Folk music has not just had a boom in the West in the past decade. It’s happened in China as well.
Case in point: widely popular Mongolian/Chinese folk band Hanggai, who played in Shanghai on Friday. They’re like the Mumford & Sons of China (but less douchy). Hanggai has actually played in Shanghai several times over the last few years, but I always just seemed to miss them. But no more! I can finally tell Chinese friends that I’ve proudly sung along (to maybe 18% of the words) to “Drinking Song” at a Hanggai show. Right of passage.
First of all, Hanggai isn’t exactly Mongolian, but some of the members are ethnically Mongolian (there’s not enough time in this world to dissect Mongolia the country vs China’s Inner Mongolia vs ethnic Mongolians living elsewhere), but Hanggai’s music does draw heavily on traditional Mongolian music and instruments, as well as Mongolian throat singing, which if you’ve never heard kind of sounds…well, just watch a minute or two of this. It’s hard to describe. It’s like they’re singing two notes at the same time!
Also, the band is trained in traditional Mongolian instruments like the morin khuur, the tobshuur and the yatga (which is basically a guzheng, and popular in a lot of traditional Chinese music).
Fun fact: the morin khuur is a symbol of the Mongolian nation! Also, apparently “Mongol” is a perfectly apt adjective and descriptor but for some reason to my ear it sounds…I don’t know. Racist? I think we used that in a racist or bigoted way in America at some point so I’m just going to stick with “Mongolian.”
So anyway, Hanggai. Yeah, they were ace. This was part of the Guinness More Music series done with Split Works — a series that features folk from around China, so right up my alley. Bless Guinness for trying to make that beer happen in China. As of right now, Guinness is not terribly popular here so imagine the poor faces of people who show up and can only get Guinness at the bar (albeit a FREE Guinness). They just don’t know what to do with it. I’ve never seen so much beer purposely splashed around at a show before. But I like Guinness and therefore had several Guinnesses (Guinnei?) given to me from friends who were like, “What is this? Is this beer? IT’S TOO DARK TO BE BEER. You drink this.” So it was really good show for me.
Hanggai, in addition to the more traditional instruments, also uses an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, electric bass, double bass, a drum kit and other percussion, plus a banjo. Yeah, a banjo. Or something closely related to a banjo. But honestly, the Chinese will probably claim to have invented the banjo if you ask them. There was Mongolian throat singing, yes, but mostly just regularly singing, actually. I think 3 or 4 of the 7 members shared vocals as well, which was nice, plus a few guest musicians too. There were just people all over that stage. Lots of variety, lots of good sounds, lots of good stuff going on, in that mix of traditional folk and more modern rock and punk. To my ear (i.e. someone who knows very little about traditional Mongolian music), some songs sounded very traditional, while others were definitely more recent, but most were this very comfortable mix that modern folk relies on — enough tradition to sound different but enough modernity to be appealing to younger fans. A lot of their music encourages singing along and vocalization, which is pretty standard in folk. And dude, people were into it! I haven’t seen so many mobile phones out at a show in ages. There were a few foreigners there, but not many considering the venue and the crowd size (which was crowded). Pity, because I actually think Hanggai would appeal to a lot of non-Chinese folks, and indeed, they’ve already toured quite a bit outside of China.
They played for about 45 minutes, took a quick break, then came back out for another 30 or so, and all their stuff was a mix from their most recent release Back to You (2014) as well as a lot of songs from their first couple of albums. Then they played an encore. I mean, they played. And people were still really into it. In one song, they asked if anyone from the audience wanted to get onstage and dance (probably hoping that, you know, a pretty girl would jump up there), but THIS GUY charged from no where and was up there before any of those at the front even saw where he came from! He really loved them.
And their final song was “Drinking Song,” which is so much better live than it is on an album, because it’s an audience song and builds in intensity and ridiculousness as the song goes on. A staple of Chinese karaoke (which involves drinking). Even I knew the words to this one. Have a listen below. This is actually one of their more traditional-sounding songs — most of their stuff definitely has more of a rock influence.
All in all, I was pretty impressed with Hanggai and they’re one of the more interesting bands I’ve seen at Mao in quite a while. After the show they were selling and autographing their new album, plus taking pictures with the numerous fans that were crowded around, but with no discernible order whatsoever. Though to be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a merch table in China that hasn’t been a disaster, so it’s hard to fault organizers for that. Super nice guys — basically signing and posing for whatever and whomever was there.
If you missed them this time around, catch them at a future show, for sure.