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.

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.

Losing Lenin

UPDATE:

A crowd of about 300 people watched the Lenin statue be taken down from its podium on October 14th. The affair lasted from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm and was mostly low-key.

According to a friend of mine, Christa Hasenkopf, there was only a handful of onlookers present until the end, when Ulaanbaatar mayor Bat-Uul gave a speech. She says the crowd was mostly made of middle-aged to older men, just standing around. As it was being taken down, four people threw shoes at the statue (a sign of great disrespect) and then one person waved good-bye as it was taken away.

Photo by Christa Hasenkopf

Photo by Christa Hasenkopf

ORIGINAL POST:

Later this week, the statue of Vladimir Lenin that has been prominently peering down at passers-by off Ulaanbaatar’s central thoroughfare for nearly 60 years will be finding a new home.

According to a recent article published by Reuters, the remnant of Mongolia’s soviet days will be up for auction with the bidding starting at 400,000 togrog (less than $300).

[City Mayor] Bat-Uul said two companies had already expressed interest, including a tourist “ger” (yurt) camp outside Ulan Bator which already owns a statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Ulaanbaatar’s Lenin statue (Image: asia-trip.info)

The newly elected mayor has been actively working to improve Ulaanbaatar. By August, only a month after he took office, Bat-Uul had implemented a series of traffic laws aimed at easing the flow on the heavily congested roads. As one of democracy’s loudest cheerleaders, the symbolism of removing Lenin’s statue seems to be of no small significance.

Bat-Uul said he was surprised the statue had survived as long as it had, given the millions who died in famines and mass executions under Soviet rule.

“We had a brutal communist regime in Mongolia too,” he noted. “We lost around 40,000 people in just two years during the 1930s. They were killed in cold blood. It was genocide.”

Four years ago, Bat-Uul was a key figure in the fate of a very different kind of statue. The ‘Beatles Statue’, as it is commonly called, was unveiled on October 9, 2008 as, yes, a tribute to the famous rock group, but also as a reminder of the country’s Soviet past.

Most foreigners and many younger Mongolians who see the statue are unaware of it’s symbolism. Many use it as a landmark and commonly refer to Tserenhand St., on which the statue resides, as “Beatles Street”.

Posing with the Beatles on a wintry evening in Ulaanbaatar

But the Beatles Statue is actually quite symbolic. In a time when access to the foreign marketplace and Western culture was banned, the Beatles came to represent free society. I’m told by many Mongolians in their fifties that contraband such as ball point pens, jeans and Beatles albums were hot commodities that they would secretly trade.

The statue has two sides, separated by a brick wall. One one is a bronze image of the four singers as they appear on the cover of “Abbey Road”. On the other, is a statue of a young Mongolian playing guitar in a stairwell, reminiscent of the days when that was a common occurrence. There’s also a window on this side where a tiny whole has been drilled into the brick (although it was later filled in). This, I am told, is supposed to symbolize the youth peering into western society.

Honestly, I’m a little sad that the Lenin statue will no longer stand as one of Ulaanbaatar’s many remnants of history. Not because I’m a Lenin fan, but because I always liked that the city was full of statues from so many different era’s of the city’s past stood concurrently. The fact that it wasn’t torn down after the democratic revolution, like statues in almost every other formerly soviet country were, I thought was a testament to the Mongolians’ ability to move on. Their revolution was a peaceful one. Somehow allowing the Lenin statue to remain for all these years seemed to represent that.

The ‘soviet’ side of the Beatles Statue (Image: http://cycletourtake2.blogspot.com)

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.

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

Music Profile: The Lemons

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.

Election Day (News Round-Up)

Mongolians are heading to the polls today to participate in the 6th Parliamentary election since the country embraced democracy in 1990. Election day is a national holiday here, which means that businesses are closed in an effort to encourage voter participation. In Ulaanbaatar, voting is easy. There are several stations where citizens can cast their ballots. It’s a bit trickier in the countryside, however, where herders live dozens of miles away from the nearest polling place.

