Hangin' With Hanggai: An Olympian Q&A With the Mongolian-Chinese Champs
As you've no doubt seen via coverage surrounding the Olympic Games, it's harder and harder to escape the modern world in Beijing these days. So it's no surprise that Ilchi (no last name), of the band Hanggai, based in the Chinese capital, cites some rather modern favorites:
"Some of the Western bands that have influences us are Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Secret Machines, Electralane and Neil Diamond!" he says via email, in translation by the group's manager and co-producer Robin Haller, the concluding exclamation point showing awareness of the incongruity of that last selection, perhaps.
The song 'Five Heroes,' on 'Introducing Hanggai,' the first release by the band outside of China, does indeed hold a few subtle echoes of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." If Pink Floyd had played alongside Kublai Khan as his army stormed into Dadu (the precursor of Beijing) 737 years ago. This is anything but Westernized, modernized music, even with the very occasional (and always understated) addition of electric guitar, bass and electronics by Haller and co-producer Matteo Scumaci to the otherwise very acoustic, very traditional sounds made by the group's six members -- nothing you'd confuse with 'Kid A,' or 'Sweet Caroline,' for that matter. (For a taste, here's a video of a club appearance in Berlin last year.)
As such, it makes a terrific contrast/complement to the music of recent Around the World guest Sa Dingding, as both she and Hanggai originated in the Chinese provincial Inner Mongolian grasslands and relocated to Beijing. Her electronic atmospheres and consciously cross-cultural reach have made her a rising star in cosmopolitan circles. Hanggai's presence have taken place more in neighborhood clubs where, though having a bit of an uphill battle, a serious folk revival is taking hold, along the lines of Greenwich Village in 1960.
Rather than Delta blues and Appalachian folk, these guys are renewing traditions running from two millennia back through songs composed after the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the sounds of grassland ballads and rousing tunes played largely on such traditional instruments as the morin khuur "horse-hair fiddle" (practically a symbol of Inner Mongolia) and the tobshuur (a two-stringed plucked lute), some in the throat-singing style that's come to be associated with Tuva, some seeming to be of more specifically "Chinese" nature. ('Flowers' would slot well alongside the adaptations of Sichuan province tunes done in Chinese-American hybrid styles by another recent Around the World subject, Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet ).
Singer/tobshuur player Ilchi (who once fronted a punk-rooted band) and Haller (who was producing a weekly China Radio International folk music show when he stumbled upon Hanggai in a small bar in one of Beijing's many ancient hutong alleyways) insightfully and articulately addressed a series of questions about the band and the state of this and other music in China:
AROUND THE WORLD: Beijing is increasingly an ultramodern city. Where does Hanggai's music fit in there now?
ILCHI: Hanggai has a following across China, but in such materialistic times there aren't that many people who want to sit down and listen to voices that come straight from the heart. Hanggai's most loyal fans are older or more mature Chinese audiences, and foreigners living in Beijing. As a band, Hanggai strives to protect and nurture Mongolian culture. In many of the ethnic minority areas in China, especially China's border areas, people have severe difficulties protecting their own ethnic culture and way of life.
What kind of places can they play?
I: Hanggai play regularly at 3 or 4 clubs in Beijing, basically at rock venues.
ROBIN HALLER: There are few medium-size venues where Hanggai play regularly -- Mao LiveHouse, Star Live, Yigong Yishan and 2 Kolegas; they're the main venues for rock, indie and electronic acts in the city. There are also smaller venues in the old hutong neighborhoods, beautiful old courtyard houses that have been turned into little bars where the band can play acoustically -- and if you're in Beijing, that's the best place to hear them! The gigs are magical, really intimate!
Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai Khan conquered Beijing and declared it capital of his empire in 1271. So it's an amazing feeling to be sitting in a lane built by his followers almost 1,000 years ago, listening to these old Mongol songs! The music really resonates with the surroundings!
罗宾哈勒：有一些中等规模的场地供杭盖定期表演，如MAO Live House、星光现场、愚公移山和两个好朋友；它们是北京摇滚、独立音乐和电子乐的主要表演场地。还有一些小场地隐藏在老胡同和美丽的老式庭院之中，那里被改造成小酒吧供乐队进行音乐表演。如果你在北京，那是看演出最佳的地点。表演很美妙，十分亲近。
Is there a scene or movement that the group is part of? And if so, who are some of the other acts that are part of that?
I: Other artists or bands with similar ideas are: IZ [a Kazak band, from Xinjiang], Zhang Quan [a singer-songwriter from northwestern China], Su Yang [a singer-songwriter from northwestern China], Anda [an Inner Mongolian band] and Uurna [an Inner Mongolian singer]/
What is the current scope of music in Beijing, or China as a whole, in terms of trends and stars?
I: The music scene in Beijing and China in general is developing very positively, but we still need more support from the government because they should guide and promote the live music market. The market is no longer only dominated by pop music; folk music, ethnic music, rock and indie all have their niches, although these are still rather small. Most important to us is Chinese audiences support for authentic Chinese music - we musicians cannot improve our music or gain a wider audience by working only in the West. In China we have pop stars, but no rock, folk or ethnic music stars. Even Cui Jian [China's most famous rocker] only represents the 1980s, and his fans only want to listen to his songs from the '80s.
RH: Mandopop rules supreme! The biggest outlet for pop bands [girl bands, boy bands, etc.] is variety shows on television, which give them a huge audience [the best slots on national TV can give an act an audience of a few hundred million]. But for the most part, only extremely commercial and saccharine pop music makes it onto TV.
