#GetToKnow : Hanggai

DIY is embedded in Mongolia’s modern music culture.

The country’s transition from communism in the 1990s saw the introduction of Western music onto national radio, and into the marketplace. However, the emergence of pop and rock in Mongolia had started long before. During Communism, an underground circuit formed organically, fueled by contraband recordings which were smuggled in from abroad.

Even after the end of Communism though, the distribution of Western music was slow. To make matter worse, most of the country’s favorite new foreign bands overlooked Mongolian venues, to play in neighboring China instead. This meant the local live scene had to adapt. The circuit raced ahead of its own supply, and correspondently, bootlegs and re-rubs became commonplace. The diversification of music in Mongolia was galvanized by industrious local musicians, who playfully rerecorded foreign hits, often with Mongolian language lyrics.

This particular culture makes Hanggai all the more fascinating – in that the band pay homage to this trend in an innovative, but ultimately contrarian way. The group take clear leads from Western folk-rock and punk, think Secret Machines meets Fleet Foxes. However, they perform in Mongolian traditional dress and play with traditional instruments. Rather than using Mongolian culture to package Western music, they refract their international influences back onto the history of their homeland. The result is cross-cultural art, that draws lines between antiquity and modernity with thrilling effect.

This approach was always Hanggai’s plan. After all, their sound was born from the group’s rediscovery of their national heritage. Most of the Hanggai band are former punks, and whilst this attitude shines through, their songs are clearly indebted to a traditional Mongolian rural identity. Hence, the lead singer Ilchi mixes punkish yelps with throat-singing, whilst his lyrics hearken back to a nomadic way of life; herding boisterous livestock, riding horses across vast grasslands, and of course, drinking. In the process of poring over their country’s history, the band recovered erstwhile instruments too. Their critically acclaimed 2014 album, Baifeng, is dominated by bullish riffs played on horse hair fiddle (morin khuur) and two-stringed lute (tobshuur).

It would be a mistake to view Hanggai’s work as a mere idealization of simpler times. It has real resonance for a country that has undergone rapid social change. In an interview with NPR, Ilchi said: “I felt we modern people needed to understand more about our past … most of our people have moved away from the old way of life.” The band are acutely aware of a heritage slipping away, and their musical archaeology is an attempt to both stem the tide, and in the long term, rewrite it for a contemporary audience.

So far, the group have done just that. They have played festivals across the world, and, in a somewhat surprising turn, competed on, and won a Chinese Reality TV Show “Sing my Song,” watched by millions of people in Asia. The reinvigoration of Mongolian culture is in very safe hands.

Hanggai perform at WOMAD 2018. See the full line-up HERE.