For the last decade the city of Chicago, and the Chicago Cultural Center, has devoted a week to showcasing an array of international music. Appropriately titled the Chicago World Music Festival, the event attracts musicians from around the world to local Chicago venues, spreading diverse and unique music across the city. This year 55 performances were featured at 21 venues citywide.
On September 23rd I attended one of the performances at Martyr’s, a bar on Chicago’s near-north side. On the bill was Rahim Alhaj of Iraq/USA, and Hanggai from China/Mongolia/UK. I had no idea what to expect.
I arrived at Martyr’s halfway through Alhaj’s set. The bar’s main floor, which is usually open, was lined with tables, chairs, and stools and every seat was occupied as people began to congregate around the perimeter of the bar. The room was dimly lit with candles on every table; the audience was absolutely silent, completely mesmerized by Alhaj’s playing.
As Alhaj performed original and traditional compositions on the oud, a fretless pear-shaped string instrument, he told stories of music and exile in Iraq. His strumming was completely beautiful and full of feeling. In between songs Alhaj interacted with the crowd, asking them to keep a clapping beat and follow specific rhythms which he accompanied.
After a quick stage change it was Hanggai’s turn. Decked out in colorful robes, Hanggai blew the crowd away almost immediately. Consisting of five members from Beijing, the band played a mixture of traditional Chinese instruments and western rock instruments: electric guitar, electric bass, acoustic guitar, a standard drum kit, a tobshurr (a strummed two-stringed lute), and a horse-hair fiddle called a morin khuur. The band’s repertoire was inspired by native Mongolian folk traditions and rock music, resulting in reinterpreted traditionals from their indigenous grasslands. Songs covered themes of ancient traditions, especially the importance of protecting them, “playing, singing and drinking,” and the humor of love. Performed compositions included: “Drinking Song,” “Borulai Lullaby,” and “My Banjo and I.”
Topping off Hanggai’s beautiful melodies was a combination of crooning and hoomei, a traditional throat-singing technique. The music was truly transcendent, encompassing the power to carry the listener to a different place. In between songs the band frequently expressed their gratitude and appreciation for being a part of the festival and the excitement of performing and visting America for the first time.
Their set ended with a standing, cheering and whistling ovation from the audience. The crowd’s calls were answered with an encore with solo throat singing accompanied by the morin khuur. The full band eventually returned to stage, which prompted several audience members to get out of their seats, dance and cheer Hanggai on.