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)

Music Video: ‘Say It Now’ by Kush and Oyuka

Almost all of the music videos I’ve posted on this blog I have found from watching one of the many Mongolian music television channels or losing myself in a seemingly endless jungle of YouTube music videos.

But I am happy to say that this is different. I have been working closely with Kush & Oyuka, Mongolia’s newest jazz duo, as they record and prepare to release the first contemporary jazz album written in Mongolian and recorded in Ulaanbaatar. They are an energetic and talented couple with heaps of passion for bringing contemporary jazz to Mongolia.

About two months ago they closed down one of my favorite spots in Ulaanbaatar – an art gallery by day/bar by night called Xanadu. They filled it with their friends who just so happen to also be talented artists, actors, models, and filmmakers. Over the course of 16 hours, they recorded their first music video.

I’ve never been on the set of a music video before – in fact, I’ve never been involved in a scripted shoot like this before. All of my work is reality-based – news, documentary, reporting, etc. There’s a tremendous amount of work and preparation that went into this music video, that I can now, after observing the scene all day, fully appreciate.

The song, ‘Say It Now’, is about the power of love and allowing yourself to give into love. The music was written by Oyuka, the piano player and composer of the group. Oyuka also added to the lyrics which are mostly words from a famous Mongolian poet, Munkhbaatar.

For the video, the director and writer wanted to present imagery that would contrast with the lyrics and intention of the song. They wanted to show a somewhat bizarre scene out of place and time. On the day of filming, the director Moku told me, ‘Although Kush & Oyuka are singing about love, a precious treasure, none of the attendees seem to be paying any attention. It’s a cold approach. It’s an art gallery opening or an after party of some kind but it’s so bizarre – emulating that 70’s lifestyle. There aren’t any sailors in Mongolia, which explains the nonexistence of time and space occurring here.’

They also included two scenes with same-sex couples, which is still very taboo in Mongolia, and as far as I can tell it is a first for Mongolian music videos.

Kush & Oyuka are trying to do something new with their music in Mongolia, and it was important for them to stand out right away. In Mongolia, music videos are key. It’s one of the only ways musicians are recognized and their music is heard. Kush & Oyuka will try to get as much attention for this video as they can before releasing their album later this summer.

Without further adieu…

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.

20120513_Gee_Edit-111

20120513_Gee_Edit-19

20120513_Gee_Edit-9

Country Music Comparison

While Mongolia’s version is lacking the twang, blond bombshells, and sold out stadium concerts, country music in the Land of the Blue Sky does have a few things in common with its American namesake.

For one, there’s a strong sense of national pride associated with both. Stateside, songs like Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to be an American’ and Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of The Red, White and Blue’ are full of pro-American rhetoric. Granted, the American patriotism in these songs tends to be a bit more aggressive than its mountain-praising Mongolian counterpart. Still, Mongolian country music is full of patriotic anthems. Javkhlan is one notable singer known for praising his homeland. He’s respected by many for being extremely pro-Mongolian. Although, as far as I can tell, his love for his country is more of the praising Mongolia and less of the threatening foreigners brand. Javkhlan is so committed to Mongolia, in fact, that he is purportedly running for office in next month’s parliamentary elections.

Another similarity is the fan base. In both Mongolia and the United States country music is aptly named to represent the people who consume it as much as the people who create it. Here in Mongolia, country music is most popular among those who live outside of Ulaanbaatar (about half of the population) and those who recently moved to Ulaanbaatar. In the United States, country music fans tend to be from rural areas or states that have a larger proportion of rural citizens.

Appearance is important in both genres as well. Musicians try to look like an aggrandized version of a folk hero. In America that means denim, cowboy hats, boots, and big muscles (for men, that is). In Mongolia, that means deels (the traditional dress), Mongolian hats, boots, and big muscles. Music videos often rely on visuals of horses, hard work, connection to the land, overt national symbolism, and images that reinforce an idea of traditional life (a white-picket fence in America vs a white-felted ger in Mongolia).

Finally, both styles are musically accessible. American country music is full of those good old predictable G-C-D chords that anyone first learning to play the guitar knows. Songs are easy to sing along to and are familiar even to those Americans who don’t actively listen to country music. Similarly, Mongolian country songs are all written in the pentatonic scale – the five note scale used in traditional Mongolian music. It’s easy for Mongolians to hear country music without having much musical knowledge themselves. Mongolian country songs tend to be well known, even by those who openly admit to disliking the genre.

One of the places the two country music traditions part, however, is overall popularity. Even in Ulaanbaatar, roughly 70% of the radio play is dedicated to country music. There are generally more live* country music events than any other genre (save, perhaps, classical). Seven times out of ten my taxi driver will be listening to country songs on the radio or on a CD – sometimes singing along. While this might be the case for country music in certain regions of the United States – in massive population centers like New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago, it is certainly not getting the majority of airtime.

I’ll admit, I’ve been hesitant to look into country music too much. I think my aversion stems from the fact that all of the backing instruments are created via computer creating a hollow sound that I find difficult to listen to for long. But, it is a significant percentage of the music currently being produced in Mongolia, and a huge portion of the market.

I’m hoping to look a little deeper into the scene in the coming weeks, and will hopefully have a more nuanced update.

*The backing tracks for Mongolian country music are almost exclusively done on computerized midi files, which means a live music event is a singer accompanied by one of these recordings.

Music Videos: Mongolian Reggae

A few weeks ago I was interviewed for a local television program in Ulaanbaatar. I was speaking about the diversity of bands here and mentioned that I think they have everything but reggae. About a week later, I was happy to be corrected by my friend and the director of the program.

He explained that UB certainly has had some reggae bands in the past, the scene just currently isn’t very active. Reggae is notoriously tied to marijuana, a drug that’s use is very strictly prohibited in Mongolia. He indicated that this may have something to do with the bands either going underground or stopping entirely.

However, this coming Saturday, reggae music will be in full force. One of Ulaanbaatar’s musical scenesters is hosting the first annual ‘Big Up! Vol. 1 Reggae Party’. The event will be featuring reggae, roots, dancehall, and latin music – something a little off the beaten musical path here in UB.

Big Up

Watch/listen to some of the reggae music UB has to offer…

Souljahs singing ‘Aquarium’ (2009):

I love the scene in the middle of the video as the fish swims casually past the streets of Ulaanbaatar. It’s a pretty good depiction of life here.

Souljahs singing ‘Khair Baga Baina’ (rough translation: ‘A Little Affection’) (2011):

Hip-hop group Ice Top’s reggae influenced rap, ‘Suljee’ (rough translation: ‘Mixture’) (2008):

Reggaeman Featuring Mc Mo singing ‘Lim Yum Bdag Yum’ (2010)

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

Music Video: A Taste of Mongolia’s Top 10

While I was at the gym yesterday, I managed to catch part of MTM’s top 10 Mongolian video countdown. MTM is one of several television channels devoted to music here in UB. They play a mix of Mongolian and foreign music videos and feature interviews with local musicians as well as foreign music news.

Admittedly, I only caught numbers 8 – 3 of the top 10 list, but I thought I’d give you all a taste of what’s out there.

#3 ‘Hi Ladies’ – Uka ft. Amaraa

#4 ‘Hatarsish’ – Mino ft. Amaraa

#5 ‘Zurag’ – Naran

#6 ‘Who is Bx?’ – Bx

#7 ‘Tango’ – Uka

#8 ‘Facebook’ – Negen Zugt ft. Quiza

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: