Why Does China Have 1.4 Billion People and No Good Bands? www.foreignpolicy.com
The most successful Mongolian conquerors since Genghis Khan aren’t on horseback but on the drums. They’re called the Hu, and over the past year their bone-vibrating hard rock, which combines traditional Mongolian instruments and throat singing with Western rock and metal, has become a breakout hit with fans around the world—and made them official cultural ambassadors for the country.
The Hu first started gaining attention more than a year ago with the music videos for two songs—“Wolf Totem” and “Yuve Yuve Yu”—which blew up on YouTube thanks to their fist-pumping instrumentals and stunning steppe visuals. At a recent count, the two videos had a combined 61 million views on YouTube—20 times the number of people in Mongolia.
Fans attribute the success of the Hu to the group’s blending of Western metal with local styles. But it’s only the most well-packaged instance of an ongoing phenomenon. Mongolia has a strong tradition of rock groups working to modernize traditional sounds. Altan Urag, a Mongolian folk rock group from the capital of Ulaanbaatar, first succeeded in electrifying traditional Mongolian instruments almost 15 years ago. And it gave heavy metal the distinctive growl of throat singing with its seminal 2006 album, Made In Altan Urag. Mongolian bands like Khusugtun, Altain Orgil, Jonon, and Mohanik have all tweaked folk music to modern ends.
Despite having 1.4 billion people to Mongolia’s mere 3 million, there’s no such thing as a distinctive Chinese national sound that mixes tradition and modernity in the same way Mongolians do.
That’s a stark contrast with Mongolia’s neighbor China. Despite having 1.4 billion people to Mongolia’s mere 3 million, there’s no such thing as a distinctive Chinese national sound that mixes tradition and modernity in the same way Mongolians do—at least none that has become a serious commercial player. Instead, China has been left churning out a stream of pale imitations of other countries’ genres. That raises a big question: Why does Mongolian music slap so hard and Chinese music (with a few exceptions) suck?
The answers are partially historical. In the 20th century, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state. The Soviet policy toward music was to promote folk music that represented the national consciousness while remaining wary of foreign imports. Folk songs were collected, recorded, and performed to create a sense of anti-imperial multiculturalism. It helped that Mongolia didn’t suffer the same level of cultural destruction as some communist states. While there were brutal purges in the 1930s, Mongolia’s nomadic and dispersed culture allowed its music to survive under a softer form of communist rule.
Unfortunately, the kids wanted blue jeans and rock. Noticing the passion that Ulaanbaatar teenagers held for their secret recordings of Western music in the 1970s, the Mongolian culture ministry embarked on a campaign to blend the mandatory folk music with rock ’n’ roll. But this Mongolian rock wasn’t really popular at the time.
“It was very watered down and safe,” said Lauren Knapp, the director of the 2015 documentary Live From UB, which tells the story of rock music in the new Mongolia.
Yet the state-backed rock of the 1970s gave young Mongolians enough of a ground that in the 1980s, when students started pushing for democracy, rock music became an important force. The new wave was straightforward Western-style protest rock, akin to that of other dissident artists like Russia’s Viktor Tsoi and China’s Cui Jian. Songs like “The Ringing of the Bell” united Mongolians as they gathered in Ulaanbaatar to demand democracy.
Its political weight meant that Mongolians took music seriously. Fights between fans of different genres wrecked clubs in the early 2000s, with hip-hop aficionados swinging at metalheads. In the new millennium, though, musicians in Ulaanbaatar’s growing rock scene regained interest in developing a distinctively Mongolian sound. The pioneers included Altan Urag, conservatory-trained folk musicians who thought they might be able to get more of their friends to come to their concerts if they gave their music a harder edge.