Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Five Mongolians, Two Swiss, and an American Walk into a Bar

*Special thanks to anonymous commenter who caught my errors! I called Bagen by the wrong name and misattributed his towering height to Hurcha. This was due to impaired memory from alcohol consumption. Stay aware from it, kids!

My Folk Heroes

Sitting back in the Libe at Carleton last September, I was attempting the first draft of my Watson proposal. My description of my passion for music came out dry and clinical. But when Hanggai's music came up on my iTunes, that indescribable love for folk music finally became describable. I have now listened to their album on repeat 256 times according to iTunes. I feel like that is a slightly embarrassing number, but I think it's necessary information to confess so you guys understand just how much I love their music.

Now imagine my level of excitement when I heard that Hanggai was playing in Bern, just an hour train ride from Freiburg. I found out about the concert two hours before it started. Just enough time, I thought! I just hoped that I would be able to meet them afterward to thank them for the inspiration. How lowly I set my expectations.

By the way, you should totally listen to their music at this link ( while reading the blog!

I arrived in Switzerland and somehow managed to navigate the streets of Bern to the club where my favorite throat singers were performing and convince the ticket vender, who doubted the veracity of my passport because there was no way I was 18 let alone 22, to accept my euros since I didn't have any Swiss Franks. I stood right under the stage and had just found my place when the concert began. It was unbelievably good! They sound way better live than on their album. Their concert also included pieces from their new album which I hadn't heard yet. They all wore traditional costumes from Mongolia and while their sound includes traditional instruments and traditional singing styles, they supplement this with drumset and electric bass and electric guitar. The energy was fantastic and contagious. The dry ice and blue-tinted flashing lights added to the high energy. And I was surprised because their albums just don't feature as much of the rock vibe as their live concert.

Pictured here, you can see Bagen playing his Morin Khuur, the horse-headed fiddle. Instead of applying pressure with your left hand from above to change the pitch of the string, you press up with your fingernail. I'd heard that this causes experienced players to lose their fingernails but later Bagen dispelled that myth. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ilchi is seen here playing the Taobuxuur, a two stringed Mongolian banjo. He is the founder of the group. Originally he was the lead singer of a punk rock group in Beijing, but in an attempt to find his roots in Inner Mongolia, he traveled to his grandparents' hometown and ended up learning hoomei, the Mongolian technique for singing two pitches simultaneously. Then combining his roots and his experience with punk rock he founded Hanggai. It was hard to imagine Ilchi as a punk rocker because he nervously made quiet comments in English to introduce the songs, since all folk musicians have to talk in between their pieces.

They played all my favorites but the obvious crowd favorite was Jiuge, Drinking Song. A simple melody is repeated slightly faster everytime. The lyrics are simple so by the end the audience could sing along and shout "Hey!" together. For the encore they played it again and all drank a glass of beer between each repetition. They made it through 5 repeats before the drummer lost control of the beat. The audience erupted into even louder cheers as the train wreck came to a screeching hault.

You Are the Wind Beneath My Horse!
After the concert I realized I had missed the last train back to Germany. I planned on spending the night waiting at the 24-hour McDonald's for the morning train but just then I struck up a conversation with a young Swiss couple. I explained my plight, reassuring them that it was totally worth it. The girl, Johanna, knew Ilchi from her year abroad in Ulaanbaatar. She could even speak Mongolian. After our bonding over our experiences in Asia, she invited me to sleep on her couch until the morning train. But there was a catch, she sighed. She and her boyfriend were going to spend the evening pub hopping across Bern with the members of Hanggai and I'd have to come along, would that be okay??? For some reason I had a flash to this scene from Love Actually (see around 2:40 for an exact replica of my calm reaction to the best news of my life).

