Mongolian folk-rock group Hanggai merge ancient language with modern sound
In Away from the Grasslands, the new mini-documentary about Mongolian folk-rock group Hanggai, mouth harp-player Horizha — in voiceover — gives a brief personal history.
“I grew up on the grassland with my grandma,” he says as scenes from the Xilin Gol Grasslands in inner Mongolia, interspersed with those filmed in studio during the group’s recording of their 2014 record Baifan, play out onscreen. “Nowadays many herdsman and their children crave life in the big cities. They go there seeking fun and to make a living. But after a while, they realize that life in the cities is very difficult and complicated. Some can’t adapt.”
“Because, deep in our core, we embody the nomadic lifestyle,” he concludes. “pure and free.”
This is perhaps the central tension of Hanggai. The group is comprised of musicians who are ethnically Mongolian, and Hanggai’s music draws heavily from that heritage, incorporating throat singing, traditional instruments and — most significantly — it draws from Mongolian folk tales for lyrics. But the sound of Hanggai is deeply influenced by Western rock and folk music; it’s accessible, in other words, to a worldwide audience.
“The Mongolian spiritual strength is really important to us, so we feel we have a responsibility to continue the musical and cultural traditions,” says Yiliqi, who co-founded the group, he estimates, somewhere between 2003 and 2004. “We’ve chosen songs that are really representative of the various areas of Mongolia, to show our audiences clearly how multifaceted and broad Mongolian culture is.”
Yiliqi suggests that the deep spiritual element inherent to the group’s music helps Hanggai impart messages that are as universal as the group’s sound, particularly since the group can’t depend on speaking those messages out loud to a significant portion of its audience. Their songs are sung in Mongolian meaning that, even in China, there’s sometimes a language barrier. “Today, whether you’re talking about the environment, or humanity, or ethics, we’re in a dangerous period,” he says. “We have hope that spirituality might be helpful. But we aren’t out to say everyone needs to think a certain way. After all, during Mongolian times, there was a freedom for people to believe what they wanted.”
Filmmaker Khalid Ali, who made Away from the Grasslands often travels to China — his brother lives there and speaks the language, which helped immensely during filming — and was drawn to Hanggai just by hearing their music. It was nothing like he’d ever heard before. “As a Westerner in China, I immediately go looking for things related to art, and especially music,” he says.
The group’s musical model — juxtaposing ancient sounds with modern, Western ones — is not particularly novel, but when done well, it has profound impact. In Canada, First Nations DJ trio A Tribe Called Red do something similar, layering Native chanting, drumming and, in their live shows, dance, over contemporary beats and sounds. Hanggai, too, is not the only group in China to incorporate traditional instrumentation into pop music but, Ali says, few have done so with such success.
“From my perspective, the industry is just really starting out there,” Ali says. “I think that a lot of musicians, artists, filmmakers, whatever are trying to figure out how to create and how to navigate it. I think it takes a certain kind of person to do that. Ilchi (one of Hanngai’s founders) is a pretty smart guy. He’s very good at making connections with people, and he’s one of the few musicians who has reached out to Western musicians and producers.”
It’s led to success in China and abroad — Hanggai embarked on a Canadian tour this summer — but Yiliqi says, Hanngai’s success transcends the ordinary parameters of fame. “I think that while we have something of a name now in China, it’s not really the same thing as being truly famous,” he says. “Because we’ve really influenced people purely through musical methods, it’s an influence of a type that’s beyond language — and that goes for the attention we’ve received outside of the country as well. For us music has always been the most important element of what we’re doing; music is the key to what we do.”
Hanngai performs Aug 1-3 at the Canmore Folk Festival in Canmore; Aug 6-9 at the Edmonton Folk Festival; Aug 14-16 at the Salmon Arm Roots & Blues Festival.