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Chinese Grunge Band in Mongolia

22 July 2012

Recently (20 July) the Wall Street Journal carried an article by Ron Gluckman about a historic performance in Mongolia by the Chinese grunge band Banana Monkey. As Gluckman says, “What might seem like a few small steps for the globalization of rock is actually a giant leap forward for Mongolian-Chinese relations”. What is most amazing is that Banana Monkey weren’t performing at a backstreet venue but at a concert that opened the Mongolian national holiday of Naadam. (Actually, that was probably the safer option because one shudders to think what might have happened at a late night venue in Ulaanbaatar.)

Although they sang only two songs, the performance by Banana Monkey appears to have gone off quite well. According to the guitarist, Qiang Fan, everyone they met was friendly. But Gluckman’s article quickly points up the incongruity of a lone Chinese band appearing on the same stage as Gee, a famous Mongolian rapper, singing his fervent anti-China diatribe “Hujaa”. Hujaa (Хужаа khujaa) is an “extremely derogatory term for Chinese that has enormous currency in modern Mongolia”, unlike the more genteel and somewhat dated shaakhaitnuud (шаахайтнууд) at my previous post.

Needless to say, this small miracle in international musical exchange was pulled off by a foreigner, an American by the name of Brian Offenther, originally from Florida but now living in Shanghai after an earlier stint doing Peace Corps work in Darkhan. Mr Offenther’s decision to take a Chinese rock band to Mongolia is a far-sighted one. Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator) has a thriving rock and pop music scene, with bands like Altan UragHurdKiwi, the Lemons, Kharanga, and many others (see the pop music section at the Wikipedia article on Mongolian music). But Mr Offenther has his work cut out for him. While Mongolians are familiar with Western rock bands (including Russian music), they are completely closed to Chinese music. It is as if it did not exist. It is not on sale anywhere and arouses zero interest among ordinary Mongolians.

This lack of interest in Chinese music extends to Mongolian ethnic music in China. A very healthy Mongolian music scene exists in China, with bands like HanggaiAjinai and others becoming internationally famous for their mixture of ethnic Mongolian music and rock. Ironically these bands are virtually unknown in Mongolia.

It is not that there is no cross-fertilisation between the two Mongolias, but it is almost completely a one-way street, going strictly from north to south. Many young Mongols in Inner Mongolia are familiar with the sounds of Ulaanbaatar, and Mongolian CDs are available in certain locales in Hohhot (see post on bookshops). I attended a concert by the Inner Mongolian singer Halin (哈琳 hālín) in 2011 where Altan Urag appeared on stage and performed a number of their Mongolian folk-rock pieces (to the complete mystification of the Han Chinese in the audience, but not, presumably, the ethnic Mongols). Halin herself has been to Mongolia to do music-related work.

But the Mongolians of Mongolia are almost completely apathetic to what their coethnics are doing across the border. I was told by a member of Hanggai that they have not yet given a public performance in Mongolia (the closest was apparently a spontaneous private performance) despite having performed all over the world. Negative vibes surface quickly when it comes to things Inner Mongolian. I heard at second or third hand that the famous Inner Mongolian singer Tengger was booed at a concert in Mongolia because he foolishly slipped into Chinese. The popular Mongolian singer Serchmaa also aroused some unfavourable comment when she married an Inner Mongolian (of Mongolian ethnicity), which she is at pains to set right in this interview with the UB Post (“S. Serchmaa: I did not marry my husband for his money, but his heart“).

Given the current situation, Mr Offenther’s efforts can only be regarded as heroic. It is likely to be a long hard road, but I, for one, applaud his attempts to bridge this deep divide in music. One does not necessarily expect the Mongolians to become fans of Mandopop, but the biggest losers from being completely closed off from musical currents in China are the Mongolians themselves.

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