooking, see the sights and hear the voices like those of the monks of the Gon Don Buddhist monastery(ph).

(Soundbite of monks chanting in foreign language)

CANNON: It's been a long flight, we're disoriented and the chants spin us like a prayer wheel.

(Soundbite of monks chanting in foreign language; playing instruments)

CANNON: Though it's the middle of the afternoon, jet lag triggers a yawning epidemic in our group. As we leave the monastery, Beeumba(ph), our guide and translator, hands us seed to feed the pigeons, an exercise for good karma.

(Soundbite of pigeons; song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)

CANNON: The next morning, we all pile into four vans and bounce along past railroad yards with retired Trans-Siberian locomotives, replete with red Soviet stars on the grillwork. We're headed to Genghis Khan's ancient capital of Karakorum. Just outside Ulan Bator, the road deteriorates to a mass of potholes. Mongolian techno music on the radio seemed fitting in the blocky, Soviet-style city, but now it's out of place on the endless grass steppe.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)

CANNON: I can't help wondering how American cowboy music will sit with the musical landscape of this ancient and very faraway place. Arizona cowboy and singer Gail Steiger wonders the same thing.

Mr. GAIL STEIGER (Cowboy): I worry about how our music is going to fit in. I mean, the kind of stuff that I do--I'm not--I don't consider myself to be a good musician; I con--you know, it's kind of a purveyor of ideas. And if the language doesn't translate, you kind of think, `Well, what else do I have?'

CANNON: We're getting into the rhythm of the road, which has become a braid of dirt tracks. Each driver aims for the smoothest path as they race one another across the plain. After nine hours, we see what looks like mushrooms dotting the landscape. It's our first camp, typical nomadic homes. The Mongolians call them gers; the Russians, yurts.

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: After dinner, we're treated to a performance by a musical quartet dressed in embroidered silk robes of blue, gold and red, with a ubiquitous Mongolian beanie with a pointy beacon on top.

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: They play the Mongolian national instrument, the morin khuur, a two-stringed affair with a horse's head carved into the pegbox, and my favorite, a reed instrument that curves around the player's neck, made from yak horns.

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: We learn it's a song about missing a mother who's far away herding and milking her animals. And as the musicians play, their eyes hint at the melancholy of this land.

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: Eight hundred years ago, Genghis Khan took troupes of performers on his conquests, including musicians, dancers and contortionists. Tonight, this troupe brings out a 14-year-old girl who wills her body into a dozen different rope tricks.

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: And then the group breaks into a version of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," complete with throat singing. By the end of the show, we are all speechless.

(Soundbite of "Take Me Home, Country Road"; cheering and applause)

CANNON: Our American guide, Linda Spenson(ph), gets up, and through a translator, asks the performers...

Ms. LINDA SPENSON (Trip Guide): So would they be interested in hearing a couple of songs from our cowboy performers?

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

CANNON: I wonder why all the cowboys are looking at their feet. Ron Kane and his sidekick Bruce Stanger reluctantly pick up the fiddle and banjo and play a tune or two. Later, Ron called it the most fated faded love he's ever been part of.

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: Who knows why the Mongolians were so musical tonight and the Americans weren't. Was it embarrassment, shyness or just being unprepared for the moment? I'm told that every time a musician plays, it's an act of faith. Will it be music, or will it be noise? I found Ron later.

Mr. RON KANE (Cowboy): I just sort of feel like, you know, how the coach would feel if he said, `OK, get out there, guys,' and you've been practicing this ...(unintelligible) go for victory, you know, it was like somebody wasn't trying very hard. And not only trying very hard, but just like, `Take me out,' you know. And this dismayed me and then I went away, `Well, those Mongolians kicked our ass tonight!'

(Soundbite of laughter)

CANNON: Gail Steiger caught the whole thing on video tape.

Mr. STEIGER: I don't believe music is a competitive sport, but if it would have been, it would have been--yeah, we were toast. We were dust.

(Soundbite of applause)

CANNON: It's time to pack up the instruments, but there's something going on over in the corner.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: Montana rancher and musician Stephanie Davis is learning that beautiful tune from the horn player.

Ms. STEPHANIE DAVIS (Rancher and Musician): Suddenly, they became people. They went from being exotic foreigners to fellow musicians and brothers and sis--it just blew my hair back. It just makes me see how narrow my focus has been, probably most Americans'. There is a big ole world out here of great music.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter; horse)

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah. Generally, these guys are trained to be mild.

CANNON: The next morning, it's time to switch from seat belts to saddles. But first, a lesson on riding these sturdy little Mongolian horses.

Ms. SPENSON: And to go, you say, `Chu! Chu!' That's like...

Unidentified Man #5: C-H-U, chu-chu.

Ms. SPENSON: That's like, `Giddyap.'

Unidentified Man #5: Chu-chu. Yeah, chu-chu.

Ms. SPENSON: So you'll hear them doing it a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #5: Hey there, Chu-chu! Bye-bye.

Ms. SPENSON: Thank you. That was superb.

(Soundbite of horses running)

Unidentified Man #6: Chu!