China's music scene is quite unlike Europe or America in the sense that with the exception of Mandopop, everything else is underground -- dance, techno, indie, folk -- there's no real outlet for it in the mainstream media. Rolling Stone opened a Chinese language magazine a few years ago, but it folded very quickly, in large part because there just isn't an audience base for this music yet -- but this is changing slowly!
How different is it for Hanggai playing for a Chinese audience as opposed to playing in Europe or America? Is the program vastly different? Is the intent different in terms of what the group is trying to communicate with the music?
I: The band has felt genuine joy and respect for being musicians during our previous performances in Europe. We seldom feel like that in China. As far as performances, the programs we present are basically the same at performances in China and overseas.
RH: The sets are the same, and to be honest, the reactions are often the same -- because they sing in Mongolian [not Mandarin] Chinese, and Western audiences alike can't understand the lyrics, but I think these songs are so direct that you can sort of tell what's going on anyway! Quite a few reviews for the album have said that despite not understanding the lyrics, they did understand the songs because the melodies are so direct and honest!
Who appreciates the music of Hanggai more: Chinese listeners or people in other countries with an interest in music of other cultures?
I: Most Hanggai fans in China are more mature, or they have experience of traveling to Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet [China's more rugged and isolated provinces]. Our main audience is still foreigners. Perhaps Chinese people are busy now.
RH: Until recently, most of Hanggai's audience has been foreigners: people in Beijing who are interested in hearing something out of the ordinary -- something "exotic" -- but that's definitely changed over the last few years.
More and more Chinese people are coming to the shows -- and I think that reflects a gradual change in culture in China's more developed cities. There's a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the country's rampant materialism -- and many Chinese are looking at native spiritual, cultural and religious traditions for inspiration; Daoism or Tibetan Buddhism for example. It's understandable, really, and no different to what we in the U.K. or U.S. have experienced: When you have to struggle to feed your family, then spiritual and philosophical concerns take a backseat to more basic needs. But as you get more prosperous, you have time and space to think more. I've just bought a new car but I'm still a bit unhappy with my life! Or maybe I've just bought a new apartment, or got a raise at work, but I still feel unfulfilled.
There was a big media sensation last year when a celebrity businesswoman who had become very rich decided to leave her business and join a Buddhist nunnery. The story seemed to capture people's imagination somehow, as if Donald Trump decided to throw it all in and become a hermit!
Anyway - there's a bigger local contingent at Hanggai's shows, and they're touring more outside of the big cities [Beijing and Shanghai] -- more and more people are open to their music and interested to hear their music.
What does the future hold in terms of directions Hanggai can take with its music? Will there be collaboration with artists from different traditions or with "modern" orientations?
RH: I think Ilchi and the guys felt a powerful need to learn these songs and these instruments - and there aren't that many people left who know how to sing them and play the instruments. Most of them have died out! But I'm sure the next album will have a harder edge - probably with more of a rock feel to it. After all that's where Ilchi and these guys come from. But still drawing on these powerful melodies for inspiration!
Could you please talk some about the traditions and roots of Hanggai's music? Is it from one specific place, or drawn from various places and times? How does it relate to other traditions in the very large and vast spectrum of the different cultures within China and the surrounding regions?
I: The roots of Hanggai's music come from traditional Mongolian music from different eras and different regions. Hanggai's music doesn't really speak of Genghis Khan's time, but it does reflect the life and ethics of the Mongolian people.
RH: A lot of people will have heard about Tuvan throat-singing [a technique where the singer can produce two or more sounds simultaneously] -- and a few groups from Tuva have released CDs and toured very successfully in Europe and the U.S. [Huun Huur Tu, Yat-Kha etc].
罗宾哈勒：很多人将会听说图瓦呼麦（歌手同时发出2个或3个声部的技巧），一些来自图瓦的乐队已经发行了专辑，并成功进行了欧美巡演（如Huun Huur Tu和Yat-Kha）。
Hanggai come from Inner Mongolia, which is a lot less remote than Tuva or Outer Mongolia. So while there is throat singing there, the music and songs are more influenced by Silk Road traditions and Han Chinese music. The songs they draw on are often gentler and more melodic than Tuvan or Outer Mongolian songs; they're more the result of these different tribes and cultures mixing.
Are there any issues with Hanggai's music being considered Chinese when it comes from Mongolia? Is it inappropriate for us to discuss it as Chinese music? Or is it perhaps simply like discussing American Delta blues or Appalachian folk music in the context of American music?
I: Hanggai's music is very traditional Mongolia music. Some of our songs are influenced by Chinese music, because those songs were composed after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and we were all born long after that! We are influenced by what we grew up listening to, and we're still searching for our musical roots.
RH: There's always been a very close and complicated relationship between China's ethnic majority Han people [roughly 90 percent of the population] and the people who live in China's border areas -- Tibetans, Muslim Uyghurs [from Western China] and, of course, Mongols. Several Chinese dynasties were founded by invading nomads from the north -- rough, tough guys on horseback who conquered huge swaths of the country, raping and pillaging as they went! Most of these invading horsemen had little interest in the niceties and subtleties of Chinese civilization and culture when they arrived [Genghis Khan famously had to be convinced not to destroy every Chinese cities he encountered -he could see no better use for them than turning them into pasture for his livestock!], but over generations every one of these "foreign" dynasties adopted the rituals, customs, culture and language of Chinese society.
So Mongol songs and grassland culture in general is certainly considered "Chinese" by Chinese listeners -- but "Chinese" in the broadest sense of the term. Maybe a better analogy than Delta blues would be how Celtic songs are listened to in the U.K.; most English listeners would consider them British, but they're exotic, beautiful and slightly dangerous in a way English folk music isn't! [Saying that, I'm sure you'd get a different answer if you asked a Celtic singer the same question!]