Live From UB Exclusive: The Beatles Monument

Here’s another exclusive clip from the upcoming documentary! In this clip, several veteran Mongolian rockers and rock fans discuss the importance of The Beatles on Mongolian youth at a time when the West was out of reach. What seems at first like an odd monument to The Beatles in the heart of Ulaanbaatar, is actually a unique way to remember that special period of Mongolian history.

Live From UB Gives a TEDx Talk

Last May, I gave a TEDx Talk at Greater Johnstown High School outside of Pittsburgh and now you can see it! It covers a brief history of Mongolian rock music and how the genre has played a role in shaping the new Mongolia.

Live From UB Exclusive

Well, I’m in the throngs of editing “Live From UB”. The sad truth about editing nearly a hundred hours of footage down to less than 2 is that a lot of material just won’t make the cut.

With that in mind, I’ll be posting clips that may or may not be in the final piece throughout the editing process.

Here are two from a day I spent at Amarbayasgalant Monastery with the band Mohanik as they recorded their album.

Profile: The Vanishing Cultures Project

Last spring I was lucky enough to meet two enterprising young journalists in a cafe in Ulaanbaatar. Nina Wegner and Taylor Weidman were new to Mongolia and were going to spend the next six months researching, interviewing and photographing for a book about how Mongolian herding lifestyle is changing. It was their second book for their non-profit journalism organization, the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Meeting Nina and Taylor was kismet. So much of what drove them to start the Vanishing Cultures Project (long-form journalism, desire to cover people that are often overlooked, passion for international coverage and travel) is what led me to Mongolia.

Nina and Taylor started VCP while working in Nepal. Originally there for on a Fulbright Fellowship, Taylor and Nina soon discovered a remote tribe in the Himalayas whose customs had seen little change for the past century or so. They were granted exceptional access to this community, and their work turned into a beautiful and informative coffee table book (with a forward from the Dalai Lama!). They decided to donate the proceeds from this book back to cultural initiatives to support the Mustang people.

With the success of their Nepal project, they decided to continue working with this model. They are now spending a significant amount of time in a location – up to six months – and documenting a culture undergoing rapid change through writing and photography.

The endeavor is a rare and worthwhile one, and something I wish I’d thought of myself. But I didn’t, so I decided to do the next best thing.

I befriended Nina and Taylor and enthusiastically accompanied them on a couple trips to the Mongolian countryside. We exchanged contacts, research, skills, and more importantly, words of encouragement as we all struggled to cover a country we were still trying to figure out.

Here is a short promotional video I produced for the Vanishing Cultures Project. If you like the organization please support them by buying one of their gorgeous books or fabulous prints or simply by donating.

Watch More Videos from my collaboration with the Vanishing Cultures Project:

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Khovsgol Province: Shamanism

Happy Naadam: Wrestling

Happy Naadam: Horse Racing

Happy Naadam: Archery & Shagai

Khovsgol Province: Shamanism

Shamanism is a an ancient spiritual tradition practiced throughout Mongolia. People who follow shamanism believe that nature and humans are connected in a deeply spiritual way. The shaman is the link between those worlds and acts as a conduit for people to reach beyond. According to the Lonely Planet, “two of a shaman’s main functions are to cure sickness caused by the soul straying, and to accompany souls of the dead to the other world.”

While witnessing a shaman ceremony is a special event, signs of the spiritual tradition are throughout Mongolia. Ovoos (sacred piles of stones) are scattered across the countryside as indicators of respect for nature. They are typically built at noteworthy locations as a sign of respect to the natural realm. When one passes an ovoo, he or she  must circle it three times and toss a stone onto the pile as an offering. Others might offer horse skulls, vodka bottles, or even tires.

Recently, Mongolia has seen a resurgence of Shamanism as many young people are becoming shamans. However, some believe a number of these new converts are “tourist shamans”, people who will perform the ceremony as a show for a fee.

Last August, I traveled to Khovsgol Province with the Vanishing Cultures Project to meet one of the country’s most well-respected shamans. She was kind enough to invite us to a ceremony, which she also allowed me to film.

