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.
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.
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…
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 to 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.
But 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.
This 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.
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.
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, I spent a day with some herders just 2 hours outside of Ulaanbaatar. I was accompanying a friend of mine and her aunt as they went to buy two fresh sheep for the upcoming Tsagaan Sar celebration.
We arrived at the first family’s ger (home) around 10:00 am. They served us milk tea and some freshly made buuz. Then the husband and wife and their young son hopped in my friend’s small Toyota and we headed off to another herder family’s home about 10 km away. We were lucky to be on a paved road for about half of the way, but relied on the little hatchback to do her best as we off-roaded it over the snowy terrain to the second ger.
Upon arrival, we were again greeted and served milk tea, a standard sign of Mongolian hospitality. With the horses gone off to get water, we had to drive the Toyota through the snow to where the sheep were grazing – another several kilometers away.
I’ve never seen the herding process before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Perhaps it might be different if the men were on horseback, but I was surprised at just how time intensive and exhausting it was to round up so many sheep. I was also surprised to see the method of catching the sheep: basically spotting the one you want, running into the herd, and tackling it. It’s quite entertaining to observe.
Over the course of the next hour, the two herders caught four or five sheep. They would compare their legs and tails to judge which one would be the best for eating at such a high holiday. They were very concerned with finding the two best sheep, which, to be honest, all looked the same to me.
After they chose the two winners, they tied them up, and lobbed them into the trunk of my friend’s hatchback, and we returned to the ger.
Watch a Video of the Herding Process:
The next 4 hours were spent killing, skinning, and cleaning the sheep – not for the faint of heart.
The traditional Mongolian method for killing sheep might be surprising. They cut the sheep’s belly lengthwise, stick their hand into the chest cavity and stop the heart by pinching the aorta. It takes no more than 5 minutes and the sheep don’t make a sound.
After, the two herders each skinned one sheep – ripping the skin from the fat and muscle. The pair made the skinning process look rather easy – using the fat to grease their hands and separating the skin from the muscle. The young boy climbed all over his father as he was exerting himself, but he didn’t seem to mind much. After about 15 minutes, the sheep were fully skinned. They would sell the pelts and feet later.
Once the sheep were skinned, the women took over. They spent the next several hours methodically cleaning the innards inside the ger. Each wife was in charge of one sheep’s o
rgans. First they cleaned the small and large intestines, squeezing out feces and running water through them until they were clear. Then they mixed blood with onion and garlic, which they poured into the intestines. This would later be cooked to make a tasty sausage-like treat.
After all the organs and intestines were properly cleaned, they stuffed them into the sheep’s stomach. They stretchy tissue served as an extremely efficient sack.
Coming from the United States, where the commercial slaughtering process is less than ideal, it was refreshing to observe how intimate the herders are with their livestock. Not part of the animal was wasted – nothing is taken for granted.
After all was said and done, I sat down with Batbayar, the older and more experienced of the two herders. He was extremely proud of his profession, saying that there was nothing difficult about it at all. ‘With the fresh air in the countryside, herding is a really nice lifestyle,’ he told me.
Batbayar comes from a long line of herders out west in Zavkhan Province. He moved to this region just outside of Ulaanbaatar with his family and 400 goats and sheep just 5 years ago.
Batbayar told me that his family was quite busy recently, selling and preparing sheep for out-of-town customers almost everyday ahead of Tsagaan Sar.
He said his daily life is simple: wake up, take the herds out to pasture, look after them as they graze, and bring them home in the evening. There are additional chores like tending to the cows and cleaning out the pens. But, for the most part it’s the same everyday. “We never change our work, we just have one job,” he explained.
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
Last November I had the chance to travel around Central Mongolia with some staff from the international development organization Mercy Corps. We visited seven small businesses: a bakery, a ger felt factory, a carpentry coop, a sewing coop, a massage therapy group focusing on people with disabilities, a milk producer, and a felt handicraft production group.
I tagged along as a photographer/videographer, capturing interviews with business leaders at each of the locations we visited. I included five of the short films about these small businesses in a previous post.
Here are the last two:
This post, admittedly, has zero to do with music. But, it has a lot to do with Mongolia.
Last November, I traveled with a few people who work with the NGO Mercy Corps to visit some of their projects in Arkhangai Province. It was a great way to see everyday life outside of Ulaanbaatar, and also heartening to see how an organization as big as Mercy Corps is able to really make a difference in individuals’ lives.
We visited seven small businesses that were being aided by small business loans, grants, social and business training, or all of the above. The businesses included a small bakery, a ger felt and factory, a carpentry coop, a sewing coop, a massage therapy group focusing on people with disabilities, a milk producer, and a felt handicraft production group. It was eye opening to see just how far a little assistance could go. One new sewing machine or table saw really gave people a chance to expand their business and livelihood in such a productive way.
Here are some of the vignettes that came out of the trip: