Hanggai show plenty of promise, and deserve another outing elsewhere.
Jon Lusk 2008-07-25
Just in time for the Beijing Olympics, this six-piece based in the same city have released their debut album celebrating and reappraising their Mongolian roots. With much of the arts media coverage in recent months directed at more the high-tech pop fusionist Sa Dingding (whose mother is also Mongolian) or debates about how unappealing mainstream Chinese pop is to Western ears, it's good there's an earthier alternative. With tracks on this album such as Wuji imitating the gait of horses, it's fairly clear which disc Mongolia's most famous son Ghenghis Khan would have preferred if he'd been able to hear it.
Since their music is based on traditional songs from the inner Mongolian grasslands, and features the warm, frayed drone of the morin khuur (horse hair fiddle), the tobshuur two-stringed lute) and hoomei (‘throat’ or ‘overtone singing’) as its dominant flavours, Hanggai are bound to be compared with the likes of Tuvan traditionalists Huun-Huur-Tu. Hanggai don’t have quite the same level of vocal talent at their disposal, but nor is their music as traditional as Huun-Huur-Tu, who themselves broke with tradition by combining closely related vocal styles with very similar instruments for the first time. Co-producers Robin Haller and Matteo Scumacihave further enriched the folkloric sound palette by adding unobtrusive electric guitar, bass, banjo, programming and crisply atmospheric percussion. Such elements are most obvious on the experimental (and not completely successful) trip-hop flavoured Lullaby (Borulai), which even throws in a few tentative vocal harmonies – again, not something you'd hear
out on the steppes.
In fact, it's the sounds of Beijing's back streets that subtly invade the album – most notably the passing traffic at the end of Yekul Song – lending it the ambience of an urban field recording in places. Not trying to hide the fact that it wasn't recorded out in the country gives the music an honest feel that makes up for its occasional shortcomings and brevity, at only 36 minutes. By its very nature World Music Network's ‘Introducing’ series doesn't allow for ‘difficult second albums’, but Hanggai show plenty of promise, and deserve another outing elsewhere.