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REVIEW: Hanggai for More (Ordway)

Photo by Yang Feng.

You say you need more traditional Mongolian punk rock cowboy music in your life? I may have some excellent news for you… well, more excellent if you hadn’t missed the performance, but you can still buy their music!

The latest entry in the Ordway’s World Music and Dance series lit up the Concert Hall on April 7 with Hanggai, an internationally recognized six-person band that perfectly matches that description. Yeah, I’m sorry about rubbing it in. You should have been there.

The band’s name is a Mongolian term meaning “an idyllic natural landscape of sprawling grasslands, mountains, rivers, trees, and blue skies.” Listening to their unique fusion of folk and rock music, you just feel entirely transported to that place. Especially when it’s snowing outside, like it is today.

Hanggai is based in Beijing, but its members claim the music of Buryat, Mongolia, Scandanavia, Scotland, Siberia, and Tuva as their influences; they sing entirely in Mongolian. They’ve been around for over 10 years, but more recently made it big with an appearance on the Chinese reality show Sing My Song. 

This week’s St. Paul crowd was delighted and enthusiastic. Lead vocalist Hurizha commanded the stage throughout the evening, addressing and charming the audience between songs, with only occasional and minimal English translation offered by guitarist Ailun and Yiliqi (the band’s founder).

Had they played the Twin Cities at a more conventional rock venue or night club (say, 7th Avenue), the audience would probably have been on their feet and at the lip of the stage from the first number on. Even in the more formal setting of Concert Hall, though, people were still compelled to clap, stomp, and dance along, remaining on their feet all through the encore.

I’m not rubbing it in, I’m being descriptive. This reaction is thanks in no small part to their compelling sound. In addition to the traditional rock and roll drums, electric guitars, and bass, the band’s sound incorporates six-stringed banjo, mouth harp, hand shakers, and the Mongolian stringed tobshuur and morin khuur. Batubagen, arguably the hardest working man of the night, played the morin khuur continuously throughout, including for the pared-down ballads, and he also contributed what is perhaps the key element to fill out Hanggai’s unique sound: throat singing. (Like peanut butter on a cheeseburger, it’s that seemingly incongruous ingredient that turns out to be a revelation.)

Yilalata played an exhilarating lead guitar and added his own powerful vocals, and Niu Xin on bass and Meng Da on percussion kept things going at a galloping pace. Theirs is a music of wide open spaces, and even sitting in a crowded theater in the middle of downtown, you feel small against that vast landscape. Hanggai’s songs are energetic, inventive, and buoyant, and they achieve the sense of something welcoming and familiar even when they are showing you something new.

Hanggai’s current tour comes to a close on April 9 in Traverse City, Michigan. Yes, I know that’s 600 miles away– you’re the one who didn’t come to the Ordway last night! Anyways, if you do see them again, come ready to move.

Lydia Lunning