VIDEO: The Colors

TheColors

The Colors are one of Ulaanbaatar’s youngest and more promising bands. Though they’re still in high school, the group of 5 boys seems to eat and breathe rock music.

Last summer, they were on the line-up at Rock Naadam, the annual rock show associated with the traditional Naadam Festival which takes place between July 11 and 13. I recorded their performance along with the other bands.

VIDEO: Kush + Oyuka

Title-Kush-Oyuka

Kush & Oyuka are doing big things to make jazz popular for Mongolia’s youth. The male-female duo started a couple years ago after Kush (lead singer) found himself hooked on the genre. He had been volunteering for Mongolia’s Giant Steppes of Jazz International Festival and reached out to his classmate and top-notch pianist to see if she’d be interested in starting something.

They hit it off and began co-writing a series of songs which they recorded last summer. The album will be the first collection of original jazz tunes written in Mongolian.

Watch Kush & Oyuka’s first music video

I filmed them at one of their regular gigs in Ulaanbaatar last year. Here are two songs from that performance.

Live From UB: Gee

Munkherdene, more commonly known by his stage name, ‘Gee’, is one of Mongolia’s more notorious rappers. His aggressive, vulgar lyrics and commanding presence have helped him make a name for himself. He’s known for rapping about corruption in the government, environmental degradation, the Ger District (where he grew up), and, most notably, his anti-Chinese stance. He’s been featured in articles about a changing Mongolia and is one of three central characters in the new documentary, ‘Mongolian Bling’. Love him or hate him, Gee is one of Mongolia’s most (in)famous rappers.

I first met the 28 year-old last November, when I was still getting acquainted with UB’s music scene. I had heard about Gee from Benj Binks, director of ‘Mongolian Bling’, and a few expats who warned me of the violent side Mongolia’s hip-hop scene. But I had yet to hear a track or see a picture when he caught me eye at a concert for pop singer Naran’s CD release.

 

Gee is a large man. He’s well over 6 feet tall and has the bulk 20120513_Gee_Edit-62to make one second guess engaging him in an argument. He wears baggy pants and oversized sweatshirts with screen-printed Mongolian symbols. There is an ever-present heavy chain around his neck, which holds the large talisman his shaman gave him. His head is shaved down to the skin. Tattoos adorn his hands, arms and even cheek. The tattoos on his right arm pay homage to some of his musical heroes (the Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac), while the tattoos on his hands show his Mongolian side. The proverb split between the two hands reads: ‘Aibal buu khii; Khiibal buu ai’ (translation: ‘If you are scared, don’t do it; If you did it, don’t be scared’).

He has the personality to back up such an imposing presence. There’s a boyish arrogance to him that comes of as cocky, yet he has a certain charisma that is sort of endearing. He walks with a swagger and is not shy to exploit his size. During an interview he told me he was the best Mongolian rapper with the most impressive crew, which includes UB’s best graffiti artist, best tattoo artist, and best beat makers. In fact, two members of his noteworthy crew sat silently sipping tea at a table nearby during our hour-long interview.

The second time I met Gee, he was performing for a televised music award ceremony. I sat with him, another rapper, and the members from folk rock band Jonon, during the 2 hour-long shoot. There were about ten acts (mostly pop bands who lip-synched to recordings of their recent hits) and two emcee’s who interviewed musicians in between acts. Throughout the show, Gee was almost happy to show his boredom by playing video games on his handheld device or loudly laughing at other performers. After Gee and Jonon played their song, Gee was given the top award (something like ‘Musician of the Year’), which he accepted with palatable disinterest.

This is not the way I would ever choose to act at a public event (especially a televised one). Yet, I couldn’t help but feel glad that I was sitting at Gee’s table. Despite his arrogance, or perhaps because of it, I found I was eager to be on his good side. It felt eerily similar to social interactions back in middle school – a period I spent seeking acceptance from people I didn’t actually like.

Gee started rapping in 1998, when he was just barely a teenager. He grew up in Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling Ger District (home to about 2/3 of the city’s population). As the son of a single mother in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, Gee says that he needed a way to express himself. He first started writing poetry. But, after acquiring a cassette tape of various rappers (Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and The Sugarhill Gang), he thought he’d try and merge his poetry with beats.

Gee released his first album, ‘Bolovsrolgui Seheetnii Tavigdahgui Iltgel’ (rough translation: ‘An Uneducated Nobleman’s Unreleased Presentation’) in 2005, but it was his appearance in a 2004 song and video called ‘Hood’, by well-known hip-hop group Vanquish, that started turning heads. ‘Hood’ showcases four rappers (and their crews) who each introduce themselves and rap in turn about their neighborhoods in UB. At the time, Gee was the only person rapping about the Ger District, and his pride in his neighborhood and gangsta style made him stand out among Mongolia’s rappers.

When I asked Gee what he likes to rap about in an interview last November, he said that he wants to deliver a message to Mongolia’s youth by focusing on what the community is missing and the malfunction of the government. He says he’s not interested in rapping about “money, women or weed”, but instead says, “Mongol hip-hop should be wise and should tell the people what is right to do.”

But not all of Gee’s songs have a greater message. In our interview, he expressed frustration over the fact that Mongolia’s hip-hop fans mostly like songs about conflicts between rappers. He told me he’s not interested in using his music to fight for superiority with other Mongolian rappers because he’s already the best. Yet, one of Gee’s big hits (86,000 plus views on YouTube), ‘Mongol Rapper’, is 3 minutes and 57 seconds of Gee asserting his rapping superiority over another Mongolian rapper, Tsetse.

