Alumni stories

The mongolians music scene's greatest assets

BIO: Lauren Knapp is a Fulbright-mtvU Fellow researching modern music in Ulaanbaatar. She ar-rived in Mongolia in October and will stay through the end of the summer filming and interviewing key players in Mongolia’s rock and pop music scene. Lauren studied anthropology and music at Grinnell College, where she received her BA in 2006. Before coming to Mongolia, Lauren worked for The PBS News Hour, a nightly television news program in Washington, DC, where she produced several interviews with American artists and musicians.

You can follow her research on the MTV fellows blog (http://fulbright.mtvu.com/) or watch some of the videos she’s producing in Mongolia on her video page (www.vimeo.com/lcknapp).

Now that I am six months in to my ten-month long term as a Fulbright-mtvU Research Fellow, I have become fully engaged with the UB music scene: filming concerts, interviewing musicians and producers, and hanging out at band practices. I have perused record stores and been lost down the rabbit hole of Mongolian music video clips available online.

It might not come as a surprise to many to here that Mongolia’s music scene isn’t huge. With a population half that of my home state of Minnesota, there’s limited room for expansion. But I believe this intimacy is the modern Mongolian music scene’s greatest asset.

While Mongolian rock music officially started in 1971 with the founding of government-supported Soyol Erdene, it wasn’t until the mid - late 1990s that the diversity of sound and genre taken for granted elsewhere really exploded. That is when all of the musical firsts began to happen: first hip-hop group, first grunge band, first alternative radio station, first amplified horse-head fiddle, the first boy band, and on and on.

It seems nearly every musician or group I meet is able to claim to be the first at something. While that’s a reflection of the size and age of the modern music scene in Mongolia, it also seems to foster a sense among musicians that anything is possible. It stimulates creativity and pushes musicians to continue to make music that no one has ever made in Mongolia (and really anywhere) before.

Just this month I have had conversations with three different musicians all attempting to create something entirely new. Kush and Oyuka are working on the first jazz album to be written in Mongolian in over 15 years. Rock band Mohanik is planning an elaborate project to record their upcoming album in the countryside of several different aimags. And DLOB, a DJ who mixes traditional Mongolian music with modern beats, is bringing his performance to Khovd to exchange music and knowledge with the youth there. That‟s only a sliver of the myriad ways that musicians in Ulaanbaatar are innovating.

The intimacy of the music scene has also been the source of a collaborative, rather than competitive, atmosphere. Musicians don’t feel limited by their genre of choice, but are happy to work with other musicians regardless of style.

The best example of the frequency and depth of cross-genre collaboration is the recent album by pop diva Naran. She worked with over forty musicians from across the Mongolian music industry: rock legends, hip-hop artists, classical musicians, traditional instrumentalists, pop producers, almost no genre was left untouched. She acknowledged their efforts by giving them a big „Bayarlalaa‟ in the CD booklet and by inviting them to perform with her when she debuted her album.

Original grunge band Nisvanis plays a rare acoustic set at a recent concert celebrating their 16th anniversary.

While the scale of Naran‟s collaboration might be unusual, it is by no means an anomaly. Last year rapper Gee and folk rock band Jonon put out an album together called “Mongolz”. The two genres couldn‟t be more different. Gee specializes in harsh lyrics and gangsta rap while Jonon plays pleasant traditional Mongolian melodies on Mongolian instruments with drums and bass guitar. Yet the combination of the two was a huge success, and certainly something that piqued my interest as an outside observer.

Finally, it seems the small size of the music industry is creating a new desire to support uniquely Mongolian music. Having spent a decade copying Western music styles, many musicians are now recognizing the importance of their own musical heritage and trying to honor it, will still creating something new.

One of the horse head fiddlers from folk rock band Jonon told me that a crucial part of their music is to re-popularize the horse head fiddle among younger listeners. By adding drums and bass guitar, wearing trendy, colorful clothes on stage, and partnering with rapper Gee, they are making the horse head fiddle cool again.

Original folk rock band Altan Urag has been doing this for nearly a decade. The group was the first to electrify traditional Mongolian instruments and add distortion. They modified their fiddles by replacing the horse-head with a monster or alien head, to give the band a bit of edge. They are traditional, but not really. Altan Urag plays Mongolian folk songs that, if played by any other band wouldn’t get youth riled up. But at a recent performance, I saw fans head-banging and jumping up and down to their music.

Among the forty collaborators on Naran’s album, she told me it was important that a philological doctor and lyricist concerned with proper Mongolian language be included. Having sung in five different languages in the past, Naran told me that for this most recent album, it was important that she honor the Mongolian language.

“Now as I mature, I care more about Mongolia,” she told me in an interview. “What will happen with Mongolian culture if we forget our language? What will happen with Mongolia if we don’t care about our ancestor’s musical heritage? So I need to incorporate that into my music so that young children will be able to relate to their home country as they grow up.”

The rock band Mohanik has taken a different approach. Rather than using traditional Mongolian instruments or tunes, they have a classic rock setup and sound. Instead, they’re honoring Mongolian heritage by writing songs inspired by different places in nature. “If you listen to one of our songs it’s going to sound like we’re playing in a cave and there are lots of echoes or reverbs… [or you will] feel free standing on top of a mountain,” keyboard player Tsog explained.

The members of Mohanik talk about the Mongolian sound. Each of the five members who are in their early 20‟s grew up in Ulaanbaatar. Two of them studied abroad for university. Their musical inspirations are all British or American bands. Yet, they all talk about a Mongolian sound that is deeply ingrained in their musical psyche.

“We didn’t plan to make these songs, we didn’t plan to make a Mongolian sound,” guitarist and singer Tsogt explained. It happened more on its own, and now the band is recognizing the importance of that Mongolian sound. As bassist Enerelt put it, “These sounds are coming from Mongolia and that’s where we’re from.”

Now, as my project continues and the summer concert series heats up, I am excited to see how this small but vibrant musical community will continue to develop in a way that could only happen in Ulaanbaatar.