Mongolian fusion band ensures beat goes on

We had slowed down like many bands since shows were canceled. It allowed us spend more time creating new materials, the band says.


Hanggai, a band with ethnic Mongolian musicians, performs in Beijing on June 3 to a full house. [Photo provided to China Daily]

June 13, 2023

BEIJING – In Hanggai’s music, you can hear many sounds, from traditional ethnic Mongolian instruments, such as the morin khuur (horse-headed fiddle) and khun tovshuur (a two-stringed lute), to Western percussion instruments, electric guitar and bass.

On June 3-4, the crossover band, which consists of eight ethnic Mongolian musicians, gave two sold-out concerts at the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing, which brought an end to their national tour at medium-sized theaters starting from 2020.

“During the past three years, which was a very difficult time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we performed about 100 shows around the country. Though some of the shows were sold out, the atmosphere was quite different compared to the latest two sold-out shows in Beijing,” says Ilchi, the vocalist and a founding member of Hanggai. “When fans flocked into the venue — which has a capacity of about 1,600 seats, we could sense their enthusiasm and energy at once. They stood up during the show and danced, which was a very touching moment.”

The band named their shows in the capital The Man Who Walks Away after their 2010 album with the same title. The album was included in the 2010 Top 10 World Music Records list by the British music magazine MOJO, making it the only Asian music album to be selected.

As Ilchi elaborates, when the band made that album, they were inspired by the idea of bringing the sounds of the Mongolian ethnic group to the world. So far, they’ve performed in over 60 countries with over 500 performances. Now, they used the title again, indicating their new beginning after the difficult period of time caused by the pandemic.

“We slowed down like many bands since shows were canceled or postponed. It allowed us to go back to our hometown and spend more time together creating new materials,” recalls Ilchi.

The band went to a small town in Xilingol League, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, where they lived and created music together.

Baolude, one of the band’s founding members and khun tovshuur player. [Photo provided to China Daily]

“It felt like going back to our younger days. We slept in yurts, cooked together and played music until midnight. It was great,” says Baolude, another of Hanggai’s founding members and khun tovshuur player, adding that the band members live in different parts of the country, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Qinghai province and Inner Mongolia, which made the experience of living together very special.

They recorded some materials, which will be used in the band’s upcoming album, according to Ilchi, who adds that the album will be recorded this year and released next year.

“In the past, we tried to highlight in our music ethnic Mongolian elements, but this time we focus on portraying human emotions, which is very important and meaningful, especially after the pandemic,” says Baolude, who was born and raised in a nomadic family on the Ordos grassland. His family members all play ethnic Mongolian musical instruments, sing and dance, including his father, who is a professional dancer in a local art troupe.

As a teenager, Baolude fell in love with rock music and founded his own band in high school. Later, he came to Beijing and met Ilchi. Together, they founded Hanggai in 2004. The band’s name in Mongolian refers to a scenic place with beautiful pastures, mountains and rivers. To add more colors to their sounds, Ilchi, Baolude and the band went to study khoomei (a throat-singing technique), with Odsuren — an ethnic Mongolian master of the art form, who launched a training program in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. Khoomei is a style of singing in which a single performer produces a diversified harmony of multiple voice parts.

A year later, Baolude left the band and pursued his own music ideas. In 2018, Ilchi called his old friend Baolude, inviting him to join in the band’s sixth studio album, Big Band Brass, which marked the return of Baolude. The album featured 12 songs, including two written by Baolude — Dinjid Bay and Achnatherum Splendens in the North, based on popular folk songs in Ordos, portraying the beauty of the landscape there.

The band will launch a US tour in September and more shows in Europe next year. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Hasibagen, morin khuur player and khoomei singer, joined the band in 2019 to make the album, Big Band Brass. Hasibagen worked with award-winning composer Tan Dun in Tan’s music works, including Wolf Totem and Buddha Passion. Tan also held concerts by working with Hanggai, combining symphony orchestras with the sounds from the grassland.

“My younger brother used to be a member of Hanggai so I have kept a close relationship with the band for years. The band’s music is very close to nature, to our homes,” says Hasibagen, born in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia. He graduated from the Inner Mongolia Arts University in 2000 as one of the first group of students majoring in morin khuur at the school. From 2000 to 2007, he was a morin khuur teacher at the university before he went to Japan to join in a cultural exchange program for about two years.

According to Ilchi, the band has been fully booked by outdoor music festivals nationwide. In September, they will tour US cities for about 14 days, before they tour in Europe early next year. On Dec 19, they will give another concert in Beijing.

“We will celebrate our 20th birthday next year. I am very proud about what we have achieved. As a band, we want to keep on bringing new sounds, which can inspire young musicians and audiences,” says Ilchi.

This weekend, Ilchi will also co-launch a project called Nomad Relays in Beijing. The nonprofit project features academic lectures, film screenings, art exhibitions and live music performances to present the charm of nomadic culture, exploring its contemporary significance and reflecting on its future. Film director Uragshaa, who is known for films such as Painted Skin: The Resurrection and fantasy adventure blockbuster Mojin: The Lost Legend, will participate as one of the project’s initiators and organizers.

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