The most unique and personally catching musical genre I’ve come across in my three months here in Mongolia is folk rock. I admit, the label ‘folk rock’ doesn’t exactly evoke excitement for a future listener, but the title is an apt one. It describes the combination of traditional Mongolian instruments, songs and vocal techniques with their more modern counterparts.
Like most genres in Mongolia, the folk rock scene is intimate. There are only a handful of groups regularly performing in this new style.
A Note on Traditional Music
To understand folk rock, it helps to know a little about the folk part of the title. Mongolian traditional music is unique and ancient. The style is reminiscent of the country’s vast and open landscape with long notes, natural sounding instruments, and earthy vocals. A song’s lyrics will often focus on nature, family, or Mongolia’s great war hero, Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan.
Mongolian music is defined by a few unique instruments and styles. The first is the horse-head fiddle (morin khuur). It is a two-stringed instrument played like a cello. The strings and bow are made from horsehair and there is a horse’s head carved into the top of the neck. It’s a light and portable instrument, important for a nomadic culture. Then there is the tradition of throat singing (Khoomei). It’s the unique ability for one person to simultaneously produce one or two pitches over a low drone. It will often sound like a whistle over a gravelly lower tone. Finally, long song (urtyn duu) is a traditional style in which the lyrics are stretched out over several notes and beats. There may be as few as 10 words in one song. Listening to long song, it is easy to imagine a herder singing to his friend or family member across the valley.
Merging Traditional and Modern
Most Ulaanbaatar music lovers will tell you that the band Altan Urag really established folk rock in Mongolia. In 2002 the group of professionally trained musicians created a style that blends traditional instruments and songs with heavy metal and rock. The band includes two horse-head fiddles, a horse-head upright base, a dulcimer, a traditional horn (similar to a clarinet), drums, throat singing, and sometimes long song. They were the first to electrify the horse-head fiddle playing it like an electric guitar at times. They even modified their instruments’ look by replacing the horse’s head on the top of the fiddle and base with a carving of an alien head. They took advantage of the guttural similarities of metal rock vocals and throat singing and include both.
Altan Urag has released several albums highlighting their skill and flexibility. Some are legitimately hard rock, while others have a more traditional flavor. They produced most of the music for the Academy Award winning film “Mongol”, about the early life of Ghengis Khan. They’ve brought their unique sound to music festivals around the world, and still play four nights a week in various bars and restaurants around Ulaanbaatar.
The second noteworthy band expanding the genre of Mongolian folk rock is Jonon. They are a bit younger than Altan Urag, but the members graduated from the same music school as their predecessors. Like Altan Urag, this eight-member ensemble features the horse-head fiddle, dulcimer, and drums. But, they’ve also added a zither (yatga), electric bass, traditional flutes, and a jaw harp.
Jonon’s sound is not quite as upfront as Altan Urag’s. They are the light rock side to Altan Urag’s metal rock. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an edge. Last year, they teamed up with local hip-hop artist Gee and produced an album called “Mongolz”. The album blends hip-hop, rock and traditional Mongolian music producing a sound that you can only find in Ulaanbaatar.