While anthropologists chronicle the demise of Mongolian culture, which is evaporating amid China's urbanization, six musicians from Beijing may be saving the traditions. This ensemble, Hanggai, unearths Mongolian folk songs and melds them with current styles ranging from punk to ska to bluegrass. In the process, they preserve their forebears' sense of wonder, singing odes to the region's majestic mountains and sparkling streams.
"Most of our people have moved away from the old way of life," Ilchi, the band's leader, told NPR recently. "After moving to the cities, many of us have gradually been subjected to a very strong cultural invasion by an oppressive culture. So this traditional music has completely lost its space."
Ilchi and two of his bandmates are ethnic Mongolians, while the other three belong to China's dominant cultural group, the Han. All six know the process of assimilation well. It surrounds them in Beijing, one of the most rapidly changing cities in the world.
This process led Ilchi to travel to Mongolia six years ago. Eager to reconnect with his roots, he learned throat singing, a traditional vocal technique. He also reworked folk songs, guided by western artists such as Radiohead and Neil Diamond. Adding traditional instruments such as the tobushuur, a two-stringed banjo, and morin khuur, a horsehair fiddle - and the swagger Ilchi learned as front man of punk band T9 - the band released its debut, Introducing Hanggai, in 2008.
The bandmates wear traditional robes on the album's cover, but on their heads are baseball caps and heavy-metal hairdos. These guys aren't quaint; they're on a mission. They look at thoroughly modern experiences, like going on a bender, through an old-fashioned lens. In "Drinking Song," bottled alcohol becomes a docile sheep, stomach-bound booze a roaring tiger.
The group's newest album, He Who Travels Far, employs similar material, rocking out yet lilting meditatively. As the musicians explore the struggle between mainstream and minority cultures, they incorporate the voices of people, languages and landscapes that have vanished.
As the intro to one of their videos puts it, "If mountains could sing, then it would sound something like this."