One of the advantages of a music scene that’s as small and young as the one in Ulaanbaatar is that if someone is passionate enough about something, they can make it their own.
Reggae fanatic Gansukh Bilegdemberel, who goes by “Bidi”, is one great example.
Bidi is a 26 year old music lover who doesn’t let the fact that he’s not musically talented stop him from being very active in the scene. I first met him last winter when he was producing a live music performance television program called “Big Break”. He had his finger pressed pretty firmly on the city’s music pulse and a database full of musicians’ names and numbers to boot.
It was at this initial meeting that Bidi first told me about his ambition to put on a big reggae party. I wasn’t surprised Bidi was into reggae. His dreadlocks and green, yellow and red sweatshirt gave him away. He also told me he wanted to produce a band that would play reggae music using traditional Mongolian instruments.
While the latter idea has yet to materialize, Bidi did hold a reggae party last spring that was, by all accounts, a success.
“Big Up! Vol. 1 Reggae Party” featured about 5 musicians singing reggae covers and original reggae tunes composed in Mongolian. The venue was decked out in green, yellow and red, and a table at the front sold Rasta merchandise – everything from woven hats to hemp bracelets.
But the juxtaposition with the late-spring snow outside was a stark reminder that Mongolia is very different from Reggae’s homeland of Jamaica. The sparsely populated, landlocked, mostly frozen country is hardly a place for beach parties.
But that didn’t stop the atmosphere inside from heating up.
After the live music finished, Bidi took his post at the DJ table and played a whole range of beach-appropriate music. Reggae was certainly present, but he cast a wider net, playing Fugees, Macarena, UB40, and even Swing.
“I wish that more music genres would come to the Mongolian music scene. Not only reggae, but also Latin American music, salsa, rumba, Arabian music, and Indian music”, he later told me.
But that’s only a matter of time.
The adoption of the internet has been late but fierce. It wasn’t ubiquitous until about 6 years ago, but in that time has exploded. I’m happy to report my own connection in Ulaanbaatar is much faster than it ever was in my previous apartment in Washington, DC.
For a country hungry to consume and adapt music from around the world, the internet has been key.
“It’s easier for guys to get information today,” says Bidi. “Now, they can listen to music genres and artists from all around the world very quickly with their iPods and computers, and they are all able to know about it.”
But consumption and replication isn’t Bidi’s ultimate goal. He says it’s important for musicians to create something uniquely Mongolian.
“If a Mongolian singer sings just like Justin Beiber, he can’t become famous in the world. That’s why we should know more about ourselves – like Mongolian tradition, culture, and philosophy. And we should connect the wonderful things from this to art and music and let the world know about us.”
This sentiment his something that has been echoed in almost every interview I’ve done here. There’s a real sense that Mongolian musicians need to offer something different to the world. But there’s also a belief that they have a lot to offer.
Should Bidi’s reggae band using Mongolian traditional instruments one day materialize it would ultimately serve two purposes: to continue to spread the gospel of reggae in Mongolia and show the rest of the world one of the many things Mongolia has to offer them.