It is snowing in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, but a big function room in a downtown hotel is bright, crowded and swelteringly warm. Hundreds of guests are milling about tables piled high with dumplings, slices of watermelon, glasses of wine and bottles of beer, while women in bright embroidered robes welcome latecomers. A stage is set up at one end of the room, and half a dozen photographers are setting up equipment.
Then Anda Union take to the stage, and with them they bring the sounds of the grasslands that surround the “blue city”: galloping drum beats, traditional throat singing, the piercing ululations of the horse-head fiddle (imagine a small cello with two strings), and seven-part vocal harmonies. When the band finish, to raucous applause, they are given bunches of flowers and sky-blue ceremonial silk scarves.
The gig, in early March, was a send-off for the band, who went on to play at Womad festivals in Australia and New Zealand. This autumn they’ll be introducing hordes of Scots to the sound of the Mongolian grassland when they perform 26 dates at the Edinburgh Festival’s art deco big top, the Spiegeltent. A documentary about the band, called Anda Union: From The Steppes to the City will also be making the rounds of film festivals across the country, and is expected to get a DVD release next year.
There are six million Mongols in Inner Mongolia, a region of northern China, and although in Hohhot they are outnumbered ten to one by Han Chinese, they have their own distinct culture and language, and a traditionally nomadic way of life. Like their trilling language, which sounds nothing like the rounded sounds of Chinese, Mongolia’s religion has much in common with Tibet: a mixture of Buddhism and animism is practiced. The “dalai” of “dalai lama” is a Mongolian word, meaning ocean.
Mongolia also has a distinct musical tradition. Drinking songs, love songs, and melancholy ballads about being far away from friends and family are a part of everyday life, but they are increasingly being appreciated by people who have never tried traditional Mongolian salty tea or ridden a horse on the steppes. Songlines has previously profiled Hanggai, a Beijing-based group who fuse traditional Mongolian songs with rock; Anda Union’s music sticks closer to tradition, and like Hanggai have received rave reviews for their international tours.
Back at the concert, the group’s informal leader, Nars, has to be persuaded away from the party to explain exactly how music from the world’s most sparsely populated country has come to be performed in more than 30 countries around the world. “Our music is all folk music,” he says, via a translator. “From history, there is no written word for us, so this kind of music is passed down to the next generation orally. So from the songs, the youngsters will know how their ancestors lived.”
Nars learned Mongolian folk music from his grandfather, a nomadic herder and a virtuoso musician, and went on to study at a music school where he met other members of the band. After being part of a folk music ensemble in Hohhot, he started Anda Union to play traditional songs in a way that would catch the attention of young people, who are more likely now to listen to hip hop, pop or rock.
“For Anda Union the most important aim is to preserve those songs,” Nars says. “First, to know our culture, know this kind of music, know this kind of instrument very well, and then to influence our youngsters and learn to preserve our cultures. Nowadays so many people learn from Western music, they already forgot our roots.”
“There is a very big change in Mongolian culture,” Nars says, “and this change is unconscious. When we began to realize how much our culture had changed it had already changed a lot. That’s a big problem for us. We don’t know at this moment which parts of culture we’re losing.”
While his grandparents lived in yurts (or gers, in Mongolian), Nars lives in a house in the city, with a mobile phone and all the mod cons. He is still a practicing Buddhist, a fan of traditional Mongolian food and a lover of the grasslands, but, like most others of his generation, he is no longer living the traditional nomadic lifestyle.
“Everyone wants to live a comfortable, convenient life,” he says, and there are other reasons why things are changing. The Mongolian grasslands are becoming deserts, due to climate change; mining is changing the landscape, and the government is trying to stop nomads moving with the seasons. “Before, the grasslands were everyone’s. Now, each place has its owner.”
Preserving Mongolian culture takes on another dimension in Hohhot, in Chinese Inner Mongolia. “We have our own way to preserve and protect and to learn our Mongolian culture, compared to Outer Mongolia,” Nars says. “We live with Chinese so we have our own way.”
It’s been effective: whereas the Cyrillic alphabet has been adopted in Outer Mongolia; Inner Mongolia uses the vertical, flowing Mongolian script, and all public signs in the region are bilingual. Hohhot is full of Mongolian restaurants selling mutton hotpot, shops full of Mongolian artefacts, Buddhist temples and a museum that has a floor dedicated to Genghis Khan. But, for all this; Outer Mongolia is still seen as the “real,” wild Mongolia. “We can’t compare to Ulaanbaatar,” Nars says, referring to the Outer Mongolian capital, “because that is all Mongolians.”
