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.

Khovsgol Province: Shamanism

Shamanism is a an ancient spiritual tradition practiced throughout Mongolia. People who follow shamanism believe that nature and humans are connected in a deeply spiritual way. The shaman is the link between those worlds and acts as a conduit for people to reach beyond. According to the Lonely Planet, “two of a shaman’s main functions are to cure sickness caused by the soul straying, and to accompany souls of the dead to the other world.”

While witnessing a shaman ceremony is a special event, signs of the spiritual tradition are throughout Mongolia. Ovoos (sacred piles of stones) are scattered across the countryside as indicators of respect for nature. They are typically built at noteworthy locations as a sign of respect to the natural realm. When one passes an ovoo, he or she  must circle it three times and toss a stone onto the pile as an offering. Others might offer horse skulls, vodka bottles, or even tires.

Recently, Mongolia has seen a resurgence of Shamanism as many young people are becoming shamans. However, some believe a number of these new converts are “tourist shamans”, people who will perform the ceremony as a show for a fee.

Last August, I traveled to Khovsgol Province with the Vanishing Cultures Project to meet one of the country’s most well-respected shamans. She was kind enough to invite us to a ceremony, which she also allowed me to film.

This is the second in a series of three videos from Khovsgol Province. They were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Watch more videos from Khovsgol:

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Last August, I spent a week with the Vanishing Cultures Project co-leaders Taylor Weidman and Nina Wegner in Mongolia’s northern province of Khovsgol. We were documenting the herding lifestyle for their upcoming book, “Mongolia’s Nomads: Life on the Steppe”. I had the privilege to tag along on their research journey as a filmmaker.

Over the course of the week, we stayed with two different herding families, visited with one of the country’s most powerful shamans, and I filmed a behind-the-scenes look at the work Taylor and Nina do with Vanishing Cultures Project. Two months later, I’ve finally been able to sit down and finish these short films!

Here’s the first of the three, a profile of two different herders living in Khovsgol Province:

 

Continue reading

Mongolian Rock in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I was happy to contribute an article for “The Next Page” section of yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The piece gives a brief history of Mongolian rock music but also features Mohanik, one of the bands I was following last summer. Mohanik spent last spring and summer preparing to record an original sounding rock album in the countryside. At the end of August, they brought a crew up to Amarbayasgalant Monastery (5ish hours from UB) and recorded the full album in one day. They let me tag along and film the incredible experience. I’ll be posting more on Mohanik as I sift through all of my footage.

You can read the full article here.

Daraa Ulzii (See You Later)

This post comes a few days late. I was hoping to write before I left Mongolia last Wednesday, but found myself frantically working up until the last minute. Now, I have been back in the United States for a few days and the past ten months I’ve spent living in Ulaanbaatar already feel like a surreal dream.

I have not been posting nearly as much as I would have liked over the summer because I have been so busy collecting interviews and footage. But I look forward to sharing all that I have been working on over the coming months as I begin editing my documentary about rock music in Mongolia.

For now, however, I’d like to share some personal thoughts on my time in Mongolia.

As I depart from the land of Chinggis Khan, mutton, camels, and seriously adorable babies, I am struck by how fond I’ve grown of this place. It has not been an easy place to live. Crossing the busy streets clogged with honking cars often felt like a suicide mission. Finding a decent (affordable) salad became a small, but not insignificant, victory. Walking down the sidewalk was often an adventure as I would negotiate piles of rubble, uncovered manholes, and hostile nationalists. Learning what I could of the Mongolian language (which my friend claims sounds like aggressive Elvish) was a feat. And simply surviving the brutal and lengthy winter was a major accomplishment.

Yet, despite the physical and mental challenges of living in a city like this, I grew to love it. I’m left with two overwhelming impressions of the Mongolian people and culture. First, there is a sense of optimism that permeates the country – from the nomadic herder to the ambitious college grad. Second, I was constantly impressed by the generosity and hospitality of the people who were so eager to help me with my project and time in Mongolia.

Mongolia is a small country. It’s landlocked between two political and economic giants: China and Russia. Until recently, the majority of the population survived off of their livestock. The climate is extreme and the infrastructure outside of the capitol is sparse. It’s not an easy place to be.

But the challenges seem to only embolden Mongolians as a people. While I might look at the nomadic lifestyle and see a path full of uncertainty, hard labor, and harsh weather, they see an incredible amount of freedom. I might look at Ulaanbaatar and see chaos that I still can’t fully understand, and they see entrepreneurial opportunities. Mongolians are proud to be descendents of some of the greatest conquerors the world has ever known. They know that the wealth of their country lies not only in the natural resources so many entities are eager to extract, but the incredible wilderness and nomadic life that is hard to find elsewhere. They know there is something special about a country that has maintained the same language, script, diet, clothing, and music for over a millennium.

If I adopted anything from Mongolia, I hope it is this sense of optimism and self-worth.

Over the past ten months I have often said that I wished I had a partner. Filming, interviewing, editing, and researching such an expansive topic as rock music in a language I don’t fully understand proved to be a daunting task. But I did have an enormous amount of help. In fact, I relied on the kindness of strangers for almost all of my research.

Almost everyone I have met has been so supportive of my project, offering their time, contacts, advice, interviews and free translation in spades. The Mongolian music community took me in and rallied for my success. The foreign research community has been generous with their knowledge and experience. I owe these people so much and feel lucky and honored to have benefited from their generosity.

As I mentioned above, I will be spending the next several months sifting through my massive amount of material and will continue to update this blog.

Thank you for following over the past year and I hope you continue to read about the music, culture, and times of  the Land of the Blue Sky.

For now, here is a short video capturing a herding family moving from their summer to fall location in Khovd Province:

The Sounds of a Countryside Naadam

Last week, I produced a radio piece about Uugtaal’s Naadam for PRI’s The World with the help of Nina and Taylor at the Vanishing Cultures Project. There’s some great sound from the festivities, including child jockeys singing the ‘Giigoo’ t their horses before heading to the starting line.

In case you missed it, you can listen here.

And, if you haven’t already, check out my posts and videos on the Naadam events of:

Horse Racing

Archery

Wrestling

Happy Naadam: Horse Racing

One of my favorite parts of the Naadam celebration in Uugtaal last week was the way the small jockeys (aged between 5 and 12 years old) would sing to their horses before each race.

This particular Naadam had 6 races. Each race varied in length depending on the age of the horse. The shortest distance was about 6 miles, while the longest was 14. And so several times over the course of the two-day long event, a group of between 15 and 40 children would ride their horses into the main stadium singing the ‘Glingoo’. It’s a free-form kind of song that is meant to encourage the horses to run quickly.

After riding around the inside edge of the arena, the riders would gather at the front where they would drink airag (fermented mare’s milk) and pour some on their horses’ heads and hind quarters. Singing once again, they would exit the stadium and trot toward the starting line.

Horses are an essential part of Mongolian culture and the traditional lifestyle. They are veneered and used for everything from transportation to nourishment. But until I saw how the children interact with horses, I didn’t quite understand just how much a part of life they are. Dozens of young boys casually rode their horses around the grounds, showed off by doing tricks, squirted water guns at their friends and even shared ice cream cones. It was clear that if you were an 11 year old boy without a horse, you were just not cool.

Watch a video about the horse race:

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Wrestling and Archery.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Happy Naadam: Archery and Shagai

Saihan Naadaarai! Happy Naadam!

Today (July 11) is the first of the annual three-day long celebration of Naadam. It is a sporting and cultural event that dates back to the 13th Century, a time when the three ‘manly sports’ of horse racing, wrestling, and archery were vital to Mongolia’s global dominance.

Although the national Naadam celebrations started today, county-wide and province-wide competitions and festivals have been occurring around the country since the beginning of July.

Having already attended the Naadam celebrations in Ulaanbaatar back in 2007, I was curious to see how it was celebrated on a more intimate scale.

Last week, I traveled to Uutgaal, a small county seat just 150 km from Ulaanbaatar, with fellow documentarians Nina and Taylor of the Vanishing Cultures Project and Mark of Open Road Movies. We spent two days watching horse races, wrestling matches, archery and the newly added game of Shagai (ankle bones). As the only foreigners and journalists at this Naadam, we were granted excellent access to the roughly 400 participants, organizers, and spectators.

Here are the first two in a series of four videos highlighting each of the four main events.

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Horse Racing and Wrestling.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

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…