The next big thing: Hanggai, Mongolian folk rockers and Chinese reality TV stars

Having dominated the TV show Sing My Song, the band find themselves gaining ever more fans around the world

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 October, 2015, 6:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 October, 2015, 7:50pm

Hanggai, the Beijing-based Mongolian folk rock band now well into their second decade, spent the summer on tour in Canada, their third visit since 2009. The tour mostly comprised large-scale folk-festival slots alongside an international collection of artists, performing before tens of thousands of music lovers.

Many of these people had never heard of the band, but for a significant number of Canadian residents, Hanggai are a household name. These are not fans won over by previous visits - that cohort may be loyal, but they are not numerous, despite this and previous years' appearances at some of Canada's biggest festivals. For a significant number of Canadian residents, Hanggai are much more than a band they love; for them, Hanggai are stars.

This is because Hanggai appeared on - and dominated - Chinese reality television show Sing My Song earlier this year. Thanks to the show's reach, says founder Ilchi, the number of Chinese people attending their shows overseas increased suddenly. "Which," he adds, "made us really happy." It also confused the many non-Chinese drawn to their shows by something other than the gravitational pull of televised sing-offs.

In Toronto, for example, audience members lined up for 30 minutes for a chance to snap a selfie with the three band members on duty that night at Roy Thomson Hall. While venue staff were dumbstruck, it was old hat for the band, who have long become used to this post-show ritual.

And so it was also no surprise to the band members when a quick roadside stop to reorganise their touring van caused a minor scene in a small city parking lot. In context, you could hardly blame the staff at the London, Ontario Mandarin - a Vegas-hotel-style strip-mall staple offering all-you-can-eat "Chinese" - because if the latest winner of The Voice pulled into your hometown mall, you'd likely do at least a double-take.

Which is all to say that Hanggai have come a long way. When they were starting out, the stardom of the type they have today acquired - and the idea of appearing on television, or touring the world - was beyond the universe they inhabited.

Born in Inner Mongolia, Ilchi moved to Beijing when he was 12 and learned rock 'n' roll from his sister, a founding member of punk band Hang on the Box and a hardcore crate-digger at the record shops that proliferated in Beijing in the mid-1990s. At 16, he was covering classic Chinese rock, but when he and his bandmate heard Rage Against the Machine, they formed T9, far from the only rap-metal band in a late-1990s/2000s capital rock scene in which nu-metal reigned.

"Eventually, it was like everyone was doing it, and we found it less and less interesting," Ilchi recalls. He and his bandmate had been making regular trips back to Inner Mongolia, and became interested in the traditional music they were hearing. "What we wanted to express was the musical influence we were getting from our own ethnic background."

By 2005, after an extended Inner Mongolian visit studying with traditional musicians, Ilchi's band, rechristened Hanggai, became a fixture on Beijing's rock scene, anticipating the surge of folk that was to come. They rose quickly through the local ranks; their 2008 album, Introducing Hanggai, caught the attention of the international media, including the notoriously picky music website Pitchfork, which gave the band an 8.0 rating and a crystal-clear endorsement: "transcendently powerful music that anyone from anywhere can understand."

Hanggai began to appear on the international circuit, and have since hit some of the largest and most important stages in the world: Womad, Roskilde, Fuji Rock, Bonnaroo and even gigantic German metal festival Wacken, among many others. In 2010, they started their own world music festival in Beijing.

"Hanggai is good for people that want to see 'China'," one punk musician says when asked to describe the band's overseas success, the harsh judgment reserved not for Hanggai but for audiences overseas. When people overseas see a Chinese punk band, the musician adds, "they might think they were tricked", because punk doesn't look or sound like "China" in the way Hanggai does.

Indeed, "China" might not be the most accurate way to describe the band, particularly in the context of the Sinofication of the country's 55 ethnic minorities, which are, for the most part, seen as smiling song-and-dance troupes on TV variety shows. "Many of us," Ilchi says, "have gradually been subjected to a very strong cultural invasion by an oppressive culture", which has caused a loss of traditional music. "The Mongolian spiritual strength is really important to us, so we feel we have a responsibility to continue these musical and cultural traditions."

Their decision to perform new arrangements of Mongolian tunes in traditional costume, and in a mostly rock 'n' roll format, makes a powerful statement, a balance of modern and traditional. On Sing My Song, the offstage footage showed them dressed in civvies, demonstrating that they're just as rock 'n' roll as they are Mongolian, and equally proud of both identities.

"When I first heard this band, I fell in love with the music," says producer Bob Ezrin, whose credits include albums by Lou Reed, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel among others -and now include Hanggai. "This is a very special group. They are modern, worldly Chinese musicians who were drawn back to their Mongolian heritage and cultural traditions. Their homeland calls to them philosophically as well as musically."

Along with Garth Richardson, who has worked with Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mötley Crüe, Ezrin led a Vancouver recording session at the end of the Canadian tour. This isn't the first time they've worked with Western producers: American musician and producer Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, R.E.M.) and Dutch producer J.B. Meijers are two of their recent collaborators.

Ezrin says: "What [Hanggai] are doing now is totally informed by their Mongolian traditions as they mixed with their knowledge of Western and Chinese music. So they end up with something that is very special; unique, really. But it is not conventional in any way."

Ezrin stresses how rare it is for music that doesn't follow generic conventions to gain wide recognition.

One hoped these legends, as chroniclers of the adventures of Chinese musicians in the wider world, would veer toward the philosophical and paradigm-shifting when reflecting on their time spent in studios abroad. However, Ilchi's thoughts on the process and experience tend more toward the specific. "One thing that was surprising was that they had five or six of us in the loading bay to record the drums. The sound they got was amazing and shocking."

With Canadian audiences buying the band's T-shirts and CDs like they were expecting them to run out, and with some fans visibly inspired by the performances, including one festival-goer moved to tears by a cross-cultural session pairing the band with Canadian folk act Great Lake Swimmers at Guelph's Hillside Festival, one wonders whether Sing My Song-style superstardom among non-Chinese fans might soon follow.

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