Anu-Ujin Batbaatar closes her eyes and tilts her head back while becoming one with the music that is flowing through the room.
The Mercer Island teen’s fingers are nimble but sharp all at once as she plays the horse-headed fiddle, a traditional Mongolian instrument. At one point during the solo segment of the classical piece, with eyes now open she glances at her brother, Temuujin, and silently instructs him to join the tune. Eagerly awaiting the cue while holding a similar instrument, he’s all in and soon his twin brother, Temuulen, begins gently playing the dulcimer-like yochin. The siblings are fully connected through song.
Earlier in the practice session while the trio played an uptempo Mongolian number accompanied by a backing track, Temuulen’s hands moved quicker on his instrument and Anu-Ujin and Temuujin finished the song by making their nearly upright fiddles intensely squeal in a way that would have made Eddie Van Halen proud. Tchaikovsky, too.
Over at the dinner table of their Island condominium, the kids’ parents, Batbaatar Nyangar and Juul Divaakhuu, listen intently to the songs of their homeland and they beam with pride after the trio hits the final notes.
Traditional Mongolian music is alive in one home on the Island and the family is hoping to introduce it, along with their heritage and culture, to the community. The trio practices daily in the condo and has made fans out of some of the residents, Juul said.
Leaning back in his chair, father Batbaatar — who used to perform on the rings with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — describes Mongolian music as “spiritual.”
Anu-Ujin, a freshman at Mercer Island High School, pauses for a few seconds in deep thought and notes about performing the music: “Sometimes it feels like I’m flying, kind of.” The 13-year-old said it’s an emotional and meditative experience while playing in the home and at copious regional events — while donning colorful traditional Mongolian costumes — with her brothers. The ZJE Mongolian Music Ensemble has released one album as a trio and another one is on the way and features a backing band.
Juul walks across the room and points at the unique Mongolian instruments that hang on a wall: There’s a pair of horse-headed fiddles, which feature two strings each made from horse tails and hair; a tobshuur lute; a tsuur flute and more.
On the horse-headed fiddle, Juul explained: “We believe it has a soul in it because it has a head and we believe it’s all alive. When they play, it goes through the human soul.” Juul added that she’s seen people become mesmerized by the fiddle’s sounds when the trio performs.
After the boys briefly play the tusuur and yochin, they display some overtone throat (höömij) singing, during which they each hit high and low notes simultaneously. They incorporate their singing into the performances to give the songs a more robust feel.
Temuulen and Temuujin, both age 11 and sixth-graders at Islander Middle School, said they enjoy playing traditional Mongolian music because it’s unique, cool and connects them with their culture.
That’s one of the reasons why Batbaatar and Juul — who are Mongolian natives and met and married in the United States (Minnesota) in 2008 — moved back to their homeland with their kids in 2014.
They are strong advocates for children learning about their Mongolian culture, the language, the music and more. After five years in Mongolia, the parents achieved that teaching mission and the family returned to the states. The family initially lived in Bellevue before taking up residence on the Island in July of 2022.
Juul said they were excited to find their condo and were drawn to the city’s stellar schools and community. On one recent middle school curriculum night, she discussed her kids’ traditional Mongolian music prowess with some parents and it piqued their interest.
Soon, that condo would turn into a miniature concert hall as the kids tuned up their instruments, gave each other a nod and proceeded to fill the air with some Mongolian sounds.