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Banging to Beat of a Different Drum

After listening to Ilchi's (Yiliqi) past and present music, one can hardly attribute them to the same person. While the former sound features distorted guitar, a galloping beat and a roaring style of singing, his new music is now melodic and soothing Mongolian folk songs accompanied by traditional instruments.

The 26-year-old musician has gone through a most dramatic change. Two years ago, he disbanded his alternative rock group T-9 after the release of their CD "Fix It" and formed his new band Hanggai. "The period of rock music in my life is over," he said.

The change of Ilchi may not seem so dramatic with his background. Ilchi was born an ethnic Mongolian in Xilinhot of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. He moved to Beijing with his family at the age of 12, but he revisits his hometown every year.

Traditional folk songs sung by his grandfather and parents have been seeded in his memory since childhood. In his every visit back to Inner Mongolia, he looked for tapes and CDs of Mongolian folk music, even after he became fond of heavy music and formed his rock band in 2000.

"Traditional Mongolian folk music has always been another part of my musical life, but I didn't think of playing it myself before," said Ilchi.

What interested him the most in his younger days was the kind of music played by his once favourite band, Rage against the Machine, from the United States. Following them, Ilchi founded T-9, which is the name of an anti-rust, anti-corrosive and lubricating substance used for protecting aircraft. The band's name symbolized their idea to protect people's minds, from corruption. The song lyrics emphasized this idea.

"Each day just makes me more frustrated

The world changes every person

It makes us forget the most precious things

But when we figure out what we lost

Well, some people just don't want to lose it

Some people still haven't figured it out

They are already victims of the society."

However, after three years of performing their raging music in clubs to equally raging audiences, Ilchi became tired of that kind of music. He found that he couldn't fully express himself in rock.

Old teacher

Just at that time, he heard an old style of singing khoomei, or overtone singing in which a single person can produce two or even more vocal parts by causing sympathetic vibration through sustained singing of low sounds.

Khoomei is a traditional singing style of the Mongolian and Tuvan people. However, for more than a century this art was lost in Inner Mongolia, and it was only in recent years that some local singers rediscovered this music and revived it.

For Ilchi, khoomei seemed to have disclosed something that had been hidden in his blood for many years. Suddenly, all the Mongolian folk songs he had heard since childhood came alive.

What khoomei inspired in him was not only a new orientation for music, but also a need for identity.

As Ilchi grew up in Chinese-language surroundings, Chinese became his mother tongue. When he played rock music under Western influence, he used to write lyrics and sing in English. He now studies and sings in the Mongolian language.

Ilchi tried to imitate the khoomei he heard on CDs, but it was hard for him to grasp the essence of it. When he learned that Odsurung, a great khoomei singer from the Republic of Mongolia, was invited by the Inner Mongolia Song and Dance Ensemble to hold a workshop in Hohhot in 2003, he bought a train ticket and set out for Hohhot right away.

Though Ilchi couldn't understand much Mongolian, he learned a great deal from Odsurung through their mutual language of music. Under the direction of Odsurung, who had been singing khoomei for some 50 years, Ilchi began to enter the world of this old tradition.

In three weeks of classes, he learned the basic skills of khoomei, and the rest was left for him to perfect through practice.

"I find that khoomei best fits those songs which describe the beauty of nature," said Ilchi. "Perhaps it's because khoomei was born in the natural environment."

One of the core traits of Mongolian culture, the love of nature, demonstrated its power when Ilchi named his new band Hanggai, an old Mongolian word referring to a beautiful pasture with mountains, trees and brooks.

In a song also titled "Hanggai," he sings:

"The azure hanggai

What a holy and pure place

The baby deer is lucky to have been born in your arms

The songs that come out of morning are still echoed in the dusk

The dews compose clouds

The vigorous hanggai and dense forests of the north are permeated with richness and serenity

Please don't change my hangga."

The band has adapted about 20 traditional Mongolian folk songs, and has come out with some original works, including "Hanggai" and "My Tobshuur."

"In 'T9,' we tried to tell people what is right or wrong, but now we just want to make the best music and leave the rest to the audience," said Ilchi.

Viewed from an individual perspective, the transfer of Ilchi's music styles perhaps represents the maturing of his adolescent ideas. But from a broader perspective, Hanggai is one of the forces in a nationwide trend to revive traditional folk music.

Musicians and instruments

Other examples include IZ, a band who find their inspirations in traditional Kazak music, and Su Yang, a singer from Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region who tries to combine local music idioms with Western forms.

After many trials, Hanggai have replaced their Western instruments, such as guitar and bass with Mongolian instruments, like the morinkhuur (horse-head fiddle) and tobshuur (two-stringed plucked instrument). They are still trying various instruments, including the nearly extinct modonchor, a vertical flute played together with the flautist's own voice.

All the members of Hanggai are ethnic Mongolians, but they come from different areas and represent various sub-styles of the Mongolian music culture.

Vocalist and tobshuur player Ilchi is from central Inner Mongolia's Xilingol; drummer Boyinjaya is from northeastern Inner Mongolia's Hulunbuir; morinkhuur player Gugjilt comes from eastern Inner Mongolia's Horqin; plucked instrumentalist Boldoo is from southwestern Inner Mongolia's Ordos; and vocalist Hurchhu is from the Haixi Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai Province.

Since Beijing is relatively close to Inner Mongolia, many ethnic Mongolian musicians come to Beijing to pursue their musical careers. Ilchi found his companions in Beijing's bars, restaurants and the ethnic Mongolian community.

"We come from different places, and our ideal is to make Hanggai a band characteristic of the Chinese Mongolians," said Ilchi. "The folk music of ethnic Mongolian people in China is unique, even different from the music of the Republic of Mongolia in some aspects."

Hanggai has recorded a demo, and will release their first formal album this year. Besides playing regularly at Beijing's Yugongyishan Club and Sandglass Caf, they have appeared at last year's Gegentala Music Festival of Inner Mongolia and Midi Music Festival of Beijing.

In a song called "Great Mongolia," Ilchi raises the question: "Do the Mongolians who grow up in cities still miss their prairie?" Ilchi certainly does, but he said if he were to choose whether to be a khoomei singer in the prairie or to play in a band like Hanggai, he would choose the latter.

"I believe what we do is a good thing for the development of Mongolian culture," he said. "Maybe our music is not good, but other people might be inspired by us and make better and better Mongolian music."

(China Daily May 15, 2006)

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