Political Music in Mongolia: from revolutionary to mundane

Unlike the recent democratic movements of other former communist states, Mongolia’s equivalent of the Rose Revolution (Georgia, 2003), the Orange Revolution (Ukraine, 2004) and the Tulip Revolution (Kyrgyzstan, 2005) had no catchy name.  It did however have a catchy song.

Mongolia’s first rock band, Soyol Erdene

The song, ‘Khonkhnii Duu’, or ‘The Sound/Ring of the Bell’, can still be heard regularly in Ulaanbaatar.  The first time I heard it was one afternoon during the national holiday Naadam. It was being played at a summer beer tent near my place.  I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if not for the young men on a hotel balcony next to my flat.  With tops off and fists full of vodka bottles they screamed along to the chorus at the top of their lungs (between hugging and fighting – it was a big day on the balcony).

Music behind the curtain

Unlike Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia was never officially part of the Soviet Union.  But in many respects it may as well have been.  In 1921 the Red Russians chucked out the White Russians who had in turn chucked out the Chinese.  The Bolsheviks installed a one party Soviet-style government in Ulaanbaatar, a move widely accepted by Mongolians as a much lesser evil than incorporation into the Chinese state.

For the next 70-odd years Mongolia was a single-party state, complete with Soviet purges and a strictly controlled economy and society.  The ruling Mongolian Revolutionary People’s Party (MPRP) controlled many parts of people’s daily lives and disallowed traditionally ‘Mongol’ things like Buddhist monasteries and mentioning Chinggis Khan.

Ulaanbaatar’s Beatles monument

They also controlled music.  Western music was off limits except to the most enterprising.  Listening to such music in the sixties and seventies was as such a subversive act.  The role of rock’n’roll in Mongolia’s eventual opening was recognised in 2008 by the erection of a Beatles statue in central Ulaanbaatar.  (For four years Ulaanbaatar had the unusual distinction of being the only city to have monuments to the two Lennons/Lenins, John and Vladimir.  The latter was removed a few weeks ago.)

In 1971 the MPRP recognised the potency of western music and decided to meet the demand for rock n roll by participating in one of the earlier efforts of manufacturing chart-toppers that now so dominates television airwaves.  The band they came up with was called Soyol Erdene (Cultural Jewel).  It was instructed to play traditional Mongolian songs on electric instruments.  The MPRP fed the band lyrics which tended to concern love, communism and Mongol-Soviet ties.  Surprisingly, they’re actually pretty listenable.

Soyol Erdene

Ironically there is now a definite trend among Mongolian rock banks of incorporating traditional Mongolian instruments and tropes into their songs.  Mongolians are rightly proud of their stunning musical heritage.  Throat singing is well known and completely out of this world, but the urtiin duu or long song is arguably even more spectacular.  It evokes the Mongolian landscape, its epic scale, beauty and potential for tragedy, ridiculously well.  Altan Urag (Golden Lineage) are one of the best known proponents of the fusion of western style rock and traditional Mongolian music, and they’re great.

Altan Urag

A long song. It’s probably about horses.

Ring that bell

But back to Mongolia’s primo political song, ‘Khonkhnii Duu’.  The bell that rings in the song wakes the narrator from a nightmare.  Mongolia awoke from its communist nightmare in March 1990 when three months of street demonstrations led the MPRP to stand down.  Elections were held that summer.

The version of the song below is a fairly cringe-worthy benefit-style number.  As well as outdated dance moves and awkward swaying it includes some nice pictures of the revolution and some of Mongolian music’s brighter lights.  The guy who gets the start of the second verse (the bored looking hipster) for instance is the lead singer of The Lemons.

The most amazing thing about ‘Khnonknii Duu’ is its continuing popularity.  Twenty years after the fact people are still making film clips of this song and reflecting on the monumental political change it represents.  Another hip-hop version of the track has over 180,000 views on YouTube.  Pretty impressive when you remember Mongolia only has around 3 million citizens.

As you would have seen if you clicked through to the hip-hop version of ‘Khonkhni Duu’, Mongolian hip-hop definitely tends toward the macho-gangsta end of the hip-hop spectrum.  Although many of its leading lights are quick to distance themselves from American hip-hop, the connection is clearly there.  Gee, Mongolia’s most popular rapper, regularly hits the foreign press as an example of the country’s xenophobia but last week he opened for American early nineties nostalgia act Onyx and called it “unforgettable and incomparable” (UB Post print edition).

2012 election

Mongolia’s latest elections were in June this year.  Campaigning was intense. Ulaanbaatar was plastered with party posters and TV was dominated by party advertising, replete with some pretty ordinary music.  The Democratic Party (DP – then opposition who won the election) even did a pretty uninspired update of ‘Khonkhnii Duu’.  If you are interested, you can click through to see the MPP’s* pop-video style ad or the DP’s ballads – one for the urban youth, an eight-and-a-half minute epic that tries to cover every base, with opera, rock and traditional music interludes, and one aimed at country voters.

Voter turnout in the June elections continued its downward trajectory to 65 percent. Given though that it started at around 96 percent perhaps that is just part of the normalisation process.  The relatively low turnout, along with the imprisonment of former President N.Enkhbayar, has led some to the belief that Mongolian democracy is in trouble. As I argued in this article on East Asia Forum, I take a more cautiously optimistic view.  The continued enthusiasm  for ‘Khonkhnii Duu’ – even among Mongolia’s hardcore rappers – is further reason for optimism.

*In keeping with the times, the MPRP dropped the ‘Revolutionary’ from their name a couple of years ago.  Shortly afterwards Enkhbayar defected and started his own MPRP.
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