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Hanggai press photo1, lowerer.jpg

Mongolian band, Hanggai, are at the forefront of China’s folk-rock musical scene – a movement that has been gathering pace since the early 2000s and has been covered in previous posts (see Dawanggang and Zhu Xiaolong). Inflecting their native folk songs with the energy of rock and roll, Hanggai provides a unique take on traditional Mongolian music, maintaining the presence of Mongolian culture as a contemporary force in Beijing.

Internationally, Hanggai’s success is growing, and they now play some of the largest music festivals. They are regular performers at WOMAD, have played Roskilde and even Wacken, the world's biggest metal festival. I caught them in Sydney Festival’s beguiling Spiegeltent, which they filled with the rousing sounds of throat singing, the morin khuur (a horsehair fiddle), the tobshuur (two-stringed lute), banjos and electric guitars. The crowd was hankering for more, and word is they might be touring Sydney later this year.

Later I spoke with the band’s leader, Ilchi, about China’s contemporary music scene, the commercialisation of ethnicity, and the essence of Mongolian music.

Christen Cornell: Hanggai’s music is drawn from Mongolian musical traditions. Are there other influences in there as well?

Ilchi: Hanggai is essentially traditional Mongolian music. What makes it different though is its combination with a number of different modern elements. Many people in China say rock is the most progressive form – and in the past that was what everybody did play, people like Song Yuzhe and Lao Ma [Mamer] – but now many people also think it’s time we returned to our traditions and draw on these as a way of making new music.

So the Mongolian music is its foundation, and Mongolian music has its own life – something we have to respect. It’s not easy to describe, but every ethnic group has its own spirit, its own essence, that shouldn’t change with the times.

CC: What are the things particular to Mongolian music that you shouldn’t change?

Ilchi: Mongolian society once governed a vast empire, stretching from Asia to Europe, and the essence of Mongolian culture still has that feeling of openness. The music represents that culture, and so it has that feeling of openness too. It’s not like a lot of Islamic music, for example, which can be quite introverted. Mongolian music is very large in its concept. You can hear the spirit of the grasslands within it.

So for example if you use the Islamic scale and combine it with the Mongolian pentatonic scale, it completely changes its nature. You have to be careful when you’re making changes; it’s too easy to take new directions and lose the original character of the music.

It’s also important to remember that the spirit of this music isn’t really that old. Of course in the past, on the grasslands, they didn’t have rock and roll bands or rehearsal studios – but the spirit of this culture is still young. Compared with lots of other cultures in China this music is relatively young.


CC: Folk inspired rock is quite popular with young people in Beijing these days, isn’t it?

Ilchi: Not necessarily, these days. It was, and is, but the music market has changed – there have been big changes in Beijing and China generally. About ten years ago, there was a period where lots of young people liked punk. Then there was another period when lots of people liked heavy metal. But now the market has many different kinds of music, and people have more varied tastes. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you play these days, everything has got some kind of audience.

Also, when we’d just started, most of our audience were non-Chinese, but now that’s changing. We still have a large Western audience but slowly the Chinese component is growing.

The biggest problem in China at the moment though is with the media. In Western countries you have specialist media for music like radio stations or TV stations or whatever. Of course many are mainstream but many are not. In China you don’t really hear these sorts of programs. So if you live in Beijing you might have the chance to go to a bar or entertainment district to see bands perform, but if you’re in another city, even a provincial capital like Guizhou, Guiyang, Kunming or wherever, it’s not so easy. And if you live in a city that’s just a little smaller than these, you might live there for ten years and not have the chance to hear a band play. China has this huge population, but you can go to some of its small to large cities, or lots of places, and they won’t have anywhere you can hear live music. And there’s absolutely no way that a band could go there to play.

CC: So would you say that Hanggai are famous in China? Or maybe you’re just famous within certain circles …

Ilchi: Maybe it’s just within certain circles. Arts and culture in China still needs a long time to grow – not many people have this kind of focus. Most of our gigs are overseas. We’ve been covered by a number of quite famous overseas publications and programs, but within China there’s little interest.

CC: And what do you think of that situation?

Ilchi: I didn’t really think about it in the beginning. Whether Chinese people accepted my music or not wasn’t a real concern – the music I was making was Mongolian anyway. When we first began playing in Beijing sometimes there were only 2 or 3 people in the audience, there were even gigs with 1 or 2 people, but I didn’t really see that as a big problem. I wasn’t playing music to get people’s approval, and you need a period to get started anyway.

CC: Do you feel the same way now?

Ilchi: Now all I need is to continue playing, and I would like to do that in different cities in China but it’s not easy since many cities don’t have anywhere that you can play, or they don’t have the right kind of facilities. If you don’t have the facilities and equipment you can’t really play a proper gig.


CC: Who taught you to play Mongolian music?