This is the second in a series of three videos from Khovsgol Province. They were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Watch more videos from Khovsgol:

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Last August, I spent a week with the Vanishing Cultures Project co-leaders Taylor Weidman and Nina Wegner in Mongolia’s northern province of Khovsgol. We were documenting the herding lifestyle for their upcoming book, “Mongolia’s Nomads: Life on the Steppe”. I had the privilege to tag along on their research journey as a filmmaker.

Over the course of the week, we stayed with two different herding families, visited with one of the country’s most powerful shamans, and I filmed a behind-the-scenes look at the work Taylor and Nina do with Vanishing Cultures Project. Two months later, I’ve finally been able to sit down and finish these short films!

Here’s the first of the three, a profile of two different herders living in Khovsgol Province:

 

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Music Profile: The Lemons

One of the most interesting things about a music scene as small and young as the one in Ulaanbaatar is that every band seems to be the first at something. I have met with members of the first Mongolian grunge, punk, metal, folk rock, and alternative bands – all of which are still performing.

The Lemons are one of these pioneering bands. They would fall into the post-rock, alternative category and were the first to create a Strokes-inspired sound in Mongolia.

The four-person group (plus a regular sound guy) formed in 2004 when they were in their late teens and early twenties. Each member brought different musical tastes to the group, but they all agreed that alternative rock was the way to go. After eight years and two albums, they have now become one of Mongolia’s quintessential alternative bands.

The Lemons’ songs are generally high-spirited with bright-sounding guitar riffs. One of the hits off their first album is a tune about a frog princess. After the male protagonist breaks the spell the princess is under, turning her from a frog back into a human, she thanklessly forgets about him. Another hit song is an ode to Ulaanbaatar. Some of the lyrics are poking fun at the soviet-era obsession with production. But it’s mostly just a peppy song praising their hometown.

The Lemons say their appearance was no accident. When they first formed, they took care to cultivate a sort of hipster style, buying skinny jeans from abroad since they didn’t sell them in Mongolia. Odnoo, the lead singer generally sports dark sunglasses and a leather jacket while the others are a bit more casually dressed.

All three band members that I interviewed said it’s not easy being a rock musician in Mongolia. Even as late as 2004, when they first started, it was difficult to find instruments and a practice space – two key ingredients to any band. Now, guitars are a bit easier to come by, but they still struggle to get amplifiers, mixers and electronic equipment.

Beyond the logistics of acquiring instruments and finding a place to rehearse, it’s not easy to make a living as musicians. While they are one of the most famous bands here, the Lemons still have to play weekly gigs at a handful of bars around Ulaanbaatar to make money. They sign contracts with the bar owners agreeing to play the same six or seven songs each week. It’s typical for a band to show up at a restaurant, play for about twenty minutes, and then be on their way. The fans don’t seem to mind the abruptness nor the repetitive sets, but the bands certainly do. Guitarist Tulga told me, “We are actually bored by singing the same songs and don’t have any interest in singing at these kinds of places. But we have no choice.”

On the other hand, lead singer Odnoo says that playing with the band makes up for it. “The best thing is practicing and playing our own shows,” he explained. “I like to create new things.”

Now, the Lemons are working on their third album, which should be finished by the end of the summer. Their songs have taken on a more electronic sound after importing a special electronic keyboard from the U.S. that helps them create different effects. Before an interview this spring, Tulga showed me some of the unfinished tracks. One song featured a long song singer (a traditional Mongolian style of singing). I thought it worked really well with the electronic sound and added some unique Mongolian flavor to the music. But now they cut the long song, claiming it was too similar to Mongol Pop, a style that blends traditional elements with pop music.

When I asked them what they want a foreign audience to know about Mongolian music, they all agreed that just knowing that this kind of rock music is available in Mongolia is enough. Most foreigners come to Mongolia expecting the traditional herders and horses and don’t pay much attention to the rich urban culture Ulaanbaatar has to offer. For them to simply know about the music scene here is enough, they say.

Happy Naadam: Wrestling

Arguably the most manly of the three so-called ‘manly sports’ of Naadam has to be wrestling. Wrestlers tend to be enormous. They’re more muscular that Sumo wrestlers, but certainly much bigger than the likes of A.C. Slater. The bottom line is, I do not want to be on the wrong side of an argument with one of these guys.

