Punk rocker from Mongolia switches to folk music

August 2009 -

From punk musician to neo-traditional folksinger is a radical change. Especially when the musician is a young Chinese with Mongolian roots from Beijing. After all: China's sole objective these days is modernisation. Ilchi, leader of the band Hanggai, appears to agree when asked. "What we do is not really understood very well in Beijing. We have fans, but not very many and they are usually somewhat older."


Band leader Ilchi during a Hanggai performance

Hanggai's music has its roots in a Mongolian tradition that goes back a thousand years. Singing from the throat is a particularly popular form of art. When singing higher tones, another tone is created that is an octave lower than the tone being sung. "My music was the same style as Rage against the Machine until I took the time to really listen to the music of the Mongolian tundra. I travelled to the land of my ancestors to study it. I searched for instrument makers who could make the morin khuur, a kind of violin with strings made of horse hair. I also wanted a tobshuur, a two-stringed lute. These instruments give the music its unique sound."

Surprisingly, some of the songs are strikingly similar to Celtic pub songs. Ilchi laughs: "Last year we played at the Shetland Folk Festival. I was surprised - had never heard Celtic music before. What we as Mongolians certainly share with the Irish and Scottish is our considerable alcohol consumption, but other than that I have no idea where the similarities come from."

It is tempting to consider Hanggai a gimmick, but Ilchi is too serious about his mission and talks about a revival of traditions. "With five million Mongolians in China, we are a minority. We have a rich musical tradition, however, and I want it to continue." The Chinese government sometimes oppresses traditions. "Our music has no political meaning: we are not the Tibetans. We can play our music in China without restrictions and we hope that more young people will discover its wealth."

Hanggai released a  cd in the Introducing series at World Music Network in 2009. The band performs at Lowlands 2009.