Hanggai: Chinese Punk Looks To The Past Modern Chinese music is most famous for sappy Canto-pop love songs. But on the mainland, young Chinese musicians are innovating and taking risks with ancient music forms such as throat singing. Former punk singer Ilchi is now a force in the Mongolian folk-music revival with his band Hanggai.
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Hanggai: Chinese Punk Looks To The Past

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Hanggai: Chinese Punk Looks To The Past

Hanggai: Chinese Punk Looks To The Past

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now for some very earthy sounds in the midst of modern Chinese music, famously awash in sappy love songs. Young Chinese musicians are innovating and taking risks with ancient musical forms. In the first of two stories, NPR's Louisa Lim met a young ex-punk who's gone back to his roots.

(Soundbite of throat singing)

LOUISA LIM: The otherworldly sound of throat singing echoes through a small Beijing cafe. Singer Ilchi is producing two sounds at the same time. Just 28 years old, he's already undergone a musical odyssey.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Once the front man for punk band T9, he raged in profanity-laden songs about the frustrations of modern life. But his direction changed, and now he's one of the forces pushing a folk-music revival.

ILCHI: (Singer, Hanggai): (Through Translator) I felt we modern people need to understand more about our past.

(Soundbite of song "My Banjo and I")

LIM: For Ilchi, that means a pilgrimage into his own past. An ethnic Mongolian, he was born in Inner Mongolia, which is part of China. But he moved with his family to Beijing at the age of 12. Three years ago, on a journey of musical self-exploration, he returned to Inner Mongolia. There he learnt the traditional art of throat singing, and searched for old folk songs in danger of being lost. He started to write his own music for his band Hanggai, like this song about his tobshuur, a two-stringed Mongolian banjo.

(Soundbite of song "My Banjo and I")

ILCHI: (Through Translator) This song is about my beloved banjo which follows my emotions. It's like a horse which knows which way he wants to go on the grasslands. I want to devote my life and my banjo to celebrate the beauty of my beloved Mongolian soil and my old home.

LIM: With the beat evoking horse hooves thundering over the grasslands, this music harks back to the nomad's way of life. That's disappearing quickly with rapid urbanization and modernization and as desertification encroaches upon the once-massive grasslands. The music critic for the China Daily, Mu Qian, has been following Ilchi's musical odyssey.

Mr. MU QIAN (Music Critic, China Daily): He's trying to find back his cultural identity. It's becoming more and more difficult to do so because traditions are disappearing. It's the same everywhere in the world, but probably especially so in China because China is changing very fast.

LIM: What marks out Hanggai is their Mongolian roots and the fact that they sing in Mongolian. Here they're treading into politically sensitive territory. Nowadays less than 20 percent of the population of Inner Mongolia is Mongolian. Most are Han Chinese. And Ilchi doesn't shy away from explaining how that Chinese influence has changed life.

ILCHI: (Through Translator) Most of our people have moved away from the old way of life. After moving to the cities, many of us have gradually been subjected to a very strong cultural invasion by an oppressive culture. So this traditional music has completely lost its space.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Some of their songs show just how fragile that culture is. This one is sung in the Mongolian equivalent of Chaucerian English, a dialect so ancient even the singer who taught them the words could not remember what they meant. Despite the cultural toll, singer Ilchi believes the sinicization of ethnic Mongolians is inevitable.

ILCHI: (Through Translator) Everyone surrounding you speaks Chinese. No one speaks Mongolian. If you don't speak Chinese, you can't survive. It's unavoidable.

LIM: Ilchi's musical explorations also expose the contradictions involved in rediscovering cultural identity in modern China. He's an ethnic Mongolian who had to relearn the language to sing in it, and he's singing about a fast-disappearing way of life he's never really lived himself. But even so, Robin Haller, who co-produced the band's debut album, says he fell in love with their honesty.

Mr. ROBIN HALLER (Music Producer): Most bands or musicians in the world, but certainly in Beijing, they're thinking about how to, you know, sell the most records, or to get on TV, and how to be the most commercial. And there's something quite, I think, romantic and quixotic about the band and the way they go about doing what they do.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Their new album ends with their party piece, simply named the "The Drinking Song." And in order to gain that right alcohol-sozzled atmosphere, part of the recording was made after the band had been on a pub crawl.

(Soundbite of song "The Drinking Song")

LIM: Singer Ilchi describes the song.

ILCHI: (Through Translator) Alcohol in a bottle is very docile, like a little sheep. But in your stomach, it's like a tiger.

LIM: With those tigers roaring in their bellies, Hanggai sing on. And in that act alone, they're trying to roll back the cultural invasion of the Han Chinese. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

MONTAGNE: To hear the music of Hanggai and see what the band looks like, you can visit nprmusic.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

SHAPIRO: And I'm Ari Shapiro.

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