You are on horseback, coming to the end of a long journey, traveling under an infinite and empty blue sky. You pull your fur kaftan closer for warmth; the sun is bright but the wind is bitter. After days of riding on the expanse of Mongolian steppe, you finally catch sight of a cluster of tents on the horizon. As you approach you are welcomed into a white yurt and handed a draught of milk wine as your hosts sing a “Toast Song”.
OK, this is all some elaborate fantasy I made up, having recently watched that Genghis Kahn biopic. Hanggai, the stellar Mongolian rock band, is actually headquartered in Beijing, not in a ger 500 kilometers outside of Ulaanbatar. The band’s founding member, Ilchi, started out in a successful punk band before becoming enamored with traditional Mongolian singing, studying Mongolian music and meeting two horse-hair fiddle players in Inner Mongolia. The band certainly captures a sound many of us have not been exposed to before: Deep throat-singing layered with higher pitched vocals that create otherworldly overtones, rich fiddle melodies and rousing hand-drums. With extraordinary instrumentation and lyrics (and stage banter!) in Mongolian, it’s a testament to the talent and charisma of this band that any audience that sees them, Han, ex-pat, whatever, falls under their spell. Hanggai, you can invade my territory any day.
March 12th, Friday night we were treated to a sublime set by Hanggai at YuYinTang, brought by Split Works as part of their JUE Festival. The house was packed with hardcore fans who knew all the lyrics, as well as some interested parties who had heard the hype and wanted to hear what Mongolian music is all about. The audience has certainly grown since Hanggai last came to Shanghai in November. For the start of the show I set myself up next to a superfan who spoke Mongolian, and loudly translated the stage banter to her Shanghainese friend. “This is a song welcoming a stranger to your home and offering drinks!” she said. That song, “Toast Song”, also happened to be the song Hanggai played three times during the show, each repetition getting louder as the audience picked up on the lyrics and rowdier as the empty Tsingtao bottles filled every available surface.
Hanggai uses three vocalists to create their multi-textured sound, but the lead singer can certainly charm a crowd without the help. With a sly smile, epic mullet, and clear appreciation for the audience enthusiasm, he chatted with the audience between songs and performed the most awesome, flowing bird-like dance this writer has ever seen.
I must digress for a moment to talk about the pacing of Hanggai’s show. The band started with a brief, forty minute set of slow, bluesy numbers (including my favorite song, “Vagabond/Yuan Zuo de Ren”). Hanggai certainly took their time building up songs, creating lush and melancholic ballads featuring the horse-hair fiddle, or singing long passages acapella. Honestly, I loved every minute, but YuYinTang was packed and the crowd was chomping at the bit waiting for Hanggai to speed it up and rock out. Hanggai finally recognized the Friday night party atmosphere and brought out “Toast Song”, a peppy number with relatively simple lyrics and parts where we can all shout “Hey!” together. The band took a twenty minute break and returned with another hour of tunes to get our blood pumping.
The atmosphere at YuTinTang was, as Layabozi’s illustrious Chilean matriarch put it, “Super wild!” The crowd danced and sang along with the lyrics, although very few of us could understand them or recite them accurately. Some of the faster songs got a bit of a mosh pit going front and center; the friendly vertical leap kind as opposed to the full contact kind.
It’s inspiring to know that through the revolution and upheaval of China’s recent history, there are musicians enthralled with this traditional music, who chose to learn it and capture it through their pop music lens and tour with it. There is a place for the traditional in modern China. And for all their stage presence and traditional sounds, Hanggai still writes catchy rock tunes that can attract and move Shanghai’s modern cosmopolitan crowd. I cannot wait until these guys come back to Shanghai to throw another party.