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.

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.

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!

Live From UB: Altan Urag

I’m starting a new feature on my blog called ‘Live From UB’.

I’m hoping to share a live performance (or at the very least rehearsal) by a local band once a week. I suppose Tuesday is as good a day as any to get going.

Here is Altan Urag, one of my favorite groups in Ulaanbaatar. They were all trained on traditional Mongolian instruments at the College of Music & Dance – Mongolia’s premier arts university. They’ve established a new genre here, called Mongolian folk rock, which combines traditional instruments and sounds with drums and modern beats.

The best way to see Altan Urag perform is at one of the two big restaurants that host them several times a week: Ikh Mongol, and Mongolians. They are are two of the handful of establishments that feature regular live music. Although, bands tend to play 4-5 songs, and then pack up their instruments and call it a night.

Here they are playing ‘Jalam Khar’: