Clubbing in Darkhan

Earlier this week I had a friend visiting from out of town. He was en route back to the States after nearly 6 months cooped up on a base in Kabul. I wanted to show him as much of Mongolia as I could over the course of his very short stay, so I took him up to Darkhan (pronounced Dar-han).

Darkhan is a city of about 75,000 and only a 3 hour drive from Ulaanbaatar. The city is an urban planning experiment, built just 51 years ago in 1961 with the help of the Soviet Union. While we were there for less than 24 hours, I was able to get a little bit of a feel for Darkhan. It’s much more laid back than bustling UB. It also seemed a lot cleaner and had fewer of UB’s urban problems of crime and violence.

From the moment we arrived, we were taken under the wing of the sister of a friend of mine from UB. She, along with a friend of hers, took us out to dinner and then gave us an option: karaoke or night club. It was Monday, mind you, so I was leaning toward karaoke. But like so many ‘choices’ I’m given here, it was an illusion. So, after a nighttime stroll around Darkhan’s lovely central park (I’m told there are excellent fountains during the summer), we headed to DD Club.

If DD Club isn’t the best that Darkhan has to offer, it has to be up there. Like all great bars, you have to descend a staircase to enter. It’s decorated like some sort of tricked out cave. The stucco walls have strategically placed holes that make them feel like organic rock formations. The tables are made of frosted glass and glow blue or red. But the highlight is definitely the dance floor. The floor is made entirely of glass blocks and raised 2 feet above the ground so you can see the rubble beneath your feet as you get down. It’s lit with a neon green, adding to the cave-like feel. The DJ spins (that’s generous) on a stage in front of a large screen fully equipped with trippy videos, lasers, and the obligatory fog machine.

The dancing was actually quite organized. The DJ would play fast songs (mostly Euro-pop) for about 30-45 minutes. Everyone would pile onto the floor. Then he would switch to slow jams and everyone would return to their tables (most of which sported a bottle of vodka). Then the fast songs would start, and the cycle would continue.

At one point, I noticed the alternating words on the screen behind the DJ said ‘Hey Guys’, then ‘Freedom’, then ‘Free Dance’. I tried to capture the splendor of DD Club on my iPhone, but after only ten seconds, the girls we were with vehemently told me to turn it off.

At any rate, here’s a grainy and ugly sounding peak into DD Club:

Video: NisNis Fest 2012

Two weeks ago, Mongolian grunge band Nisvanis held their 16th Anniversary concert. They invited ten bands to perform at the showcase, ranging from metal to rock to indie to folk rock.

I recorded four of the bands at the show: Nisvanis, Mohanik, North Ducks, and Altan Urag.

Nisvanis:

Although they usually play plugged in and amped up, Nisvanis opened the show with an acoustic set. It was nice to hear some of the tunes I’ve heard before in a different way. It actually helped me appreciate the band more as musicians and songwriters.

Altan Urag:

Altan Urag is a staple of the Mongolian music scene. They’re the first Mongolian band to be signed with a major American record label (BMI) and they regularly tour abroad. They’re seen twice a week at one of the larger restaurants in town – but, like other bands who perform in bars/restaurants regularly, they have to play the same songs every time. It was refreshing to hear something a little different at NisNis Fest. It was also fun to see their fans banging their heads and dancing to Altan Urag’s version of traditional Mongolian music.

North Ducks:

North Ducks are fairly new to the UB music scene. They represent a younger generation of artists, weened on alternative rock and influenced by indie bands.

Mohanik:

Last, but not least, Mohanik has been around for a few years now. The five members, who are friends from grade school, are now putting together their second album – which they say is more of a concept. They’re returning their gaze toward Mongolia and writing songs inspired by nature, but in a way that is very rock and roll.

A Chicago Indie Band’s Visit to Mongolia

Last February Chicago-based orch-pop band Canasta made the long journey from the Windy City to the windy steppe. They came to Mongolia as part of the U.S. State Department’s Arts Envoy Program. Over the course of their week-long stay, the six-member band played two shows in Ulaanbaatar and traveled to Tsestserlig where they performed for and worked with students at a school for the visually impaired.

I caught their performance for C1TV’s live music show, ‘Big Break’, and was taken aback to hear a true American indie rock band after having been in Ulaanbaatar for 4 months. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to catch up with them at the end of their trip. But violinist and singer Elizabeth Lindau was kind enough to answer some of my questions via e-mail after their safe return to Chicago.

Read the interview below.

Two members of Canasta set-up at the school for the visually impaired
(Photo Courtesy Canasta)

What prompted you to apply for the State Deptartment program?