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: Five days on horseback; riding and camping looms before us. But that doesn't seem to matter. Distance is now measured by the next hill to cross and timed by the slant of the autumn sun.

Ms. DAVIS: This is a dream come true. It's, like, it doesn't get any better than this!

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KANE: I saw cattle. I saw yaks. I saw camels for the first time, goats, sheep. And there are no fences. It's amazing; kind of a cowboy fantasy.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KANE: We were almost a couple of horses short this morning because in the night rustlers came in and boosted two of our ponies.

(Soundbite of music; song)

Group of Children: (Singing in foreign language)

BEEUMBA (Translator and Guide): It's called gingla(ph), and it's performed by the riders, all kids from age six to 11. And so while they're warming up their horses, they do this encouraging or inspiring sound for the horses.

(Soundbite of song)

Group of Children: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DAVIS: We're looking at heaven is what it--my idea of heaven, anyway. And we're looking at these beautiful hills of many colors and herd after herd of horses.

(Soundbite of music; applause)

Ms. SPENSON: Come on and get it! Dinner's on the table! Don't be shy!

CANNON: We're being spoiled, enjoying fresh vegetables, a rarity out here, and our hosts are going easy on such Mongolian favorites as fermented mare's milk and unidentified mutton parts. We settle into an easy, good-natured relationship with our hosts, the horses and the landscape. The music has turned from performance to something more akin to conversation. And it's not just the music that's different; there's something different about the way it's used, like the kids singing to their horses before the race.

(Soundbite of yak being milked)

CANNON: The early morning sun catches an old woman's red-silk robe as she milks a black, shaggy yak in a field nearby. The milk pulses into her pail like a drum.

(Soundbite of yak being milked)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing in foreign language)

BEEUMBA: This is the sound when the mother yak needs to feed the baby one and just to give them more love. And, yeah, it's like a lullaby song for the animals.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing in foreign language)

(Foreign language spoken)

BEEUMBA: She's saying after she sings, it's--now it's going really well. You can hear the sounds.

(Soundbite of yak being milked)

CANNON: It finally dawns on me: Music here is inseparable from life. The song simply relaxes the yak so she'll let her milk down. There's no performance in the singing; its purpose is specific. I find myself longing for a musical language that's been lost to most of us.

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: It's the last night on the steppe, and the days in the saddle are almost over. And the cowboy musicians are determined to make music serve yet another purpose.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KANE: (Singing) Would you be my friend, and I'll be yours? We'll ride around as long as we can.

Help me out with this. Let's have a verse.

Unidentified Man #7: My little verse goes like this.

Ms. DAVIS: We can all get together and...

CANNON: Soon the group will make the arduous drive back to Ulan Bator, where the cowboys will give a farewell concert at the capital's newest nightspot, The Genghis Khan Irish Pub. Tonight at camp, they decide it's time to make a new song.

Mr. KANE: Well, let's do an--let's do it at our big show, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter; guitar tuning up)

Mr. KANE: Can I--I want to throw in, `May your horses never follow me, and your grass always grows taller.'

Unidentified Man #8: Oh, that's really good.

Mr. KANE: Is that OK? Can...

CANNON: And then they decide this song of friendship should be sung both in English and Mongolian.

Mr. KANE: So here's what we got so far, and you can correct me.

Unidentified Man #9: Be my--sure. I need a paper and pen.

CANNON: As if on cue, Beeumba shows up just in time for the brainstorming.

BEEUMBA: And then Mongolian verse and for friendship thing can be (sings in foreign language).

Mr. KANE: There you go.

BEEUMBA: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. KANE: There you go.

BEEUMBA: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. KANE: There you go.

Mr. STEIGER: Yeah! He's going to have to sing it with us, too!

CANNON: It seems so effortless for him to switch back and forth, not only in language but in culture. And it makes me wonder what this exchange has been like for the Mongolians. One of our horse guides, Sayay(ph), has won our hearts with his boisterous songs and antics, like the time he squatted under a horse and tried to pick it up on his back. He invites me into his ger, out of the chilly morning breeze.

SAYAY: (Foreign language spoken)

CANNON: Two years ago, Sayay met many of us when he was part of a group that visited Nevada. I ask him about this reunion, this time on his native soil. He answers with a smile.

SAYAY: (Foreign language spoken)

CANNON: I smile back and wonder what he's saying. Then there's a small change in his voice. His eyes well up and his lips quiver in the dim light. I don't need to wait for the translation to know that in this very foreign place, we have made a very dear friend.

SAYAY: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of crowd noise; music)

Mr. KANE: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

CANNON: For NPR News, I'm Hal Cannon from the wild west of Mongolia.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KANE and Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing in unison) Would you be my friend, and I'll be yours? We'll ride around as long as we can. We'll live...

KAST: Hal Cannon's audio letter from Mongolia was produced by Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center. To see photos of Hal's trip, please go to our Web site, npr.org

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Sheilah Kast.

(Soundbite of music; applause)

KAST: Hal Cannon's letter from Mongolia was funded by the George S. and Dore Eccles Foundation.

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