Tim Pearce, a Londoner who manages the band, says that although it’s important to preserve Mongolian culture, it’s also important not to get sentimental about the nomadic lifestyle. “ We can go, ‘oh, it’s so beautiful to live in the grasslands,’ but it’s a very hard life,” he says. “People in their forties look like they’re seventy; living in a yurt at minus forty degrees in the winter. It’s really tough.”
Pearce was a theatre producer at the Shanghai Arts Festival six years ago, when he saw Anda Union play for the first time, “and I just went ‘Oh my God!’ They were very young, they only had a couple of songs at that point but they were just so impressive.” He jumped onstage at the end of the concert and found the band’s dressing room, and asked if he could come back to Inner Mongolia with them. They ended up spending a week together; Pearce recorded their music in a rehearsal room and managed to book the group two America tours.
A few years later, he made the documentary about the band, in which each of the group’s members visit their family homes: a trip that took a month and covered 10,000km. In it, we see a ger being constructed, a Mongolian wedding, prayers being offered at a Buddhist temple and a sheep being killed for a feast in a traditional way. An incision is made in its stomach, and the main artery leading to the heart is closed off by hand. The animal dies relatively peacefully, looking at the sky.
“Every day was quite extraordinary,” Pearce says of the shoot, and explains that the main challenge was learning how to deal with the locals’ incredible hospitality. “Mongolians will literally give you anything,” he says. “So you have to be careful what you ask for.” One night, the crew and band were all sleeping in one ger, “crammed in like sardines,” and it got cold at night. The night morning they realized that the family they were staying with had given them all their bedding and “must have been absolutely freezing.” The next day, heaps of spare bedding were hastily bought. It was the same with food and drink: “the challenge was to try and stop people giving us too much.”
Running onstage at that concert in Shanghai changed Tim Pearce’s life “completely.” While making the documentary, his wife became pregnant, and when the couple’s daughter was born, they made the entire band the baby’s godparents, “so now they literally are family,” and called the girl Lily Anda. (Anda means “blood brother” in Mongolian, and is associated with a story about Genghis Khan.) He now goes back to Mongolia several times a year, and he has organised tours for the band around the world.
While he marvels at the musicians’ selflessness, their devout Buddhism, and the legendary Mongolian hospitality, he also says that “they totally know how to party.” When he recently spent the Mongolian New Year with the band, they were out drinking and celebrating “every day for 15 days. And, of course, as soon as the drink comes out the singing starts, and you get goosebumps. It’s so beautiful.”
There hasn’t been much of a concert culture in Hohhot – singing is something that’s done at home, rather than for an audience – but what makes Anda Union so special, according to Pearce, is they bring the intimate atmosphere of the ger onto the concert stage. “They have this way of understanding the essence of that experience in the grasslands,” he says.
The band is also passing on these skills to a new generation. Nars has turned his home into a residential music school, where children learn throat singing and the horsehead fiddle in every corner of the house. “It’s a great way of creating more bands, more Mongolian music,” says Pearce. While on tour, he has been setting up workshops with universities in America to teach Western students Mongolian music techniques too. Two other members of Anda Union, meanwhile, have opened bars in Hohhot, and while one is more Westernised, the other provides a venue for live Mongolian music every night of the week.
“In Hohhot, Anda Union have inspired a whole load of young people to start their own Anda Union-style bands,” Pearce says, “so I’m sure in a few years’ time we’ll have a whole load of amazing music. Similarly, Hanggai are stimulating the music sene in Beijing. You’re going to see a lot more Mongolian music coming out of China.”
While Anda Union are proud of their roots, they are also interested in collaborating with other musicians from around the world. The soaring vocal melodies and driving drumbeats of the Mongolian folk songs they play are at times reminiscent of Celtic folk music, and Nars also says that he enjoyed improvising with Country & Western banjo players and other musicians in America. “I always think about working with a band from another culture,” Nars says. “I love that.”
The day after the concert in Hohhot, the band are rushing about packing and preparing for their trip to Australia, where they will play to people who have never heard of traditional Mongolian culture, much less visited the grasslands and heard nomads singing over drinks. But, according to Pearce, their energetic live performances never fail to win over the audience.
“I haven’t seen a concert where people haven’t loved them,” he says. “They appeal to the nomadic nature we’ve got in all of us. Their music awakens this incredible spirit of the grasslands and what it really is to be in touch with nature. And they really are incredibly skilled musicians. Their music is just so accessible. It’s moving, it’s upbeat, it’s quite incredible. People shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see them.”