Downtown Beijing might seem a strange place for a Mongolian folk revival. Yet Hanggai are at the forefront of a musical movement in China that is finding inspiration in native folk traditions, drawing on a repertoire of magical songs that have all but disappeared during China's recent turbulent past.
Hanggai is made up of young musicians from Beijing and from the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. The need of these young musicians to rediscover and express their roots and native language is causing quite a stir in China and seems to indicate some kind of change within their generation. Their interpretations of traditional songs from the grasslands are attracting an ever-increasing following and a cult status as a kind of antidote to Chinese Pop and Western boy bands.
The word 'hanggai' is ancient Mongolian, describing an idealised grassland landscape of mountains, trees, rivers and blue skies.
The group’s leader, Ilchi, was fronting a punk band until he experienced a conversion after hearing traditional overtone singing. He travelled to his father’s homeland of Inner Mongolia and started to learn the technique – rediscovering the music and repertoire of songs that had faded but not disappeared during China’s turbulent past. There he met Hugejiltu and Bagen, both music students, who joined the group. Hugejiltu plays lead fiddle and Bagen sings deep bass using a technique of overtone singing, producing a note one octave below the note he is singing.
Since the release of their first album, Introducing Hanggai by the World Music Network in 2008, which garnered glowing praise internationally, Hanggai have played some of the best international festivals in the world, including Roskilde, Lowlands, Lotus Festival, the Chicago World Music Festival, Sziget, Wacken open air (Europe’s largest metal festival), FMM festival, Sydney festival, Zwarte Cross and WOMAD festivals in Abu Dhabi, UK, Gran Canarias, Australia and New Zealand.
The songs on the album are adaptations of traditional songs from the grasslands, sung in Mongolian, many using hoomei, a throat-singing technique that has been handed down over hundreds of years. At the heart of the music are two traditional instruments – the morin khuur – the horse-hair fiddle and the tobshuur – a strummed two-stringed lute.
Some of the arrangements sound very simply traditional and others are more complex. ‘Five Heroes’, a song of vigilantes stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, includes jangly electric guitar, conjuring up cowboy movies – creating a connection between east and west. ‘Wuji’ is predominantly throatsinging, with the strong repetitive sound of the horsehair fiddle pushing the song forward. ‘Lullaby’ (Borulai) is a gorgeous mix of vocal harmonies – the familiar feel of a gentle lullaby with a strong atmosphere of the grasslands.
- Chinese Folk