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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I filmed them at one of their regular gigs in Ulaanbaatar last year. Here are two songs from that performance.
Last June, as Mongolians were preparing to head to the polls, I came across a music video on a friend’s Facebook page that caught my eye. It is was called ‘Khonkny Duu – Virtual Version’. ‘Khonkni Duu’, which means ‘The Ringing of the Bell’, is an iconic song in Mongolia. It was written in 1989 as a call for democracy, and quickly became the anthem of the movement.
Since then, dozens of artists have performed it in different styles and adaptations. The most recent rendition is the virtual version – a 21st Century appeal to the youth of Mongolia.
‘Khonkny Duu’ LyricsI had a nightmare last night As if a long arm tortured me, Strangling my words and blinding me. Luckily, the bell rang and woke me; The ring of the bell rouses us. The bell that woke me in the morning, Let it toll across the broad steppes, Reverberating mile after mile. Let the bell carry our yearning And revive all our hopes.
More on ‘Khonkny Duu’
Note: I mistakenly included one music video that was not “Khonkny Duu” in the original post.
One of the most interesting things about a music scene as small and young as the one in Ulaanbaatar is that every band seems to be the first at something. I have met with members of the first Mongolian grunge, punk, metal, folk rock, and alternative bands – all of which are still performing.
The Lemons are one of these pioneering bands. They would fall into the post-rock, alternative category and were the first to create a Strokes-inspired sound in Mongolia.
The four-person group (plus a regular sound guy) formed in 2004 when they were in their late teens and early twenties. Each member brought different musical tastes to the group, but they all agreed that alternative rock was the way to go. After eight years and two albums, they have now become one of Mongolia’s quintessential alternative bands.
The Lemons’ songs are generally high-spirited with bright-sounding guitar riffs. One of the hits off their first album is a tune about a frog princess. After the male protagonist breaks the spell the princess is under, turning her from a frog back into a human, she thanklessly forgets about him. Another hit song is an ode to Ulaanbaatar. Some of the lyrics are poking fun at the soviet-era obsession with production. But it’s mostly just a peppy song praising their hometown.
The Lemons say their appearance was no accident. When they first formed, they took care to cultivate a sort of hipster style, buying skinny jeans from abroad since they didn’t sell them in Mongolia. Odnoo, the lead singer generally sports dark sunglasses and a leather jacket while the others are a bit more casually dressed.
All three band members that I interviewed said it’s not easy being a rock musician in Mongolia. Even as late as 2004, when they first started, it was difficult to find instruments and a practice space – two key ingredients to any band. Now, guitars are a bit easier to come by, but they still struggle to get amplifiers, mixers and electronic equipment.
Beyond the logistics of acquiring instruments and finding a place to rehearse, it’s not easy to make a living as musicians. While they are one of the most famous bands here, the Lemons still have to play weekly gigs at a handful of bars around Ulaanbaatar to make money. They sign contracts with the bar owners agreeing to play the same six or seven songs each week. It’s typical for a band to show up at a restaurant, play for about twenty minutes, and then be on their way. The fans don’t seem to mind the abruptness nor the repetitive sets, but the bands certainly do. Guitarist Tulga told me, “We are actually bored by singing the same songs and don’t have any interest in singing at these kinds of places. But we have no choice.”
On the other hand, lead singer Odnoo says that playing with the band makes up for it. “The best thing is practicing and playing our own shows,” he explained. “I like to create new things.”
Now, the Lemons are working on their third album, which should be finished by the end of the summer. Their songs have taken on a more electronic sound after importing a special electronic keyboard from the U.S. that helps them create different effects. Before an interview this spring, Tulga showed me some of the unfinished tracks. One song featured a long song singer (a traditional Mongolian style of singing). I thought it worked really well with the electronic sound and added some unique Mongolian flavor to the music. But now they cut the long song, claiming it was too similar to Mongol Pop, a style that blends traditional elements with pop music.
When I asked them what they want a foreign audience to know about Mongolian music, they all agreed that just knowing that this kind of rock music is available in Mongolia is enough. Most foreigners come to Mongolia expecting the traditional herders and horses and don’t pay much attention to the rich urban culture Ulaanbaatar has to offer. For them to simply know about the music scene here is enough, they say.
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 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 are fairly new to the UB music scene. They represent a younger generation of artists, weened on alternative rock and influenced by indie bands.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.?
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.
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)