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.




Thanks to all of you who contributed to LIVE FROM UB’s Indiegogo Fundraising campaign! Your support will make the post-production of this documentary possible!

As they say on Marketplace, let’s do the numbers…

Fundraising Goal: $7500

Total Raised: $9389

Number of Contributors: 169

The money raised from this campaign will go toward hiring translators, assistant editors, colorists, sound designers, graphic designers and more!

This project has been made possible by the kindness of strangers from the very beginning. The generosity of sharing time and information new Mongolian friends and foreigners interested in Mongolia carried me through the research and filming phases. It means a lot to know that there is still a community invested in getting the word out about Mongolian rock!

So, Stay Tuned…

VIDEO: The Colors


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


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.


Remember all of those posts I was writing from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia over the past year or so? Well, the final product of all that research and filming is an hour-long documentary called LIVE FROM UB.

I have all the footage and the story, but I need a little extra help to support the editing and post-production process.

I’ve launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to raise funds and awareness about the project. You can check it out here

I am looking for finishing funds to cover the cost of:

Translator, Editor & Assistant Editor, Colorist (to make the colors match), Sound Mixer, Graphics Designer, DVDs and Printing, Press Kit, Festival Entrance Fees, Administrative Costs, Website, Film Insurance

But I’m also hoping to get the word out about this really exciting project. Please tell your friends and fellow Mongolia/Travel/Documentary buffs to check it out!


LIVE FROM UB takes viewers into the small but vibrant rock scene in Mongolia’s capitol, Ulaanbaatar (also called ‘UB’). In 1990 Mongolian’s demanded a new government. Tired of the restrictive lifestyle of their Soviet system, they protested throughout the winter until, at last, their demands were heard and a democratic government and free economy were granted. Throughout their struggles, rock music was there. It was the sound of a new generation and the beat of democracy. Now, over twenty years later, the first generation to grow up in this new society is making their own music. But, unlike Mongolia’s rock pioneers, they have full access to the outside world. They grew up on MTV. They download music in instants. They travel to Korea and China to buy equipment. But this new generation, with the world at their fingertips, is also searching for something much deeper – their true identity. The music they produce is proof of the new urban Mongolian – Eastern and Western, Ancient and Modern, Nationalist and Global Citizen. Through the lens of a few of these bands and interviews with experts, LIVE FROM UB explores what it means to be Mongolian today and how that’s shown through music.

A Lesson from ‘Gangam Style’

Korean pop-star Psy’s video for ‘Gangam Style’ recently surpassed Justin Beiber’s ‘Baby’ to become the most watched YouTube video EVER, with over 840,000,000 views. Psy has appeared on Saturday Night Live and Ellen (two huge markers of success), I ran into several Psy look-alikes on Halloween, and countless parodies have been made, including the politically charged ‘Mitt Romney Style’ video.

It’s been interesting to hear the reaction to this Korean music video going viral from pundits and reporters here in the United States where, quite frankly, we tend to think we’re the best at this kind of thing.

For those of you who haven’t seen the video or don’t know much about it, ‘Gangnam Style’ is a comical pop song making fun of Seoul’s elite. It’s a goofy song with a good beat and a charismatic dancer/singer. It is what a hit pop song is all about. But it’s done something that not many pop songs from non-Western countries have done – it’s made a huge international splash.

One of my favorite reporting teams, NPR’s Planet Money, recently reported on the video’s success and what it means. They explain that this is the result of a calculated effort on the part of the Korean music industry over the past 20 years to develop a strong and competitive pop industry. As Korea continues to become increasingly competitive in the global marketplace when it comes to cars and electronics, so too are they developing their cultural exports. As reporter Zoe Chace succinctly puts it, “It’s what happens when a developing country becomes developed – an infrastructure to make and export culture develops too.”

For anyone in Asia or who follows Asian culture, Korean pop music (K-pop) is nothing new. The girl group Girls’ Generation, is just one of many who have gained huge recognition throughout the continent.

In Mongolia, where urban youth buy Korean clothes, emulate Korean hairstyles, and watch Korean films, Korean music videos were played on the music channels every bit as much as Mongolian and western videos.

However, the music market in the United States tends to favor a) songs sung in ENGLISH and b) songs produced in the west. And so for ‘Gangnam Style’ to be played on radio stations and featured on television programs is quite a leap.

But, not everyone seems so impressed. Conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly dedicated an episode of his show to trying to understand this trend. It seems ‘Gangnam Style’s’ popularity evaded him, and so he decided to deconstruct the appeal. It’s worth watching the 5 minute clip to fully appreciate.

What I think the root of the issue here is that it’s difficult to accept that another nation (an Asian nation, at that) might actually be competitive in the cultural marketplace. As Americans, we have come to accept that the entire world imports our culture. Sports figures, musicians, actors – their names and faces are known worldwide.

There’s some implicit sense of cultural superiority that accompanies this phenomenon. And now, as other nations’ music and film industries are becoming increasingly competitive here in the United States, it seems we’re losing a bit of that notion that what is produced here in the U.S. is obviously the best and should be consumed the world-over.

Korea has managed to do something that the Mongolian music industry is eager to accomplish. They have created an internationally recognized brand of music (K-Pop) that is now on the same playing field as pop music from Australia, Great Britain, and the United States. Granted, Korea has been working at this for decades and has the capital and man power necessary to make the leap from national to international marketing, two things Mongolia is lacking. Still, the K-Pop craze is inspiring to the Mongolian pop industry as musicians and producers develop their own brand by mixing unique Mongolian sounds with the pleasant pop-rock accepted world wide – Mongol Pop.

I can’t help but feel that the success of ‘Gangnam Style’ must be encouraging to these musicians who are looking to not only be active consumers of culture worldwide, but also producers.

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

Kazakh Style

One of my good friends and a fellow Fulbrighter in Mongolia is just about to wrap up her 10 months. Johannah Herr is an artist and designer from Brooklyn, NY. Through her research and art, Herr focused on Kazakh design and adapting it to large-scale murals and portraits. Her work brought her to stay with the Kazakh community in the far western province of Bayan Olgy three times.

The capstone of her Fulbright was a show at Ulaanbaatar’s Red Ger Gallery entitled “Homeland(s)” at the beginning of November. Sadly, I was unable to attend, but I thought this would be a great excuse to share some of her work with you.

You can follow Herr’s blog here.