Doing field recordings in the Mongolian countryside is totally unpredictable. Upon arriving to my homestay family this time I was told that a three-day festival would be taking place in the soum (county) center (a 30 kilometer motorcycle ride from our ger) and that my host-dad, Tseveng, who had agreed to recording ten to fifteen songs and several videos of him performing, would be attending that festival everyday. Meaning one third of the time I had expected to have for recording was already cut short. I quickly realized and accepted that my plans would have to change and tried to make the most of what I was given. Another student, our Mongolian friend and translator, and I were shuffled back and forth from our ger to the soum center to take part in the festivities: blessing the a lake and a mountain to “make them happy”, a singing competition, horse racing, Mongolian wrestling, singing, lots of card playing, and a feast with Buddhist Lamas.
In between events we would go to the local restaurant to grab a few khuushuur (fried dumplings) or take a short break in Tseveng’s brother’s ger. On multiple occasions we would find ourselves sitting in his ger, seemingly waiting for something, when suddenly I would be told “you should start setting up” as if I should have known that I would be recording someone the whole time. Never knowing exactly who I would be recording, I was excited when an older woman walked in and after having a customary bowl of milk tea got ready for our interview. As we got started, my Mongolian friend remarked, “she’s smiling!”
I believe Soumya was in her late 70’s and has eleven children. After having four, the Socialist government rewarded her with a medal, and when she had her sixth child she was given a second medal. She had been named her soum’s best herder and was well know for her ability to raise baby animals. She recounted how when she was younger, children would be told to wait outside the ger if there were a lot of adults inside. Children used to have more respect for their elders and would wait outside, listening to the adults singing.
After the recording was over, Soumya asked to listen to the recording and said, “that’s exactly what I thought it sounded like”, which, without realizing it, was the best compliment she could have given me. As I started packing up to leave, I was told that Soumya wanted a picture. I eagerly started to hand my camera to a friend, honored that Soumya would want a picture with me, but was told, “No! She wants you to take a picture of just her”. A little disappointed, I prepared to take the picture as she slowly put on a dark red bowler hat and second deel. As I got ready to take the picture I realized that she had put the deel on because she wanted me to photograph her wearing the two pins that she had mentioned early. I had heard of the medals before, but had written them of as “Socialist propaganda”. Taking the picture, I was struck by the pride with which Soumya displayed her literal badges of motherhood.
I was told at the beginning of my interview with Soumya to “make it quick, she’s very old”. As I asked her about her life, motherhood, and her music, she energetically answered all my questions through a never ending smile, clearly excited to share her stories with me. As I watched her leave the ger and climb on the back of my host-brother’s motorcycle, I wished I had ignored that instruction. Interviewing herders in the Mongolian countryside, I have to accept that I will never see most of them again.