The two major parties, the Mongolian People’s Party and the Democratic Party, are both campaigning on how they will spend Mongolia’s rising income from mining projects on the people and developing Mongolia. New roads, a subway, pensions – these are among the lofty promises, which, it seems not many average citizens take very seriously.

A campaign flyer for a Democratic Party candidate shows the Ulaanbaatar of today and the Ulaanbaatar he promises for tomorrow.

Two young Mongolians wrestle outside a ger erected by the Democratic Party in a small town in the Gobi desert (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

Read more on today’s election and how the new economy is playing a part:

How does a poor country spend billions? Mongolian elections to decide how to spend mining boom (Washington Post)

Mongolia’s new wealth and rising corruption is tearing the nation apart (The Guardian)

Mongolia Votes, as Resources Bring Wealth and Challenges (Moscow Times)

Resource nationalism to irk investors as Mongolia goes to polls (Reuters)

Mongolian elections decide how to spend a windfall (Fox News)

Read more on campaign ads:

An Introduction to Mongolia’s Political Ads

When Music Videos and Campaign Commercials Combine

Campaign Monologues

The Lighter Side

Dinosaurs and the Benefit of a Small Country

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about living and working in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for the past eight months is just how small it is. The city often feels more like a village of 1.2 million people who all seem to know each other and interact in dozens of different ways.

In studying the music scene, I’ve been impressed at how frequently and seamlessly individual musicians from genres as diverse as classical, hip-hop, jazz, dance, and traditional work together on projects by writing lyrics or playing on an album. Personally, I’ve seen the intimacy of Ulaanbaatar through the various friends I’ve made in what I originally thought were different circles. Everyone seems to know each other.

Recently, I’ve seen the advantage of a small and connected world play out in international headlines with the ongoing drama of the sale of a dinosaur.

A tyrannosaur in Mongolia’s Natural Museum of History

About one month ago I ran into a couple I’ve befriended in the airport while waiting for my mother to arrive from the U.S. Oyungerel and her husband Jeff have been very kind to me throughout me stay here and even invited me to their home for Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian New Year) Celebrations. I first reached out to Oyungerel after hearing that she wrote lyrics for pop singer Naran. I discovered that she is a Mongolian Renaissance woman with masters degrees from Yale and Stanford, has authored two best-selling books (a novel co-written with Jeff and a guide from Mongolians who want to study abroad), and has been the assistant and adviser to President Elbegdorj for years. She is currently running for Parliament.

Oyungerel and Jeff kindly bought me a cup of coffee and we sat and chatted about my research, the upcoming elections and the most recent of the projects the two are pursuing: a book on dinosaur tourism in Mongolia. It had been an eventful day, they told me. That morning, while doing some research for the book, Jeff had stumbled upon the announcement of the upcoming auction of a nearly complete tyrannosaur skeleton. The fossil hailed from the Gobi Desert, although it was unclear if it was from the Chinese or Mongolian region. But Jeff and Oyungerel were fairly certain the fossil most likely came from Mongolia. And if this were true, then it would have been smuggled from the country illegally, as Mongolia has strict laws forbidding the exportation of fossils.

Oyungerel decided to bring it to the attention of the President. With much more pressing matters to attend to, it took some convincing on Oyungerel’s part for him to agree to take action. But by the end of the day, he had released a statement hoping to hault the auction until the fossil’s origins were clear.

But three days later, on May 20, Heritage Auctions sold the fossil to an anonymous bidder for $1,052,500. The following day, the sale was halted until an investigation of the fossil’s origins was complete.

In the following days,Tyrannosaurus bataar, as he is known, became the star of the paleontological world as paleontologists worked to determine its home. Now, the United State Attorney’s Office has demanded Tyrannosaurus bataarbe returned to its native land.

Read a full account of the mammoth ordeal here.

These sorts of dramas always unfold because one person happened to be in the right place at the right time. If Oyungerel and Jeff weren’t researching a book on dinosaur tourism, it is highly likely the sale would have gone unnoticed and Mongolia would have been robbed of a national treasure.

Watching the full story of this dinosaur drama unfold has reminded me of the many advantages of living is such a unique, intimate, and connected city.

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)