Gee is outspoken to say the least. He identifies as an individual performer, not part of a larger artistic community, and has a, ‘I do what I want’ mentality. While talking about coming from the Ger District, he said, ‘Everyone is the same, no more no less’. In another meeting, he asked me what part of the U.S. I was from. When I told him Minnesota he looked at me and said that he ‘hated that place’. He explained that during a layover in the Minneapolis – St. Paul airport he felt that people were treating him poorly because he’s Asian. I said that it might have had more to do with his tattoos and shaved head. Then he said, ‘I hate racism. I’m not racist toward anybody… except the Chinese. I hate the Chinese.’

Gee’s most controversial song is titled ‘Hujaa’, a racial slur referring to Chinese people. It appeared on his most recent album which was a collaborative effort with Jonon called ‘Mongolz’. In it, Gee raps about Mongolian superiority and its future dominance over China. If the lyrics weren’t shocking enough, the corresponding music video certainly will draw your attention. Gee stands in a meat freezer with sheep carcasses dangling from meat hooks all around. He wears a white apron splattered with blood and looks straight into the camera wielding an ax as he sings. It’s creepy, which I’m pretty sure is what he was going for.

The song, understandably, turns the foreigners living in Ulaanbaatar and their Mongolian friends off. It reflects and promotes a rising xenophobic nationalism that is having very real effects on some of UB’s foreign population. For years, Chinese and interracial couples have enjoyed a heightened risk of random assault, but now it seems that all foreigners are being targeted. Not a month has gone by since my arrival in UB when I haven’t heard of a foreigner – sometimes a friend – being randomly assaulted because he or she was not Mongolian.

20120513_Gee_Edit-62But for many Mongolians, ‘Hujaa’ resonates. The past decade has been a time of rapid change and development, which only seems to be increasing in speed. The Economist Intelligence Unit projects that Mongolia will have the second-fastest growing economy of 2012 after Libya. But there is still a question as to whether Mongolia’s development will be beneficial for the majority of the populace or only a select few at the top. The nationalists and many of Gee’s fans feel it is the latter and point to foreign involvement (particularly in the mining sector) as the cause. There’s a prominent belief that foreign interests, especially Chinese, are taking Mongolia’s mineral wealth, destroying the environment, and doing little to invest in Mongolia’s future. In addition to the current political-economy, history plays an important role. Many are quick to point to thousands of years of warfare with and occupation by the Chinese. But what might have left a more lasting impression was the aggressive Soviet-led anti-Chinese propaganda campaign of the 1960s and 1970s as the USSR used Mongolia as a buffer state. As is the case with nationalism and racism in any country, it is most likely a combination of all factors.

20120513_Gee_Edit-50This might all help explain why, at a recent club opening in Erdenet, the young crowd was calling for Gee to rap his most controversial song. Gee performed five songs that night, and ‘Hujaa’ was by far the most popular. It was also the only one people sang along to. After the show, a reporter I was traveling with asked a pair of 21 year-old fans why they like that song. They explained that it is about being proud of Mongolia, but mentioned nothing about the Chinese.

Although the anti-Chinese message is the overpowering one from ‘Mongolz’, Gee and Jonon have more to say about their pride in Mongolia. The song ‘Minii Nutgiig Nadad Uldee’ (rough translation: ‘Leave my Country to Me’) which features veteran Mongolian hip-hop artist Bayaraa, talks about environmental degradation and calls on the government to preserve the land.

When he’s not giving interviews to foreign reporters or traveling around Mongolia performing at club openings, Gee is looking toward his next project. He told me that he wants to focus more on gangsta rap, but not 100%.

‘I do whatever I want,’ he says.

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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.

Concert: Who Is BX

Back in February, I attended a concert at one of the major venues in Ulaanbaatar. It was hip hop artist turned R&B singer BX’s first major solo show.

BX is one of the few popular musicians who didn’t grow up in Ulaanbaatar – making that difficult switch from countryside to city. It’s not uncommon for Ulaanbaatar natives to openly state their disapproval of recent countryside migrants to the city. They are blamed for pretty much all of the city’s major problems: pollution, crime, and traffic.

Still, BX has managed to rise to the top of the Mongolian pop charts, while also earning the respect of many other Mongolian musicians. His concert last February called ‘Who is BX’, which was also the title of his latest album, was by far the biggest show he independently produced.

The show lasted for over 2 hours, and he sang and danced for about 500 fans. There were at least 10 guest artists who sang duets or rapped with BX and several dancers. I stopped counting the costume changes – maybe a dozen in total.

As one of my first big concerts in Ulaanbaatar, I was really struck by how openly everyone sang along to the songs. This is something I have since seen at every major concert I’ve attended, and I love it! Americans are always so shy or embarrassed to sing out loud. We would consider it rude for someone to belt out the hit song we came to hear the artist himself sing. But, in Mongolia, there’s a different kind of culture built up around musical participation. Everyone – men, women, children – feel free to sing loudly and confidently. It’s a sign of appreciation.

Behind me at the show were three young boys – about 12 years old. They were dressed in the cool Korean fashion that’s popular among their age group here – with big hipstery glasses. They let me record them singing along to one of BX’s hits – to which they knew all of the words.

Advertisement for the Concert:

Who is BX (Official Video)

Dougie Hiie

Haana Baina

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:

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!