Happy 850th Chinggis!

I believe Hallmark has yet to develop a cheesy birthday card celebrating/mocking one’s 850th year. But, Mongolian’s are not letting Chinggis (Ghengis) Khaan’s momentous day go unnoticed. In fact, it seems that they are giving it extra attention.

This newly erected statue of Chinggis Khaan stands at 40 meters tall

This past week, Mongolian Parliament has devoted time to debating the official celebration of the Mongolian leader’s birth, mainly what day and how it should be acknowledged. After reading the limited reports I could find (RFL/RE, MAD, UB Post), I am actually more confused about the outcome.
It seems there was debate over whether the government should declare Chinggis Khaan’s birthday a national holiday and celebrate it on a different date than the National Independence Day (November 26) or maintain the practice of celebrating it on the same day. It also appears there was lengthy debate over which day is his actually birthday. Some argue there’s substantial evidence indicating November 14, others say it is difficult to discern using the Gregorian calendar.

The discussion surrounding the issue is quite revealing of Mongolians’ relationship with the ancient conqueror. I was particularly struck by the following statement made during the debate of the birth date:

We Mongolians are undoubtedly the descendants of Chinggis Khaan who are continuing his family lineage and are custodians of his birth place and home land. Today more than ever it is of great significance to determine the birthday of Chinggis Khaan so it can be celebrated. I am especially glad that this discussion is occurring as currently Mongolians mark only two national holidays Tsagaan Sar and Naadam Festivals while celebrating foreign religion such as Valentine’s Day have encroached into the Mongolian psyche. Thus, we must mark the birthday of our Chinggis Khaan nationwide with a magnificent display once a year. It would help our next generations to know about their history, revere their country and grow up with strong affection towards Mongolia.

– Professor, PhD Sh.Choimaa (via M.A.D)

Also worth reading (or skimming) is President Elbegdorj’s pretty poetic speech given on November 14 entitled “Temujin-Chinggis is the Greatest Pride of us, the Mongols” (Temujin is Chinggis Khaan’s childhood name).

Heaven-sheltered Great Khaan Chinggis was not born out of void.
We was born of Mongol life.
Fed by the waters of Kherlen river, riding his horses, he worshipped his land and the Sky.
Listening to his mother, roaming in the steppe packing his ger, and feeding and raising his younger siblings.
He knew the value of a bowl of bird-cherries.
Accruing everything his fathers and forefathers left in him, he built up his strength.
Temuujin, grew up and distinguished out amidst the life-soaking miseries and challenges.
It was to get back his stolen light-bay horses that he raised his bow for the first time.
It was to save his bride Burte that he started his first war.

He later goes on to say:

The blue-spotted great grand children of the Lord Chinggis Khaan are being born to their fathers and mothers, bringing joy and happiness.
The blessing for Mongols to grow more is carrying on. (applause)
Mongols are uniting in the spirit to advance and prosper our country.
The State, established by Chinggis, with its seal, Sulde, the coat of arms and the owners of the country are flourishing. (applause)
The State and the people of Mongolia join altogether in saluting our blessing to our great Khaan in the turn of the nineth century of establishment of the Great Mongol Empire.

At first glance, Mongolians’ reverence for Chinggis Khaan might be almost comical to a foreigner. His visage and name are everywhere (vodka bottles, beer mugs, hotel signs, energy drinks, cigarettes, rugs hung in gers around the country, statues, murals, restaurants, and more). A large bronze statue of Chinggis Khaan sitting in a position modeled after the Lincoln Monument sits in front of the Parliament Building. And in 2008, a 40 meter-tall silver-colored metal statue of Chinggis riding a horse and staring off into the distance toward his birthplace was erected about an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar. Tourists who visit the privately-funded monument can walk out onto the top of his horses head to get a view of the surrounding countryside and an up-close look at a very stern Chinggis.

Tapestries depicting Chinggis Khaan are common living room decorations in Ulaanbaatar

To an outsider, all of this may seem a bit overkill. But, when one considers Mongolia’s recent past and current struggle to place itself in the world, the extreme reverence for this internationally known man begins to make sense.

Prior to the democratic transition in 1990, the mention of Chinggis Khaan was essentially forbidden. He was not celebrated as a national hero or founder of Mongolia and schools barely mentioned him in their history lessons. In 1962, the Prime Minister was removed from office, exiled to Western Mongolia and “eventually chopped up with an ax” after trying to erect a small monument at Chinggis Khaan’s birthplace, according to anthropologist and author of “Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” Jack Weatherford. “He was something that was simply no longer in existence in Mongolia. But the people didn’t forget. They had to change their songs, they had to change their poems, they had to strike him from the history books, but the people didn’t forget. In 1990, one of the most important things for them was to resurrect their history.”

And so when the new era of Mongolia and Mongolian national identity was ushered in two decades ago, Chinggis Khaan was already becoming a strong figure. One of the subversive rock groups of the 1980s named themselves after the leader. People had already started evoking his name as they protested for democracy. Chinggis Khaan had unified the warring tribes of Mongolia in 1206 and Mongolians relied on him once again for national unity.

Chinggis has been portrayed as the ultimate man – strong, large, authoritative, warrior, healthy labido. He is responsible for the world’s largest land empire – spanning Korea to Eastern Europe. But the side of Chinggis western schools often overlook is also celebrated.

“There’s no question that Chinggis Khan was the greatest conqueror in the world,” says Weatherford. “But he was also a very innovative thinker. He was also a great law-giver. He created international law that in many regards we still have today, or at least we still strive to have today. He had a law of diplomatic immunity – we still strive for that today, it’s not quite there. He had a law outlawing the buying and selling of women – again, we don’t have that today, but we still strive for that. There’s law that promoted religious freedom. The world still wants religious freedom. He was a very innovative thinker and he gave the Mongolians a very wonderful moral foundation for their nation.”

He’s also proof of a once-strong Mongolia.

It’s impossible to understand Mongolian national identity without acknowledging the active and passive roles its neighbors of Russia and China have played. They are a landlocked country of 2.7 million stuck between two of the world’s most powerful (and fairly aggressive) nations. They are dependent on them, yet they deeply wish to maintain their independence. And so Mongolians also use Chinggis Khaan as a reminder that they were once the most powerful people in the world and that blood still flows through there veins (never-mind that most of Chinggis Khaan’s direct descendents were killed due to hundreds of years of internal political conflict). That’s a pretty powerful national figure.

As Mongolians now eagerly establish their place in the world, determine how to negotiate their quickly growing economy, and work to become key players in their region and international politics, the reminder of Mongolia’s great past serves as a call to create a great future. The days of waging war with horses and bows and arrows are over (as Pres. Obama and Mitt Romney reminded us a month ago), but the psyche remains, and as far as national identity is concerned, that can be pretty powerful.

View from the top of the Chinggis Khaan statue

Chinggis sits in a law-giver’s pose in front of the Mongolian Parliamentary building

There are several competing brands of vodka named after “Chinggis”

Chinggis paraphernalia is for sale in one of the many tourist gift shops in central Ulaanbaatar

The Mother of ‘Mongol Rap’

Hip-hop is a musical genre dominated by men the world over. And so when a woman follows her passion for rap and makes a name for herself, it’s worth paying attention to.

Gennie is not the only female rapper in Mongolia, but she is certainly one of the most resilient and one of the first. Just 25 years old, Gennie has made a name for herself in the Monoglian hip-hop scene. While she has yet to release an album of her own, she has been featured on several of Mongolia’s top rappers’ songs. She is also one of three central characters in the newly finished documentary, ‘Mongolian Bling’.

Freedom of Expression

Hip-hop has been a way for Gennie to express herself throughout her young adult life. “I like hip-hop because it gives me a freedom to express my views through song,” she told me. “When I rap, I feel like I become a different person, someone who is free – unconstricted.”

Gennie started rapping when she was about 12 and recording her songs at 14. She has been steadily performing, writing and recording for the past ten years, unlike many of her female counterparts. “I think the [other] women aren’t very serious, they will quite after recording only one or two songs,” she explained.

