Think Mongolian rock and you might picture the freezing, windswept crags overlooking the vast grasslands that mark this small, sparsely populated country sat between two giants, China and Russia.
What you probably don’t think of is a six-piece band led by a former punk called Ilchi and influenced by Led Zeppelin. Hanggai, who release their third album this week, are the tip of a metal-infused iceberg in Mongolia, the best of a strong local tradition of rock and a breakout act who have toured the world, from London to Adelaide to Womad Abu Dhabi.
Since they formed in 2004, there have been many personnel changes, but always at the core is Ilchi, who led his fellows in extending the repertoire from punk and metal to incorporate traditional Mongolian music.
In fact, many of Hanggai’s personnel hail originally from Inner Mongolia, a province of China separate from Outer Mongolia, and those band members who are ethnic Han nevertheless specialise in playing Mongolian instruments. They found one another on the music scene in Beijing.
“In Inner Mongolia, lots of young people listen to bands from Mongolia, from Ulaanbaatar, and most bands from Mongolia are metal bands,” says Ilchi, on the phone from Beijing. But for all that Beijing is full of censored CDs and bland pop, he says, it is possible to find international rock music there too. His sister, a bassist in an all-girl punk band who also works in a record store, has been the source of many of his finds. (A former avionic technician at Beijing airport, Ilchi says his parents are “nice” about their children’s rock careers, although, like parents of musicians the world over, they do ask when he will get a real job.)
“I like Metallica, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine and I also like some Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones,” he says. “Some bands I only know the music but I don’t know the name.”
You can hear it in the new album, Baifang (Back To You): the weighty riffs, explosive guitars, churning drive and yelping voice of Hong Galou are what one imagines might happen if you introduced Rage Against the Machine to the warrior Genghis Khan. It sounds like a horse-borne army cantering menacingly across a desert plain, swords in the air, flags billowing, armour clanking, voices bellowing in rebel song.
The title track’s folk-metal sounds perhaps owe more to the Celtic folk-rock of Cruachan, as does the subsequent Hershut Hero, and it’s a startling reminder of how many similarities there are between the modes and scales of folk traditions around the world, with the latter bearing a tune that would be just as appropriate in an overblown Coldplay anthem as in an Inner Mongolian rock number. Ilchi’s deep, rasping traditional throat-singing – known as “khoomei” – reveals a remarkable kinship between Mongolian folk music and the roaring vocals of death metal.
It’s not that surprising, in a way: the people of Mongolia live a harsh life and it takes a powerful music to evoke that.
“It’s like a war against nature,” says Ilchi. “They know about nature, they keep the balance with man and nature, so their life is like rock music. Most of the people only know the grassland in summertime, but summer is very, very short and nomadic people, they need to go outside every day to keep animals, so they have a very difficult life. They know more about what life means and they have very good music that describes the feeling with nature.”
The album’s fourth song, Tavan Hasag, seems to evoke that relentless weight of bleak necessity, bringing a sinister surf-rock guitar twang to the heavy tread of a dragging 6/8 rhythm and throat-singing that seems to plumb the depths of Hades itself.
There is a richness here, a distinctive musical world wildly different from what we tend to hear of Chinese music, and it is clear that Hanggai have set out to rediscover their own folk tradition, even as they use the traits of western rock to augment it. As with many countries overwhelmed by a dominant culture, the need to preserve disappearing sounds and arts can feel intense and for Ilchi and his band, the experiences of Beijing life and world travel seem to have focused them on recovering their native traditions.
“The traditional music, as children, our families, they [were] always singing songs, so I think this was normal life in a Mongolian family, in city or grassland. When we have party together, there is much singing. So most of the band members, they grew up with the culture from the family and also from radio or TV – we also have some channels that only play Mongolian music and language. Also, we bought old records and listened, and went to the grasslands to listen to the nomadic people singing, and study.”
Ilchi, in fact, went as far as learning the difficult technique of khoomei throat-singing, which he says “is studied with nature or animals, like sheep, the crow, and also like the wind. I think people singing comes from nature.” The band’s name, after all, is a word describing an idealised Mongolian landscape and some songs are explicitly animistic, with Beautiful Mongolian Horse, for example, sung over a thrumming bass that replicates the rhythm of galloping hoofs.
The later songs on the album, gentler and more sing-song, perhaps explore this side of Mongolian music further. The delicate sing-song Qinghai Lullaby speaks of the tenderness of a father watching over a beloved child and the dark string and khoomei drone that underpin the mournful, soaring vocal of Long Song, the Rabbit on the White River Bank feel as old as time, a wistful call to the natural world plucked from an ancient, harsher epoch.
Combining traditional instruments such as the morin khuur, a two-stringed horsehair fiddle, and the tobshuur, a two-stringed lute, with western guitars, bass and drums, then mixing up Han, Mongolian and western scales and harmonies, there is a musical agility that ought to be jarring but somehow works – and works better on this album than either of the band’s previous recordings, Introducing Hanggai and He Who Travels Far. The combination of gossamer-delicate lute with yearning voice on Golden Autumn, for example, owes something to the more mournful stylings of Radiohead – distinctly reminiscent of No Surprises, until it heaves itself into a wild, passionate conclusion. That it is followed by a strangely brilliant dub-style ode to My Mother is typical of this varied album.
And Ilchi has no issue with the blending of traditions: “After Hanggai, lots of Mongolian young people also [started] bands,” he says. “We want to keep our culture and now many people want to study Mongolia and study Chinese. Now I think people can choose, they can go to a different world, they can go to the West to study, and some grow up in western countries and come back to Mongolia to study the language. Lots of people want to do that, so I think that’s not a problem.”
By the end of the album that all-encompassing attitude is inarguable. Bookmarked by throaty chants, in between is everything from gentle Mongolian ballads to reggae to jazz-tinged piano.
“Hanggai does not mean party band or only a stage band,” says Ilchi, “but also has lots of different feeling in our music. The direction is that we have lots of different colours for this album. We also produced some sounds from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, when at this time for lots of people in China, in Inner Mongolia, people thought that a new dynasty will come and they had lots of dreams and hopes.
“Since [then] a lot of things have happened, not all good. A lot of things like environment, culture, lots of problems, so we do some songs to make people think about the change.”
Gemma Champ is a regular contributor to The Review.