Ilchi: There were a lot of musical influences from my childhood – hearing my parents singing, or the music we had around the house – because I grew up in Inner Mongolia. Later, after I left for Beijing, I became interested in the music and did a lot of research myself.

CC: Buying CDs and tapes?

Ilchi: Yes, but more recently Inner Mongolia has begun to produce a lot of new folk songs. These songs don’t come from the grasslands and that outdoor environment – they’re written by modern day people, and in Chinese. A lot of Han Chinese people also like to listen to this kind of Mongolian music, since its melodies are a mixture of Mongolian and Han melodies. They find it very easy to listen to, easy to understand – even the words are easy to understand. But when I hear this music it sounds to me like … like fatty meat. Experiencing it makes you feel greasy – it’s like there’s nothing actually inside. Songs about the grasslands should have the spirit of the grasslands. So researching this music and learning how to hear this music are both a kind of process.

Those old musicians who have been playing this music for so many years – what makes them so good is not their technique, it’s the essence of the music they convey. Of course there are many people with excellent voices, but the thing that’s really important is an understanding of that essence. An understanding of the music, not just the technique.

It’s similar at the moment in China with rock and roll. Many people are playing rock and roll but really all they’re doing is imitating Western music. It’s pretty meaningless; it doesn’t say anything. It just copies someone else’s style, rather than expressing anything new. Lots of Chinese bands now sing in English; they can’t really speak English but they’ll sing in it. I don’t know if they even know what they’re saying. Everybody should have their own style, whether it’s their lyrics or whatever else, but in China this side of things feels pretty barren.

So for example if you’re singing about society … you might feel dissatisfied with the state of society, but I guess saying this gives you some kind of responsibility, or could even cause trouble. So instead people are careful with what they say, and instead of saying something that might provoke people to think or act, that might move people, their music just becomes a kind of performance. So a lot of these bands might be acting like they’re rock and roll bands, acting like they’re saying something, but they’re not really at all. They have a module to work within, but no substance.

In the past Shetou and a lot of other bands were trying to articulate issues, to discuss certain social problems, or to express their attitudes toward society, but these days bands have less and less to do with politics or a real oppositional ethos.

CC: I know what you mean, but you could say the same about a lot of Western rock bands these days as well. The industry has become far more commercialised. I suppose the difference in China though is that that commercialisation of has been so much more dramatic, especially in the last ten years.

Ilchi: That’s true.

CC: Are your performances within and outside of China the same? Do you ever feel the need to modify your performance for a Western audience?

Ilchi: The performances within and outside of China are the same. The audiences have different cultural backgrounds, though, and this makes for different gigs. Chinese audiences aren’t as open as Western audiences – a Chinese audience may experience the music within themselves, but they won’t know how to express those feelings openly. They won’t jump or dance around like Westerners will. When we played in Berlin it was different again – it’s like they’ve experienced so much, heard so much music, and so they’re not so demonstrative. They feel the music inside but that’s enough. [laughs]


CC: How do you see the future of Mongolian music as China continues to modernise?

Ilchi: We hope that our music will make more young people interested in Mongolian culture – that’s something we can actually do. Some things will change, and that’s beyond your control, but people can work together to keep a culture alive. In China, this doesn’t only apply to Mongolian traditions. All China’s minority cultures are facing this kind of challenge.

CC: Traditional Han Chinese culture is facing it too.

Ilchi: True. But we’re able to do something for Mongolian culture, and hopefully we can share it with others. It’s not only about the physical environment, but keeping the spirit alive.


I hope these guys make it back to Sydney!

Great read there. Loved the questions. It seems that you wanted to criticise the "modern" Chinese music scene yourself. Using a musician's point of view to portray your thoughts is quite clever. Almost sneaky. Will you write something more critical? Hope you do :)

Interesting ... I'm curious to know which parts of the interview feel strong-armed by me. Could you point some out, or describe what you mean a little further?

I never said "strong-armed". Just think you wanted to talk about things not a lot of others would. I personally think using the interview to bring out some facts is a great idea. Often, we don't have the opportunity to talk about certain things. I'm sure you agree with Ilchi on certain things mentioned here - Chinese people are losing their culture. Purely my thoughts ... cheers

Thanks NWA - it seems I misunderstood you. I thought you may have thought I was putting words in Ilchi's mouth, which is a concern especially when the interview is translated. You're right that I have my opinions on these things too, and they play a part in the discussion. Thanks for your comments, please visit again!

Hey, I really enjoyed this post. Cheers.

I was glad to see Ilchi's "fatty meat" comment. When I was in west china, all the music had been horribly sinicized. So glad to hear/see authentic music - modernized but still authentic. Wu man is doing great work with the pipa on a whole different front.

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Artspace China profiles Chinese visual arts, music and literature, presenting an overview of Chinese contemporary culture while also being a resource for specialised research. It is jointly sponsored by the University of Sydney China Studies Centre and Confucius Institute.

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