Elizabeth Lindau: Well – I love to travel, especially to exotic/unusual/remote locales.  So when I found out that the State Department brings performers overseas to showcase US artists and art forms, I set out to see if I could convince them to choose my band, Canasta. Usually they select groups that are more traditional–blues, jazz, bluegrass–whereas we’re an indie rock band. But indie rock is definitely a vibrant American art form these days.

Did you choose Mongolia or did the State Department choose for you?

EL:  Well, through a circuitous route, I got the name of the person in UB who puts together the applications to have performers come over. I pestered her for, oh, about a year and a half, until she put together an application for us.

What did you know about Mongolia before you came?

Elizabeth Lindau poses in front of camels
(Photo Courtesy Canasta)

EL:  Mostly the stuff that most Americans might know: Genghis (Chinggis) Khan… yurts… the Gobi desert.

Did anything surprise you about UB or Mongolia while you were here?

EL:  Well, when you visit Mongolia in February it’s hard to not comment on the cold.  We had a hard time figuring out how to prepare for it. Some people told us “Oh, it’s not as bad as you think” and others were a bit more serious. We ended up borrowing a lot of cold weather gear from friends and family. And we all obtained nice Sorel boots, which were totally necessary. During the van ride around the countryside, we had a lot of debates about what our coldest moment was. Megan and I swear it was when we got out of the van to take pictures of yaks. Other people voted for our midnight arrival at the airport.

Another thing that we noticed is that people just seemed really tough. Like, strong and resilient. I can’t speak for the others, but I felt pretty wimpy in comparison.

You had a chance to travel around the countryside in central Mongolia, what were your initial impressions?

EL:  Wow – that’s a big question.  First of all – I’m SO glad we got to see the countryside. UB is interesting and has its charms, but the countryside was really astounding. A decade or so I spent a season working in Antarctica, and I kept saying to the band, “You don’t need to go to Antarctica, this looks and feels so similar.” The vast distances with nothing, no trees or buildings, dark rocks covered with a light layer of snow… it evoked the Antarctic landscape for me. And, not to dwell on the cold, but it was a lot colder in Mongolia than it was when I was in Antarctica.

Canasta band members had some bonding time during the long drives in the van
(Photo Courtesy Canasta)

It was one of your bandmates’ first trips abroad – what was it like for him to experience Mongolia?

Brian Palmieri:  Mongolia, for me, felt surprisingly familiar. It could have something to do with having grown up in Alabama and experiencing, small town, rural living. I tend to identify as more of a “city boy”, but I can appreciate what it’s like living in an area that’s culturally homogenous. It was really fascinating being in Ulaanbaatar and seeing both the similarities and stark contrasts to Western culture and being in the rural areas where life seems to be much simpler, revolving around raising children, producing food, and maintaining a home. Living in Chicago, you get used to the faster pace of life and with the city being so densely populated, the people around you tend to blend into the scenery. Everyone here seems to have their own special agenda or set of priorities, whether it’s being an actor, or a chef, or a musician, or a businessperson. In Mongolia, at least in the rural areas, it seemed like there was an appreciation for things like the arts, crafts, and sport, but the Mongolians seem to approach these things from a traditional, cultural position rather than as a means of self-actualization or self-expression as they often do in America. I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I got.

As a musician, it excites me to use my craft as a means of communication, so with this trip being my first time abroad, I was really interested to see how Canasta’s music would be received in such a foreign place. While the reactions among the middle-aged and older Mongolians were mixed, the youth really seemed to enjoy our music. With the oft off-beat clapping, random bursts of applause, and countless requests for band photos during our rural shows, I experienced the closest thing I’ll ever feel to being a rock-star. Something tells me, we’d have a slightly different reaction in, I don’t know, France.”
You worked with a school for the visually impaired, what was that experience like for you and what did you do?

EL: The visit was certainly one of the highlights of our trip. We performed for the kids and answered a bunch of questions. We brought along shakers from the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, and gave them out to help encourage the kids to participate. At the end of the visit, one of the students got up to sing a song for us. He was pretty shy at first and didn’t sing right away, but after some clapping and encouragement, he launched into the school’s anthem. His voice was so clear and strong, and eventually all the students joined in. It was really moving.

What were the takeaways from this trip – anything that sticks out now that you’ve been home for a couple weeks?

EL:  I need to start a business importing sea-buckthorn juice. We all liked it; I think it will be the next acai berry.

How does this tour compare to other tours you’ve done in the U.S.?

The Mongolian landscape reminded one Canasta member of her time in Antarctica
(Photo Courtesy Canasta)

EL:  In some aspects – totally different, in the obvious ways (language, culture, etc.). However, other stuff was similar to what we experience touring here. When we’re playing in the US, we’re often sleeping on floors of people we barely know, or pulling up at a venue where we have no idea what the sound situation will be like. So the feeling of “who knows what it will be like when we pull into town” was familiar.