So 30 minutes after the concert I had a place to stay and an in with Hanggai! Just then, the entire band came out and began drinking at the club. Since there was a two drink minimum to get in to the place, I had already misplaced my inhibitions. I ran up to Ilchi and proclaimed in my best Northeastern Chinese accent, "You are the wind beneath my horse!" Folks, I'm not sure why that came out of my mouth. But I managed to recover and explain my whole Watson spiel. I told Ilchi I was such a huge fan and he totally inspired me to begin this travel around the world, hunting down Chinese musicians. Unfortunately in the bar lighting, away from the well lit stage, all of my pictures with the band members transformed into these blurry things.

Depositing Drunkards

Bagen and Hurcha, who sings lead vocals, heard me speaking Chinese and so I told my whole story over again. So the 8 of us headed off to paint the town red. After the 3rd stop of our progression, all of the Mongolians except Ilchi and Bagen ready to blackout back in their hotel. So the two coherent Mongolians each supported one of their bandmates but it took both Johanna's boyfriend, Rik, and me to support the massive and drunk Hurcha. He's well over 250lbs. When we got them to the lobby of the hotel and left them in the capable hands and wide eyes of the Swiss hotel staff, Hurcha suddenly jabbed me with his finger, sending me flying into the wall. "Aren't you coming to my room?" Johanna translated because he was speaking in Mongolian. "Uhh. . . no, I'm gonna keep drinking with these guys," I said in Mandarin, indicating those of us who could walk without assistance. "4.! 2! 6!" he replied in Mandarin this time. "That's my room number if you get bored! [Mongolian words]" I looked at Ilchi and asked with my eyes if I'd understood him correctly. Ilchi gave me an incredulous nod but Johanna and Bagen were both laughing so hard that they were clutching each other, tears streaming out of their eyes. "He thinks you're pretty!" Johanna managed to squeeze out between hyperventilating spasms of laughter. Somehow I wasn't flattered and I got the heck out of there before Hurcha shoved me into any more walls.

Mongol Invasion

Since it was a Wednesday night in Bern there were only two more bars still open. The first was quiet so we had amazing conversations (read: interrogation) with Ilchi and Bagen. You know how you aren't supposed to meet your heroes because they'll just disappoint you? Well, these guys did NOT disappoint me. If anything I was overwhelmed by their dedication and passion for their art.

I never get fail to be fascinated by the complicated linguistic capabilites of the tables I tend to sit at. Johanna could speak Swiss-German, Regular German, English, French, and Mongolian. Rik could speak Swiss-German, Regular German, English, Spanish, and thanks to an anthropological trip to Peru, a bit of Quechua. I claimed only English and Chinese but after a few beers I found myself speaking Spanish with Rik. Bagen and Ilchi both spoke Mandarin and Mongolian and Ilchi also spoke a little bit of English. But somehow we all managed to get our points across to everyone.

Rik was going on about how globalization and technology was making people from the farthest reaches of the earth come into contact for the first time. Because I was rather drunk I confronted him on the inaccuracy of this claim. This was not the Mongolians' first excursion into Switzerland! "They've been here before! in the 13th century, yo! After Batu Khan captured Russia, Hungary and most of Poland, he was poised to take Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy! But after a few preliminary skirmishes the Great Khan Ogedei died in 1241 and Batu Khan and all the other leaders had to go back to Mongolia to elect the new Khan. If Ogedei had just lived a couple of more years y'all could be speaking Mongolian right now!" Rik argued that the Swiss couldn't be conquered by Mongolians. I was about to concede that Europe's wet weather did affect the sinews and glue of Mongolian bows, when Johanna, who was both confused and angered by this conversation interrupted us. "But I do speak Mongolian right now!" she proclaimed, ironically in English.

He Who Travels Far

Later I found out that Hanggai is a Mongolian word from a folk legend about "he who travels far." Hanggai refers to an idealized landscape containing grasslands, mountains, rivers, trees and a blue sky. Ilchi told me that when he plays music right, clears his mind beforehand and lets the music completely surround him and enter him (he said that he was a teabag and that the music was the hot water) then he can feel that contentment and awe that can be felt from entering the legendary landscape called Hanggai.

Bagen told me that he saw me during the concert and first thought I looked a little less interested than everyone else, a little less lively. But then he realized I was just really feeling the music, really appreciating it. I always forget that people onstage can totally see the front row. But he was right, I was completely transfixed the whole time.

At one point I asked if I could see his hands because I had heard how playing the horse-headed fiddle can make your fingernail fall off. He told me this was total bullshit! Then he told me the name of the guy who started this myth and told me he had a personal vendetta against him. "If I saw him, I would not hesitate to kill him!" Sidenote: Bagen has the largest hands I've ever seen. From his palm to his fingertips stretched from my fingertips to my elbow!

We talked about music for another 2 hours. We discussed their method of composition. They always use a traditional folk song as the base, although some pieces have evolved so much that they no longer acknowledge the link in the title. They really wanted to preserve their roots and their heritage. They explained that globalization was killing these old ways of looking at the world, these old perspectives and when they die, so does a lot of ancient wisdom. Their elders were not totally happy with the rock blend they create but Ilchi says it's necessary to get heard. "We lure them in with the rock sound and then they realize that the Mongolian folk is really cool. People just need to give it the first taste!"

They told me about how rough it is to be on the road all the time. They don't always find people to speak Chinese with. And it's rough traveling all the time and only really getting a few post concert hours in each place. They told me that Mongolian folk music was often inspired by the sense of homelessness or drifting that a nomadic lifestyle entails. Sure, you take your family with you, but you lack that stability that humans crave. Now in Mongolia, a large number of people have given up this lifestyle and settled down. But in attempting to give Mongolian culture to the new generation, they have become nomads on tour. "We represent the past too well!" Ilchi confessed. We walked to the final club called "Dead End" and as we entered the final club and the pulsing dance beat made conversation impossible, I was so glad we had this chance to talk!

Swing Dance and Vomit

In lieu of conversation, we played a Mongolian drinking game. I couldn't follow it but I knew the point was that the last person to upchuck won. But I did not win. In fact I lost twice. The other highlight of the bar was that two ladies in their upper forties took turns swing dancing with me. I couldn't escape them for the longest time. Johanna thought this was funny and did not rescue me. Instead she cracked jokes about how I am only capable of attracting people twice my age.

All too soon the Swiss, a.k.a. my couch connections, were ready to go. They hailed a cab and I bid farewell to my heroes. Bagen told me that if I ever go to one of their concerts again I have to drink with them afterward again. If I do not do this and "sneak a peak" at their concert, then he said, "I will have no choice but to kill you." I noted that this was the second time he had threatened to murder someone that night. Looking at his ginormous hands it wasn't hard to imagine him simultaneously choking two people. Ilchi told me that one day I will come back and follow them on tour and write a book about the members, making them famous in the West. I told him that sounded like an awesome idea and I hoped it could happen someday. "Don't hope. It will happen." he said in his usual calm, nonchalant voice.

On the train back to Germany I marveled at not just the Swiss countryside, which I was seeing for the first time, but also my luck. I missed a train and ended up conducting an interview with my favorite folk musicians in the world. I still don't think it has sunk in that I've actually met the creators of this CD that I've listened to over 200 times. If you haven't already, listen to Uruumdush on their Myspace page!


  1. I saw Hanggai live in Beijing summer of 2009. Best 100 RMB expenditure. Definitely hear influences of Huun Huur Tu and Yat Kha with them, too.


  2. Somehow, I've never actually read your blog before. Anyway, this story is ridiculous! You'll have to tell me how much of it is true :-P

  3. ANDREW,

    I miss your stories so much. I haven't had free internet for months and now that I'm back in the states it feels so good to hear your voice again via the blog. WOOOOOOO ADVENTURE!!!! WOOOOOO LIFE!!!!

    your Dacie Moses representative