Monday, November 28, 2016
Hanggai - Introducing Hanggai (2008 China) @256m4a
Hanggai are a Beijing-based sextet of Mongolian musicians, a few of whom originally hail from China's Inner Mongolia province. Two of the members play the morin khuur (horse-hair fiddle), while another plays the tobshuur, a two-stringed lute, and these instruments comprise the foundation of their sound. Tobshuur player and bandleader Ilchi was formerly in a Beijing punk group and put this band together after hearing the traditional khoomei throat-singing technique. Enthralled by the sound of this centuries-old singing style, he went to Inner Mongolia to learn it, where he ultimately met fiddle players Hugejiltu and Bagen. The combination of the group members' raspy, deep throat singing with a Western compositional sense of tension, build-up, and release is hard to describe apart from saying that it works very well.
It is rare that such attempts to modernize (read: Westernize) traditional folk forms actually enhance the power of the music, but that is the case here. Haller and Scumaci's very subtle additions of electric guitar, bass, and electronic textural elements nicely complement the traditional instrumentation-- the fiddles can produce long drones or billowing melodic figures, and the tobshuur is often used to give the songs a heart-racing rhythmic underpinning, with the help of some hand percussion.
The album's stunning centerpiece, "Five Heroes", opens with a long passage of throat-singing, with one member producing a steady, low drone while another manipulates the high, whistling overtones produced by it. The minimal guitar part has elements of surf, and is later used to inject a long, descending phrase between the verses. It's stunningly dramatic, and on hearing it my wife remarked that, even though they were singing in Mongol, she could feel the storytelling taking place in the lyrics. I have to agree.
The album is well-balanced between up-tempo and down-tempo offerings, and fast, rhythmic tracks like "Flowers". The natural ease with which these young musicians fit their mother culture's traditional musical arsenal into structures provided by another culture is remarkable-- unlike that horrible Yat-Kha album with the awkward throat-singing covers of Joy Division and Motörhead from a few years ago, there is never a sense of novelty in this music, just the sense that these unique, singular traditions can have a place in music moving forward.
And that's perhaps the biggest reason that Hanggai's debut is an unmitigated success. It distills everything powerful about Mongolian folk music and makes something new from the ingredients. If you like this, I recommend trying out some actual traditional Mongolian music, though an understanding of it isn't remotely necessary to enjoy Hanggai. As it is, if you've never heard throat-singing or given a second (or even first) thought to Central Asian music, this album is a great place to start. Moreover, it succeeds on a purer level than that, as transcendently powerful music that anyone from anywhere can understand.
1. My Banjo and I 5:10
2. Yekul Song 3:46
3. Zhaoderen Nana 3:56
4. Five Heroes 2:37
5. Flowers 5:33
6. Haar Hu 3:26
7. Wuji 2:01
8. Lullaby (Borulai) 2:57
9. Drinking Song 4:02
10. Four Seasons 3:01