HE WHO TRAVELS FAR
THE NEW ALBUM from HANGGAI
From the wild open grasslands of Inner Mongolia to the teaming, churning streets of 21st century Beijing via the looking-glass world of rock, pop and bluegrass as seen and heard by7 a new generation of Chinese, the six-piece Hanggai encompass a hell of a lot of tradition, culture, fusion and folklore into their unique sound.
A brief career recap - their debut album, Introducing Hanggai was released in 2008 (the year of the Beijing Olympics) with critics such as The Observer's Neil Spencer praising it as a "a delight, supplementing traditional horse-hair fiddle and lute with percussion, electronica and a shimmer of surf guitar... tradition updated with elegance". As a live band, they have since brought their music and spectacle to the stages of Britain, America and Europe, astonishing audiences with live showcases of overtone singing the deep tradition at the heart of Mongolian culture, and perhaps one of the most ancient, and still current, vocal styles in the world. They became festival favourites, too at WOMAD, Rosklide, and even Wacken the world's biggest Metal festival. Hanggai's roadies may transport some of the world's oldest instruments, but these guys have a vocal style any Speed Metal frontman would remortgage his bruised and battered soul for and they can play as hard as anyone.
After a year and more on the road in the Spring of 2010, Hanggai returned to the studio in Beijing with producers Ken Stringfellow (REM, Neil Young) and JB Meijers and guest artists including world-class guitarist Marc Ribot, to record their second album, laying down 14 songs in all, many of them drawing on Mongolian traditional lyrics and melodies. But while Introducing Hanggai saw the band recording traditional instruments live in the studio before overdubbing the western and electronic elements separately, this time, they have taken a much more cohesive, organic approach.
"For He Who Travels Far we all recorded as a band together and live rather than instrument by instrument," they say. "We feel that He Who Travels Far is much more our CD as a band - and with the addition of new band member Shang Li (Yilalata) there came more guitar parts into our music."
Just as, 40 years ago, a generation of British musicians turned from imported American sounds to explore the wonderful and frightening world of Britain's folk traditions, so Hanggai have done the same by exploring their roots in the music and culture and magical drones of Inner Mongolia.
Four of the six-piece band - vocalist Yilalata, lutist Ilchi, horse-head fiddler Batubagan, bassist Niu Zin are from Mongolia, and it was erstwhile punk singer Ilchi's rediscovery of the lost sounds of his childhood - overtone singing that was the impetus that led to Hanggai coming together in the first place. Ilchi stepped out of the Chinese punk scene and returned to the land of his father's birth to rediscover and revive a culture that was in tatters following China's decades of continual and unpredictable social and political upheaval. Not that they left Punk or rock behind the band's sound is a seamless melding of many different musical elements.
The name Hanggai refers to the sprawling Mongolian landscape of big grasslands and bigger skies, and their repertoire is drawn from traditional Mongolian songs, featuring traditional instruments such as the tsuur flute, the morin khuur (or horsehead fiddle) and the tobshur a two-stringed plucked instrument - alongside programmed beats, electric guitars, banjos and Western pop and rock.
The album opens with Gobi Road and the sound of the tsuur flute merging into guitar feedback and coming out the other side as a loping road song lifted by overtone singing, an anthemic musical centre, and Hurcha's lead voice crackling with electricity. The horsehead fiddle is one of the central emblems of Mongolian culture, its sound compared to the neighing of a wild horse, or of the breeze through the grasslands unfettered, unclaimed, untethered and it's that pure spirit, one that chimes with the original spirit of rock n roll all over the world, that makes Hanggai so special. Current American and British rock sadly sounds knackered in comparison.
Toger Jin mountain slides in on syncopated guitars and a headbanging chorus, while Yuan Ding Cap puts the banjo centre space for a sprightly China-Grass outing, and Xiger Xiger's guitar, fiddle and mouth harp pick, bow and pluck a melody that may come from far-away Mongolia, but sounds as if the winds had long ago taken it to the shores of western Ireland and into the Celtic folk tradition. The melodies are fresh and delightful.
"Our cultural heritage is still very important for us," says the band. "We understand that Mongolian music is not very widely known but for us it's always there." And for western listeners, though it seems to be a sound that comes from far away, it's a music that comes up close and personal.
The lovely acoustic ballad Hairan Hairan one of the album's original songs propels itself into listener's heart and mind via the kind of acoustic guitar figures that adorn the finest, frailest excursions of English psych-folk, while the rumbling, percussive stride of Char Har, with its clipped minimal electric guitar lines matched by chorus vocals, overtones, horsehead drones, brass bells and piano, propels us towards the album's heart with a series of acoustic, ballads - the lulling, late-night sound of Borulai's Lullaby or the track Hanggai, with what sounds like an afge-old children's melody picked out on acoustic guitar and matched with a rumbling magma of overtones and scratches of flute, electric guitar and percussion.
Guest artist Marc Ribot, the New York guitarist acclaimed by many in the know as one of the finest string-benders anywhere in the world, appears on Dorov Moraril (Four Seasons), a track propelled by a dirty, headbanging Glam-rock throwback of a riff. "It was an idea of JB Meijers," says Hanggai. "He knows Marc and let him listen to the recordings we made. Marc really liked it and he recorded some additional tracks for us. We are very happy to see that his way of playing fits very well with our music."
Following a busy summer on the road and at festival sites ranging from July's WOMAD to the Ulsan Festival in South Korea in October, He Who Travels Far will be released on September 13 2010.
"In our music we like to present our crossover style but we will not lose our roots," the band affirms. "We like to present our music as it is, based on our tradition but presented in our own style."