By Dr Gesar (Gaz) Temur
Gesar finished his Doctor of Philosophy from the ANU in 2015. He continues as a Visiting Fellow at the ANU Mongolia Institute.
Hanggai is a music band from Inner Mongolia, China. The band made their name by playing and singing traditional Mongolian songs with a modern twist. Hanggai’s fame extends from the grassy Mongolian plains and the Altai Mountains, across the Eurasian Steppes to the Volga in Europe, and as far down under in Australia. The modern punk and rock music flowing from the Morin Khuur (horse-head fiddle) and banjos, along with Khoomii (throat singing) and Urtiin duu (long song) reminds the listener of galloping horses.
“Hanggai”, symbolises a natural landscape of sprawling grasslands, rivers, and mountains with green trees under blue skies and is the name adopted by the group, formed in 2004. The band is made up of seven members – band leader Ilchi and singer Hurcha – and others who play horse-head fiddle, electric guitar and percussion.
Hanggai’s extensive, melodic and broad range of music and its interactive performance are regarded as a breath of fresh air in the music world with its crossover hybridisation of folk with contemporary music. In 2018 the band won a national competition hosted by state broadcaster, China Central Television, gaining millions of fans across the world. Hanggai is a highly successful Mongolian group in both Europe and China.
In an interview on 26 June 2020, the band’s leader, Ilich, told me that ‘this distinctive Mongolian repertoire of sounds relates to our unique Mongol music which represents modern Mongolness. I would say that we are folk music revivalists who use a crossover form of modern and folk music to articulate the values which are embedded in our modern community, especially ethnic Mongolians in China and those who have left and live abroad’.
Ilich continued, ‘The world is changing rapidly due to modernisation and Mongolians are one of the last nomad [cultures] left in the world. We want to send out the message that the preservation of the environment is a way of life for us. The rich Mongolian herding culture – the harmonious way of life alongside nature and animals – is believed to be an important aspect of life, so it must be maintained. We want to tell people that we use our music to promote cultural heritage and thus preserve the environment, our language, and way of life and to stress how important it is that these aspects are respected.’
Ilich explained that Hanggai travel to many continents and countries each year to feature the world of Mongolian music. I asked Ilich what they all have been doing during the COVID-19 lock down: ‘We pretty much have spent time with family and composed music’. The plan for the rest of 2020, from July to November, is that they will perform forty-odd shows, entitled Heading North- Homeward Journey’, in approximately forty cities across China’.
‘Currently, we are practising in our yurt in the countryside and getting ready for the music tour. July and August is the most beautiful time to spend on the Mongolian steppe and our hearts and souls are closer to nature here. We hope that Australian fans and friends will see us in person after the pandemic and that you will all follow us on social media.’
Globalisation and industrialisation have brought huge challenges to local cultural identity and the environment in Inner Mongolia in China. Cultivation and the industrial development of pastural land have not only been causing environmental degradation but also the loss of the Mongolian lifestyle in the form of nomadic pastoralism. Herders are not permitted to herd their animals and have been forced to settle, or look for jobs in cities. This migration into cities and towns, where Chinese is the dominant language, is causing the gradual loss of Mongolian language and other cultural attributes. To avoid loss, modern musicians are clinging onto their cultural roots through a contemporary use of ‘in-betweenness’.
What has made Hanggai so successful in China and the rest of the world is there is a cultural revival in nomadic pastoralism as a concept, yet the way of life has been influenced and changed by the outside world. Hanggai’s music in the contemporary context belongs in this category. Their lyrics and vocal styles express an explicit connection with Mongol perspectives with regard to nature, the foundation of which is the deep reverence for the natural world, the animals that they herd and their surroundings, a worship of the Blue Heavens (Tenger) and a respect for their elders.
O, the silence of the Hanggai
stretches to the distant horizon
Silent as the grave
Filled with the fragrance of frankincense.
O, Hanggai, endless prairie
Give me freedom in life and a great heart
Long live my homeland
Ancestors gave us our ancient gods
Who to pass on to? Give us the wisdom to survive
The cradle of heaven is our inheritance
O, blue Hanggai
Melding with the distant horizon.
Horses roam over the green prairie
O, vibrant Hanggai
Hanggai, the endless steppe
Song translated from the album “He Who Travels Far”, listen here:
All images are from Hanggai’s Chinese website and used with the permission of the band.
Links to Hanggai information online:
Шигэp Шигэp https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iwzwr2VduLs
Hanggai – Baifang (Official Video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNJ_FtYbTtc