On Saturday night, the Mongolian steppes rolled into Shanghai for one night only. The earth shaking rumble came not from the construction crews currently tearing up Jing An, but from the fierce overtone-laden growl of singer Hurcha of the Mongolian folk rock band Hanggai, who lurched onto the stage at Zhijiang Dream Factory and rocked the place.
Make no mistake though, these guys aren’t fresh out the yurt. The band was formed by Ilchi (one name only, thanks very much), an ethnic Mongol born in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, raised in Beijing. After a successful run fronting the punk-rock group T9, Ilchi decided to pursue music more representative of his heritage. He went back to Inner Mongolia to learn a traditional type of music that has been largely lost with this generation. Three of the members of Hanggai are ethnic Mongolians, and the other two are Han Chinese who play Mongolian instruments.
During the performance, the upstairs bar was completely deserted, something I had never experienced before in all my days of concert-going at Dream Factory. CDs were sold out soon after doors opened. There were a few attendees standing at the downstairs bar waiting for their drink orders, but for the most part everybody was standing right in front of the stage, rapt with attention. There were the lyrics-knowers (no small feat, considering the majority of the audience was Han or lao wai), the hippie-dancers, and the stone-faced with laser-like focus, all participating in their own particular way. Nobody wanted to be anywhere but at that club, partying with Hanggai.
Hanggai covered most of the songs on their newer album Introducing Hanggai, released in 2008. The songs are diverse, ranging from raucous party songs, blues-tinged tunes with mournful string arrangements, love songs, and haunting ballads performed with only guitar and voice. I’ve never seen Mongolian throat singing live, and I was blow away by the power behind it and the emotion it conveys; the deep rumble from the chest and a high pitched vibration in the air reminiscent of a flying saucer from a 1950s b-movie. The lyrics tell stories about pastoral life, warfare, and love. I’m obviously cheating and looking at the album’s title translations in English, because the lyrics are all in Mongolian, a language in which I have zero command. Most of the banter was also in the Mongolian language, but the crowd cheered wildly nonetheless, just excited to hear it. Who could blame them? There wasn’t any distortion or computer sounds, just five guys dressed in silk getting drunk and playing some danceable and moving tunes.
The performers brought a huge presence to the stage as well, appearing in traditional-style Mongolian robes with long sleeves and Mandarin collars, and the guitarist in a Kangol hat. Occasionally a pretty girl from the audience would run up and lovingly drape the performers with white scarves. Fans tossed up beer and liquor, so that the evening turned into a community drink-along. These guys were pretty toasted by the end but that never impinged on their ability to shred, even on the two-stringed lute.
After the main set, the audience wouldn’t let the band offstage, cheering wildly until the band had performed two encores. Unfortunately, Hanggai ran out of material before the crowd ran out of enthusiasm. Indeed, we heard “Drinking Song”, a euphoric ode to alcohol, twice, but I have to admit it was even more fun on the second go-round. If you couldn’t tell already, I was stunned by the show and I’m now preaching the gospel of Mongolian folk to anyone who will listen. As someone who has never heard this kind of music, I was stunned by the emotionally resonant sounds that these folk instruments make, and surprised at how strangely familiar they sound. And how much fun you can have rocking out to it.
It’s inspiring that there’s a dedicated audience and growing demand for this type of music in the contemporary Chinese music scene, rife as it is with rap, electronica and pop. There is something slightly subversive about the way this group rejects the modern and projects an unrestrained love-fest for the traditional and the pastoral, catapulting khoomei music back into mainstream culture. Here’s hoping the band inspires a more textured and varied popular music landscape, where musicians can incorporate influences from many traditions and cultures.