Like horse racing and archery, hand-to-hand combat was an essential martial art back in the days of Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan. Mongolian wrestling is steeped in tradition.

Costume

The wrestler’s costume is one of the more eye-catching aspects of the sport. Rather than the Western singlet, wrestlers don Speedo-like bottoms, an open jacket, and leather boots. The fabric and boots are adorned with traditional patterns. The clothing has white stitching and tends to be blue or red, but I’ve also seen bright pink, turquoise and orange. For me the most interesting part of the uniform is the jacket, called a Jodag.

Once upon a time, the legend goes, wrestlers wore closed jackets. Then one day, after beating several contestants and winning a competition, a wrestler tore open her jackets exposing her breasts. Since that time, the official wrestling uniform has required a bare-chested jacket, in order to prevent a repeat performance.

Arm Flapping

Before each wrestler competes, he approaches the referee (each wrestler is assigned their own referee). He offers his hat and then approaches the eastern side with his arms outstretched like wings. He is mimicking a mythical bird called the ‘Khan Garuda’. Then, he slaps this thighs three times representing the three Naadam games. After the match, the winner’s referee places a special hat on his head and he does the dance again, flapping his arms while rotating in a circle.

Rules of Engagement

Mongolian-style wrestling differs significantly from its Western counterpart. The object is to force your opponent to touch the ground with anything other than his feet. Once you have accomplished this task, the game is over. However, there is no time limit, and so until someone touches the ground, the match will continue. Additionally, it is fair game to grab and tug on each others’ clothing (what little there is of it). That is strictly off-limits in the American-style.

Watch a Video About Mongolian Wrestling:

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Horse Racing and Archery.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Happy Naadam: Horse Racing

One of my favorite parts of the Naadam celebration in Uugtaal last week was the way the small jockeys (aged between 5 and 12 years old) would sing to their horses before each race.

This particular Naadam had 6 races. Each race varied in length depending on the age of the horse. The shortest distance was about 6 miles, while the longest was 14. And so several times over the course of the two-day long event, a group of between 15 and 40 children would ride their horses into the main stadium singing the ‘Glingoo’. It’s a free-form kind of song that is meant to encourage the horses to run quickly.

After riding around the inside edge of the arena, the riders would gather at the front where they would drink airag (fermented mare’s milk) and pour some on their horses’ heads and hind quarters. Singing once again, they would exit the stadium and trot toward the starting line.

Horses are an essential part of Mongolian culture and the traditional lifestyle. They are veneered and used for everything from transportation to nourishment. But until I saw how the children interact with horses, I didn’t quite understand just how much a part of life they are. Dozens of young boys casually rode their horses around the grounds, showed off by doing tricks, squirted water guns at their friends and even shared ice cream cones. It was clear that if you were an 11 year old boy without a horse, you were just not cool.

Watch a video about the horse race:

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Wrestling and Archery.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Happy Naadam: Archery and Shagai

Saihan Naadaarai! Happy Naadam!

Today (July 11) is the first of the annual three-day long celebration of Naadam. It is a sporting and cultural event that dates back to the 13th Century, a time when the three ‘manly sports’ of horse racing, wrestling, and archery were vital to Mongolia’s global dominance.

Although the national Naadam celebrations started today, county-wide and province-wide competitions and festivals have been occurring around the country since the beginning of July.

Having already attended the Naadam celebrations in Ulaanbaatar back in 2007, I was curious to see how it was celebrated on a more intimate scale.

Last week, I traveled to Uutgaal, a small county seat just 150 km from Ulaanbaatar, with fellow documentarians Nina and Taylor of the Vanishing Cultures Project and Mark of Open Road Movies. We spent two days watching horse races, wrestling matches, archery and the newly added game of Shagai (ankle bones). As the only foreigners and journalists at this Naadam, we were granted excellent access to the roughly 400 participants, organizers, and spectators.

Here are the first two in a series of four videos highlighting each of the four main events.

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Horse Racing and Wrestling.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.