[11 August 2008]
Horses! The music of the Central Asian nomads has to be the horsiest music on earth. No matter what Hanggai are singing about—flowers, alcohol, or banjos—the gait of a horse almost inevitably works its way into the tune. No wonder I once saw a set of liner notes that tried to explain a picture of a Tuvan to its American audience by referring to him as a cowboy. You can see where the writer was coming from, even though the readers might have emerged with the wrong idea of the album they were about to listen to. The horses that charge through Introducing Hanggai are not the lone laconic cowpoke horses of American cowboy songs. Instead, they’re gregarious animals, full of dart and dash. Please admire their swiftness, their beauty, their riders’ nice white hats! The idea of people on horses moving across an open landscape has filtered into the musical blood cells of the entire region. These are centaur songs, with human faces and equine brains. They trot, they canter, they gallop.
The members of Hanggai are based in Beijing. Some are Han Chinese, some are ethnic Mongolians, but in performance, they all wear a traditional costume from the Inner Mongolian steppes: long coats closed at the throat, hats with peaks and flaps, giving them the flattened, solid look of diplomats. Co-producer Robin Hailer reports that he first stumbled across the group and its mastermind, Ilchi, “in a small bar in one of central Beijing’s oldest hutongs.”
“There was only a small audience in Beijing for folk music, no serious promoters organizing performances and no labels in the country that put out good-quality recordings.” So he decided to record them. “One of the first challenges [co-producer] Matteo and I identified was how we should go about giving the album enough variety whilst maintaining the integrity of the songs. In their traditional versions, the songs are essentially all in the same key and all accompanied by the same small ensemble … We also wanted to keep the intimacy of the band’s live act, but build up layers in the songs with percussion and other instruments that the band didn’t normally use.”
The “other instruments” stay in the background, building up the layers in a way that keeps them comfortably invisible. At the front stands the morin khuur fiddle, a two-stringed lute known as a tobshuur, and the male Mongolian voice. Ilchi plays the tobshuur, two other men named Bagen and Hugejiltu play the fiddles, and all of them sing. Sometimes they enunciate plainly, sometimes they switch to the vibrating two-toned growl of hoomei throat-singing.
Introducing is not an album that makes a big deal out of its hoomei. In Hanggai’s songs the low, froggy burr and high whistle are often quite subtle, spritzing the voice and blending into the rest of the noise rather than standing in the spotlight. Nuances of growl add body to a song like “Wuji”, an ensemble piece that brings several voices together, alternating them at different pitches while the morin khuur moves at a quick gallop.
“Wuji” has the good, simple kick of a rock song, a repeated riff from the fiddle coupled with lyrics that make you feel as if you could sing along. It’s universal, and at the same time completely Central Asian. You wouldn’t mistake it for music from anywhere else. The rest of the album pulls off this same balancing trick between the local and the worldly with a good degree of success. “Drinking Song” would be a drinking song even without the title to alert you to it, and the sweet, heavy grandeur of “Four Seasons” is unmistakeably moving. Here, in the album’s closure, is the place where Hanggai’s music comes closest to the idea of an American cowboy, this song with its melancholy yodels, its lonely cries, the sound of people facing a long horizon. Introducing Hanggai is more than an introduction to Hanggai: it could also serve as an introduction to indigenous Mongolian music on the whole, a gateway Mongolian folk album for non-Mongolians.