Did the trip help you bond as a band any differently than touring in the U.S. might?

EL:  In the US we don’t have our own van, so we end up traveling with two cars. There’s six of us, so we split up three and three. Sometimes it can be convenient – like if we’re staying in different places or one car needs to leave early. But we never really get to do a lot of band bonding, since we’re never all together at the same time. Having our own giant van and driver in Mongolia was an awesome treat.

Is this an experience you would want to repeat in another country?

I’d definitely be up for it!

Will there be any songs coming out of this trip?

EL:  We took a quick video of these incredible musicians who performed for us. We were really humbled at how talented they were, and how they were able to just pick up their instruments and play, without any setup, or amps, or gear. We’re inspired by that simplicity and are hoping to include some aspect of that in the future.

Listen to an interview Canasta did with Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ, when they returned.

NisNis Fest 2012

Last night was one of my favorite concerts thus far in Ulaanbaatar. It was the 16th annual NisNis Festival – a concert commemorating the anniversary of local grunge band Nisvanis.

Ten bands were featured alongside Nisvanis and they switched from two stages, to keep the show moving along. Most of the bands played 3-5 songs, while Nisvanis played both an acoustic and electric set. Bands represented several genres: rock, grunge, metal, folk rock, and indie rock. One band, Jokers Wild, even played Pink Floyd.

It can be hard to find a concert similar to what I’m used to back in the States here in Ulaanbaatar. The market just isn’t as big here, and so real rock shows are few and far between. But, last night’s show was an energizing display of all that the Ulaanbaatar scene has to offer, and all in one venue.

The crowd was mostly young, what you would expect at any rock concert. And although it was mostly Mongolian fans, there were a handful of foreigners who came to check out the scene as well.

Highlights included North Ducks’ rocking cover of a traditional Mongolian song. The whole crowd sang along to their reinterpretation – but, alas, I didn’t know the words. I also really enjoyed seeing Altan Urag (a band I’ve seen quite a bit at their regular restaurant gig) in a more raucous environment. Among the new bands I saw was, Solongo, which is one of only a few Mongolian groups with a female lead singer.

All in all it was a fabulous night. I spent much of the show running around filming a few of the bands and the crowd. I’ll have some of that footage up once I’ve had a chance to edit.

In the meantime, check out the videos below of some of the bands that played last night.

More Photos:

Nisvanis: Leading UB’s Cultural Transition of the 1990s

The band Nisvanis, who is celebrating their 16th year in a week, was the first to experiment with grunge in Mongolia. In a recent interview they told me about the band’s initial struggles to be accepted and how they paved the way for new bands to experiment.

Listen to a radio piece I did for PRI’s The World.

Live from UB: The Lemons

The Lemons are one of Mongolia’s most popular live music bands. Heavily inspired by The Strokes, the four piece band has been playing since 2004. In 2006 they joined the Hi-Fi Record label, Mongolia’s premier label for alternative bands. They have two albums to their name: “Red Album” and “Zaluu Lenini Oiloltsoo Z Dawakhhart” (On the 3rd Floor Near Young Lenin).

They are consistently one of the bands listed when I ask people (Mongolian and expat alike) about their favorite bands in Mongolia. And it’s not surprising. Their sound is catchy and fun. Even Mongolian language learners can sing along to at least one of their songs: ‘1984’, an ode to Ulaanbaatar.

The Lemons regularly play at a couple venues around town. I filmed them at a recent performance at a German restaurant. Here are two of their tunes.

1984

Rough translation of the chorus:

Hello my capital
I’m fine, how are you
More and more colors are being added to my Ulaanbaatar
Hello, hello grey palace (government building)
Hello, hello Sukhbaatar Square
Red colored capital, this is my Ulaanbaatar
 

 

Sunu Dund Tsas Orj Baina

Niciton’s Sold Out Show

Niciton (pronounced Nee-kee-tone) is one of Mongolia’s top rock bands. It’s been around for nearly two decades now, which gives it the distinction of also being one of Mongolia’s early rock bands. The guitarist, Oojgii , is commonly hailed as the best in Mongolia. Their songs are sung in karaoke rooms across the country. And so, when tickets went on sale for their concert, which was held last Tuesday, they sold out pretty quickly. Ticket prices ranged from 20,000T (about $15) to 100,000T ($75). That’s pretty hefty here.

I attended the show (in the cheaper seats) with a couple friends of mine, who were extremely excited to be there. So excited, in fact, they proposed arriving around 5:00, two hours before the show’s scheduled start time, and three hours before its actual start time. There was talk of making T-shirts, but that ended up not happening.

Fans waiting for the Niciton concert to begin.

