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Special> Video> Beijing Review Exclusive
UPDATED: December 1, 2010
Hanggai: Warriors of Folk
Rock band breathes new life into Mongolian throat singing


It rumbles like an earthquake, the foreboding growl threatening to shake us all to our very cores.

Mongolian throat singing may be a nearly-forgotten art form, but one Chinese band is hell-bent on breathing new life into the thunderous tradition. Fans of experimental folk music can bear witness to that resuscitation on November 24 at Yugong Yishan, where Hanggai will unleash its haunting, bristling rhythms.

The members of Hanggai root their ragged punk anthems in the conventions of their ancestors' folk songs - using traditional throat singing styles, vintage banjos, two-stringed lutes, and lyrics about living honorably and toiling to live off the land, all in an effort to draw on the brawn of their culture's warrior lineage.

"The first time I listened I couldn't believe it," said lute player Ilchi of throat singing. He heard the aged musical form during a pilgrimage to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region with his teacher five years ago. Ilchi was inspired to weave that worn and frayed tradition into the tapestry of his own music ever since.

"The grassland is not like it was before; nomadic life is insignificant now when it used to be very important for us," he said. "Our people are very great, we were once the leaders of the world and we need to keep our traditions. We need to do something to connect."

The members of Hanggai herald much of that ancient spirit, taking up a nomadic touring lifestyle in support of their latest album, this fall's He Who Travels Far. They brandish their instruments like weapons onstage, pelting their audiences with piercing choruses before soothing them with earthy verses that serve as echoes of the melodies their Mongolian forefathers strummed centuries ago.

Ilchi and his fellow troubadours - singer Hurcha, drummer Li Dan, guitarist and banjo player Xu Jingchen, bassist Wu Junde and Hugejiltu on the horse-head fiddle - named their band Hanggai after a Mongolian term that describes a beautiful, picturesque farmland. All their lyrics are sung in Mongolian and laced with crescendos of throat singing, which requires the singer to hit two different pitches simultaneously.

The band's 2008 debut album, Introducing Hanggai, blended ancient singing techniques with electric guitars to bridge the gap between life in the mainland's pastures and the band's nomad-punk lifestyle.

"Modern rockers have much to learn from ancient vagrants, not only in terms of song style or attitude but in philosophy and ideals," Ilchi said.


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