Now that I am more adjusted here in Pittsburgh, PA, it’s time to get back to the project at hand: turning all of my footage and interviews into a coherent documentary!

I spent this morning transcribing an interview I did with anthropologist David Sneath from Cambridge University last summer. He spoke eloquently about Mongolian politics, modern history, and nationalism. Sneath has been coming to Mongolia since it opened up to outsiders in the early 1990s, and lived in Chinese Inner Mongolia before that, so he’s seen it all.

As I sat listening to the interview and typing it verbatim (which I do for all of my interviews), I was struck by one answer in particular. Over the course of my research I continuously came across this pattern of imitation, mastery, and then innovation. In the 1990s, western music was brand new, and thus, exciting. The first grunge band, the first boy band, the first punk band, etc, all started cropping up as Mongolian versions of what they were hearing on MTV or the radio. After a decade and a half of this imitation, however, musicians have started looking toward ways to make the music their own – make it Mongolian. Sneath addressed this trend quite articulately and I wanted to share it with you.

I think there is a sort of series of stages that you can see particularly in music, but in other fields outside. And you could say that in the first stage, you know, it was all about mastery of the new possibilities. So in that sense, it might look like imitation, but I would say it’s actually innovation in a very creative period.

Suddenly, elite Mongols particularly, but quite a lot of Mongolians,  had access to a lot of Western and other styles and possibilities – not just commodities and technologies, but also film, music, dance, all these styles. And they’re mastering them. And it still means they’re Mongolian too, they’re just able to do a proper version of what they’re seeing abroad.

And then, now, increasingly, as that mastery has become more commonplace, the new challenge is to produce something distinctive and new. And I don’t think that is accidental that they’re reaching for Mongolian national themes to do that. The cultural heritage is very strong here. The whole governmental society have promoted it very strongly, particularly since the end of the Soviet period.

And they’re drawing on those resources to put a distinctive flavor on what they can produce. But a lot of  what the young people are interested in is being able to produce things that look and sound and feel as good as the international stuff that they are aware of. And they are often very aware of it. But, once you can do that, make it better, make it distinctive, make it Mongol, and then you’ve got something that might make it marketable and appetizing and attractive to foreigners, but is also a token that they still have a sense of a kind of pride in their own location and roots.

Perspective is a wonderful thing. After living in Mongolia for some time, I became used to the resources and technologies that were available in UB. I also became used to the level of professionalism in music production – from big pop shows to small rock concerts.

But having listened to this interview now that I’ve been back in the United States for a few months, I’m struck by just how many hurdles Mongolians have in front of them and how well they’ve done with what they do have.

I will continue to share my thoughts here as I continue to work through interviews and footage.

2 thoughts on “Musings: Mongolian Imitation and Innovation

  1. I told you! 🙂 Mongolia is like Van Halen in the early ’70s: they’re still a cover band, practicing their chops. Their own style and greatness will only emerge in the fullness of time as they gain both competence and confidence (and *if* they gain those virtues).

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