Hanggai, composed of young musicians from Beijing and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, is at the forefront of a modern Mongolian folk revival in the heart of Beijing. The musicians are pioneers of “Chinagrass” – contemporary Chinese folk music (often performed by or influenced by Chinese minorities) that reclaims roots music from the grasslands.
Mixing khoomei (throat singing – a fascinating vocal technique in which a single musician produces two notes simultaneously), morin khuur (horsehair fiddle) and tobshuur (2-stringed lute) with rock instruments, the group draws on a repertoire that all but disappeared during China’s recent turbulent past.
Hanggai’s performances of traditional songs from the grasslands are attracting an ever-increasing following in China. The group’s leader, Ilchi, fronted a punk rock band until he experienced a conversion after hearing traditional overtone singing. He traveled to his father’s homeland of Inner Mongolia and started to learn the technique – rediscovering the music and repertoire of songs that had faded but not disappeared. There he met Hugejiltu and Bagen, both music students, who joined the group.
Hugejiltu plays lead fiddle and Bagen sings deep bass using a overtone singing technique whereby he produces a note one octave below the note he is singing.
Many of their songs are adaptations of traditional songs from the grasslands, sung in Mongolian; many use khoomei, a throat-singing technique that has been handed down over hundreds of years.
At the core of the music are two traditional instruments – the morin khuur (horsehair fiddle) and the tobshuur (strummed 2-stringed lute). Some of Hanggai’s arrangements sound traditional and others are more complex.
One of their songs, Five Heroes (which tells of vigilantes stealing from the rich and giving to the poor), includes jangly electric guitar, conjuring up cowboy movies and creating a connection between East and West. Another song, Lullaby (Borulai), is a stunning mix of vocal harmonies, providing a familiar feel of a gentle lullaby with a strong atmosphere of the grasslands.
The group takes its name from an ancient Mongolian word that describes an idealized grassland landscape of mountains, trees, rivers and blue skies. Its CD, Introducing Hanggai, is on the World Music Network label.
Hanggai has performed throughout Europe and the United States.
Introducing Hanggai (World Music Network/Introducing, 2008)
He Who Travels Far (Four Quarters, 2011)
Baifang (Harlem Records, 2014)