The Next Page: Mongolian rock 'n' roll is for real
The isolated country tucked between Russia and China has a booming economy and a globalizing culture. But the rock 'n' roll scene, Lauren Knapp reports, is keeping close to its roots.
September 30, 2012 8:00 AM
Amarbayasgalant Monastery, in Mongolia's north-central Selenge Province, is one of the oldest in the country.
Mohanik in their practice space going over "Johnny B. Goode" before a performance, From left: Enerelt, Bagi, Dawaa, Tsojo.
By Lauren Knapp
Nestled in a green valley of hills dotted with herds of grazing goats and sheep lies Amarbayasgalant Monastery. This 300-year-old Mongolian monastery is generally a quiet refuge for mediation and reflection.
But on this late August day, the birds' chirping has given way to amplified guitars. One of Mongolia's most promising young rock bands is preparing to record their album.
About 15 Mongolian hipsters have made the 150-mile journey from the country's capital Ulan Bator, which takes about five hours due to poor, or even non-existent, roads. Men and women in their early 20s styling leather jackets, knock-off Ray-Ban sunglasses and long hair have taken over a portion of the monastery. They've brought two vans full of equipment: amps, drums, guitars, basses, microphones, mixers and anything else you might need to record a rock album.
The four members of Mohanik, a name that has no particular meaning, are filled with a nervous energy as they check microphones and instruments. This is the only day they have to record the album they've been working on for nearly a year and they want the music to do the location justice. [See videos of them here.]
"This place is too good for us," bass player Enerelt has repeatedly told me. When I asked why they picked it, he explains that it was in the countryside but still had reliable electricity, a rare combination. Plus, "It's magical, it has supernatural powers." Dawaa, one of the guitar players and singers, adds, "We didn't practice well so we need some magic."
Mohanik has a classic rock band make-up: drums, bass, guitar and vocals. For money, they play songs like "Johnny B. Goode" at local restaurants. But today, the songs they're recording have a different sound.
"We think it's like youthful, energetic, Mongolian-flavored rock 'n' roll," says bassist Enerelt. "We went to our roots and said, 'This is where we're from and these songs and melodies are coming from Mongolia and that's where we're from.' " (And where they're from, they use only first names.)
Mohanik's songs use Mongolian rhythms and are played in the five-note (pentatonic) scale typical of traditional music. Lyrical themes focus on nature and a connection to land. At times, Dawaa even utilizes a Shaman-like chant.
"The music has a natural kind of sound," says Dawaa. "The lyrics and song meaning [are about] a connection with people and nature and animals and how you feel this country -- how you feel it from things and different angles."
Mongolians are deeply proud of their unique place in the world. This nation of 2.8 million people, occupying land about the size of Alaska, is sandwiched between the superpowers of Russia and China. Maintaining their cultural autonomy through the centuries has been an impressive feat.
Today, the country faces the typical pressures of globalization, made more acute by a mining boom that has turned Mongolia into the world's fastest-growing economy. With the onslaught of international commerce and influences, its citizens are simultaneously opening up -- and becoming more intent on celebrating their identity.
Back in the U.S.S.R. days ...
The Mohanik boys are much like any 23-year-olds who came of age with the Internet at their fingertips. They consume music from all over the world, but have a particular affinity for Western-style rock 'n' roll. Queen, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jack White are a few of their favorites. Enerelt, the bass player, spent a few years of his childhood in Philadelphia and went to London for university. When they're not practicing, they're playing soccer or watching it at a local bar. Their practice space is decorated with American movie posters and equipped with a Sega Genesis video game console.
Just over 20 years ago, however, recording an album like this would have been impossible.
For about 70 years Mongolians lived under a Soviet-style government. The ruling Mongolian People's Revolution Party (MPRP) redistributed land and wealth, collectivized herds and controlled culture. The picture in Mongolia was similar to the other countries that stood behind the Iron Curtain.
Rock music accompanied blue jeans, whiskey and ballpoint pens in a long list of cultural contraband. In the 1960s and '70s, listening to bands like The Beatles and Rolling Stones was one of the more subversive things to do. But students would secretly listen to records smuggled in by diplomats' children anyway.
In an effort to appease the growing thirst for rock music, the MPRP created the first Mongolian rock band, Soyol Erdene (Cultural Jewel) in 1971. They imported instruments from places like Japan and taught the band members, who were all formally trained on traditional Mongolian instruments, to play them. According to Jargalsaikhan, a founding member of Soyol Erdene, "The purpose of the band was to produce Mongolian folk songs in a new genre and play them on electric instruments." It was also a way for the government to reach the youth. "They controlled every song, every word and every note," explained Jargalsaikhan. The lyrics were mostly about love, the success of communism or friendship between Mongolia and the U.S.S.R.
By the late 1980s, however, the Mongolian youth were not satisfied. Like many of their Soviet counterparts, they yearned for a free and open society. Music found a place in that movement.
The song "Khonkhny Duu," which literally translates to "Bell's Song," became an unofficial anthem for the democratic revolution. It spoke of a bell ringing and calling for the people to wake up to democracy and was sung by peaceful protesters who gathered in Ulan Bator's main square throughout the sub-zero winter of 1990.
The song "Chinggis Khan" by a band of the same name evoked the image of the great 13th-century war hero (more commonly transliterated as Genghis Khan) for the first time in nearly a century. By singing of the "Mongol heroes of Chinggis," they helped revive a deep national pride and fuel the movement until its success in July of that year, when the constitution was amended to allow multiparty elections.
After the Western rush, home truths
Over the next few years Mongolia struggled through deep poverty and food scarcity, side effects of their economic and political transition. But by the mid-1990s, the turmoil began to subside, and things like guitars and amps became slightly more accessible. For the first time, Mongolians were freely consuming Western pop and rock music with the help of MTV. Boy bands, girl bands, grunge bands, techno groups, rappers and alternative rock bands started forming the Mongolian music landscape.
Today, the scene is quite different. The airwaves are littered with local hip-hop, pop and rock. At least five television channels are dedicated to broadcasting both foreign and Mongolian music videos. Music competition programs modeled after "Making the Band" and "American Idol" are huge hits.
Now, having learned a great deal from imitating Western music, Mongolian musicians are looking to their own musical heritage for inspiration.
"Mongolians are proud of their homeland and of being a Mongolian person and it's starting to influence the music," explained the longtime music producer, Khaliun. "The question 'Why should we imitate foreign music?' is spreading everywhere."
Pop bands are starting to incorporate traditional Mongolian instruments, such as the horse-head fiddle (played like a cello but with two strings) or the traditional art of throat singing (producing two pitches at once) into pop, rock and even hip-hop styles.
'Mongol Pop' is on the march
Last winter, Mongolia's most popular pop-R&B singer, Bold, released an album called "Mongol Pop." On the album cover, Bold wears a deel (the traditional dress) while sporting a faux-hawk. The music videos for the album's songs are filled with running horses, traditional dances and even the blue scarf or khadak used in traditional ceremonies.
"My goal in creating Mongol Pop is to show Mongolians' great tradition within my songs," explained Bold.
For musicians like Bold, creating "Mongol Pop" was a way to both honor Mongolian culture and reach a broader audience by providing a unique product. But for other bands, developing a Mongolian sound is a natural part of their own self-discovery.
This is the case with Mohanik. When they started writing the songs for their second album a year ago, they noticed an unintentional trend. All of the songs had a deep tie to Mongolia.
"We weren't searching for a Mongolian sound," says lead guitarist Tsojo. "It just came out."
"It feels like a kind of different feeling from Western or British or American music," adds Dawaa. "[We] are Mongolian people -- or we have Mongolian blood. That's why it sounds different."
For Mohanik, the place where they recorded their album of Mongolian-flavored rock was just as important as the songs themselves.
Although about 40 percent of the country's population lives in the capital city of Ulan Bator, almost everyone would agree that the Mongolian countryside is what makes the country special. With one of the lowest population densities in the world -- 1.7 per square kilometer as of 2010 -- the countryside feels completely untouched by humans.
It was this kind of place that Dawaa was referring to when he told me, "We hope that if we do our music in nature, our music will be alive."
The original plan was to record each song in a different location around Mongolia's diverse but vast geography, hitting up desert, mountains, lakes and grassland. But after realizing the logistical nightmare of trying to record an album without access to electricity, they decided on the monastery.
Rock on, Monanik
As they finish checking their microphone levels, Mohanik's dreadlock-donned producer walks around with a carton of milk. He's pouring a little onto his finger and wiping it on each amp, instrument and piece of equipment. Milk is sacred in Mongolia and used in ceremonies celebrating everything from birth to horse races. He is hoping it will ensure a successful recording.
With the blessing finished, the band begins the first song on the album, a tune that starts slowly and amorphously for a minute and a half before jolting into a galloping rhythm and finishing with Dawaa's shaman-like chanting. The sky is a perfect Mongolian blue. On the side, boy monks sit, silently watching this rare concert.
Lauren Knapp (firstname.lastname@example.org) spent the past year in Mongolia on a Fulbright-mtvU grant, working on a documentary about the music scene. A former reporter-producer with "PBS NewsHour," she just moved to Pittsburgh and lives in the Mexican War Streets. See more of her writing at laurenknapp.wordpress.com and her videos of Mongolia, including the band Mohanik, at vimeo.com/lknapp. First Published September 30, 2012 4:00 AM