The show was held at the Ulaanbaatar Palace – one of the city’s largest venues. As it filled up, it was clear how big of a deal this was. Fans anxiously awaited the performance in the dim light (Aside: I have yet to see a typical opener-headliner show in UB). There were at least twenty crew members their filming the show for, what I’m guessing, is a concert DVD. They even had a jib set up on stage.

When the band finally took the stage, the crowd (and especially my concert companions) went wild. They played a series of rock songs and love ballads, featuring at various times four back-up singers, a string section, a grand piano, and electric keyboard in addition to the classic guitar, bass, drums setup.

Batchuluun plays piano and sings for Niciton.

After some songs, fans would run up onto the stage carrying a bouquet of flowers, which they would give to their favorite band member (usually the lead singer). A friend of mine explained this was “a socialist thing.” Indeed, I’ve seen performers receive flowers at several classical and traditional concerts I’ve attended – but never at a rock show. I was also surprised to learn that the people delivering the flowers were everyday fans. I suppose I could have gone up on stage with a bouquet if I’d wanted. In fact, I realized later that they were selling flowers outside of the hall for just that purpose.

What struck me most at the concert wasn’t the music, although the musicians were clearly skilled, and it was the lights and effects, although I do enjoy sparks that shoot up from the stage in time with the music. It was the way everyone, I mean everyone, would sing along to the songs. This isn’t the first time I’ve attended a concert where the entire audience (men, women, children) sing along in full voice. It’s refreshing to see a full auditorium, cheerfully singing along, not afraid to hold back like so many American audiences are.

PHOTOS:

Lead singer, Batchuluun, plays a grand piano.

A fan gives Batchuluun flowers after a favorite song.

A full television crew filmed the 3 hour long Niciton concert.

There were plenty of official photographers and videographers capturing the concert.

Niciton fan club members waved flags and dressed in band T-shirts.

An early Niciton music video:

Metal_Concert

Live from UB: Metal Showcase

Last Sunday I attended the Season 3: Metal Concert here in Ulaanbaatar. The show featured Mongolia’s top metal/grunge/hardcore bands. It ended up being more of an experience than I had anticipated.

I’ve always been more of a folk/acoustic kind of girl. I appreciate all genres of music, but if I had my choice between attending a grunge concert and attending a folk concert, I would choose folk at least 95% of the time. I’ve never felt quite at home at any sort of concert that involves a mosh pit. Even in the United States I feel like a foreigner when I attend more hardcore shows. And so attending a metal showcase in Mongolia had me feeling like the ultimate outsider. The skinheads who greeted us (the only two white girls) with harsh stares when we walked in didn’t help. But, the musicians who generously let us film and checked in on us throughout the concert did!

Below are three songs by three different bands: Nisvanis, Prophets, and Zugeer I…  And, while I was busy filming, Hedy Dohm was snapping away. Check out her photos from the show here.

Enjoy the foray into the Mongolian metal scene!

Canasta

American Band Canasta Comes to Mongolia

The U.S. Embassy is bringing another group of American musicians to Ulaanbaatar as part of the Arts Envoy Program. The Chicago-based orchestral pop group Canasta will be in Mongolia for a little over a week, sharing their sound in UB and the nearby city of Dalanzadgad.

I’m hoping to find a time during their busy week for an interview. After seeing only Mongolian music for several months now, it will be interesting to attend an American concert once again. And, I’m looking forward to hearing their thoughts on Mongolia and the music here.

For those of you who are in UB. You can see them perform next Friday (2/10) at The Children’s Recreation Center near Metromall.

Read an interview with the band about their trip here.

Mongol Metal

I just got back from my first Mongolian heavy metal concert. What an experience. Metal has never exactly been my scene, but I am so happy I made it out tonight.

Nisvanis, Mongolia’s first real grunge band, was the big draw for me. I’d been hearing about them for awhile and really wanted to see them live. They have been around for over 15 years and own the title of Mongolia’s first grunge band. They definitely delivered, but I found that as an obvious outsider – the crowd was far more interesting. The venue was packed with Mongolia’s more hard core youth (18-30 year olds seemed to dominate). Several of the men had let their hair grown down to the middle of their backs – the perfect length for headbanging. At times, it seemed the crowed in front of the stage was pulsating, backs arched and hair flying.

Metal Concert Poster

I also had my first real run in with some of this city’s less savory individuals – the skinheads. As one of only a couple foreigners in the club, my friend (also an American woman) and I instantly became guarded, assessing and reassessing the potential for a confrontation. Thankfully, there was none. But it is pretty jarring to see a mosh pit full of young men with shaved heads, some with swastikas tattooed on their scalps, picking fights and jumping into each other. In fact, it was difficult to take my eyes (and camera lens) off of them.

I’ll have more on this concert once I’ve had a chance to go through all the video I took, but for now, here are some video clips of some of the bands who performed.