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: 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.

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!