It’s difficult for musicians to make a career out of music. Almost all of them (across genres) need a full-time job to support themselves, while they pursue their passion after hours. Gennie, who also has a three year-old son, works as a mechanic adjusting and monitoring water pressure in an apartment complex. She proudly told me that she was the first woman to have this kind of job in Mongolia. “I’m kind of a masculine person,” she said. Gennie takes a quiet pride in breaking gender barriers in Mongolia, doing things most women won’t do.

A charming, unassuming, friendly, eager, bright-eyed, animated, and considerate person, Gennie breaks stereotypes across the board. When I first met her, it was hard for me to imagine the petite woman making her way in the hip-hop world. But when she raps, Gennie channels her effervescent energy into her words and beats with the calm confidence of a true performer.

Greater Message

Gennie takes her songs as seriously as her commitment to her craft. While other Mongolian rappers are focusing on wealth, cars, women and musical rivalries, Gennie is using her microphone to draw attention to social issues particularly pertaining to nature, the needy, and women. One song, titled ‘Woman’, she’s been developing for the past several years highlights the difficulties many women face in Ulaanbaatar. “It’s not meant to criticize or praise,” she says, “but just shine a light on the reality.”

In ‘Women’, Gennie profiles three archetypes over three verses: a middle-aged woman in an abusive relationship, a teenager who is eager to grow up and is taken advantage of by older men, and a young human trafficking victim. These sorts of issues are rarely discussed in Ulaanbaatar, and Gennie hopes to use her music to bring attention to what she says are common problems.

But hip-hop has also helped Gennie reach beyond Mongolia. She says that she learned English by listening to Eminem. She wanted to understand the songs and so she downloaded the lyrics, translated them and would sing them over and over. “By loving something, I allowed it to influence me in many ways.” Hip-hop also helped Gennie travel abroad. In 2010 she was invited to participate in an international hip-hop festival in France where she met musicians from around the globe who were all eager to share their own styles and learn from each other. While words and language are crucial in rap, Gennie says she was able to get a lot out of the exchange despite the language barrier.

Likewise, her influence has been a mix of Mongolian and foreign (mostly American) rap. She particularly admires Eminem and Dain ba Enkh (War and Peace), one of Mongolia’s first hip-hop groups. She says she particularly likes Dain ba Enkh because they use words from a famous Mongolian poet, Choinyam, “who is really in touch with reality and real life situations.”

What is ‘Mongol Rap’?

Most Mongolian hip-hop, especially early on, is based on the American style. Rappers were exposed to artists like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan, and Eminem in the late 1990’s when the genre was still in its infancy in Mongolia. Aside from mimicking the style, many of the rappers in the early stages also lifted beats and tunes directly from foreign songs, a practice that was common across genres during that period in Mongolia.

But now, Gennie says, that is all changing. There’s an on-going discussion about how Mongolian rap (‘Mongol Rap’) should develop. There are some musical differences between the Mongolian and American styles. The singing style and flow is different as is the rhyming pattern. Traditional Mongolian poetry uses the beginning of words and lines to rap, rather than the end. That’s carried over into rap. Some musicians even rhyme both the beginning and end of lines.

But the question of what defines Mongol Rap remains. Do artists need to included traditional Mongolian instruments or tunes? Should they only rap about Mongolian issues? Or is Mongol Rap anything that is made by Mongolian rappers? It seems Gennie believes, at least in part, the latter. “I am Mongolian, so what I create will be Mongol Rap.”

As more beat makers and composers enter the industry, experimentation and authenticity are expanding. I asked Gennie what her hope for Mongol Rap is. She explained that she would like to see it continue to develop into something new and unique. “In 10 years, I hope that we would be recognized at least in Asia”.

Gennie is doing her part to make that happen. Her dedication and passion which have helped shape Mongol Rap over the years will undoubtedly continue to enhance the genre. When I asked Gennie what she finds challenging about her craft, she said, “It’s always difficult to make things. But there is a Mongolian proverb which says, ‘If a person makes an effort, then their fate will also make an effort.’ If you follow your passion and create something, the way will be more open.”

More Music From Gennie:

Born in UB

Tuukhee Butee (Create History)

Naimag Gecen Hair (Love For Me)

Az Jargal (Happiness)

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: