Probably not a lot of Canadians have Jonathan Campbell's expertise in Chinese rock ’n’ roll. Probably not a lot of people anywhere do, period. Campbell has written a book on the subject, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll (2011, Earnshaw Books), and has a lot of first-hand experience. He lived in Beijing for a decade, playing music, representing bands and writing about music. (Tian Jianhua of punk band Reflector once called him the "Dr. Bethune of China’s rock scene.")
Campbell lives in Toronto now and works at Harbourfront Centre. One of his favourite bands is playing there on Aug. 11, so we seized the opportunity to ask him why this band, Hanggai, which combines Mongolian folk with rock, is one we should know about.
Q: What about this Hanggai first struck you?
A: Their music spoke to me on a level that is hard to explain now, but was immediately apparent on a visceral and emotional level the second I heard it. That happened on a musical level as well, but it was much more than that: I was moved by the music beyond just what I could hear. It was the stories that were embedded in the music that really spoke to me.
By the middle of the aughts in Beijing, "folk" was a term that was thrown around with enough reckless abandon so as to cheapen it — it generally referred to guys with acoustic guitars — but it was clear to me that Hanggai was above and beyond the rest. And knowing that they’d come from the Rage Against the Machine-loving millennial rock scene and decided that digging into their own traditions was the best way to express themselves made things even more amazing to me.
Q: What’s Hanggai’s importance?
A: Folk was really just getting going when they came up, and they quickly emerged to capture a larger audience than the average rock band. The way they could capture a rock room was amazing. Hanggai’s folk really brought out the ethno-cultural idea of folk music, that it’s the product of a particular people, and definitely helped paved the way for other bands to employ their own cultural heritage in their music, which is something that increased in the past several years.
Playing the music of an ethnic minority in the form and context that Hanggai does was, and is, relatively new. Ethnic minorities in China — Mongolians are only one of 55 ethnic groups that comprise somewhere around eight per cent of the population — struggle against an overwhelming majority. In China, most peoples’ understanding of these groups comes from when they are trotted out on television spectacles in full traditional regalia, singing and dancing with smiling faces. Even though Hanggai was steeped in the rock ’n’ roll world of flipping proverbial birds, they chose to come out in full costumes, celebrating their heritage but on their own terms.
Their success overseas is also, in a lot of ways, unprecedented. They’ve played Bonnaroo, WOMAD and even the world’s biggest heavy metal festival, Wacken, in addition to a number of tours and festival appearances around the world. A lot of people chalk that up to the band being more of what audiences outside China expect China to sound – and look – like, but there’s more to it than that.
When I watched them collaborate with some amazing American musicians [members of Sparrow Quartet] I brought over, it really brought home that point. The way that the American traditions blended with the Mongolian ones, and how both allowed room for "modern" additions, made it real to me the idea that music can be universal.
Q: What should people listen for in Hanggai’s music?
A: What’s going to really stick out for people, I think, are the traditional elements: throat-singing, the tobshuur (a two-stringed lute) and, what is arguably the real centrepoint of the band, the horse-head fiddle. So it’s less about what people should hear than what they will hear. Mongolian folk music is based, rhythmically, on the beating of horse-hooves, and the fiddle winds up leading that charge more often than any percussion — though Hanggai do have drums in the band. It’s just such an expressive instrument and one that evokes so much.
What interests me about them is the way that their experience in the rock scene informs their music, despite the very deliberate choice they made to dig into the traditions of Mongolian music. That means an electric guitar and a bass guitar, but it also is in the structure of the songs they perform, and their sense of how to play a show. They worked with rock ’n’ roller Ken Stringfellow (Posies, REM and others) on their last record, and I think that has definitely had some influence.
Q: What do you remember most about meeting them for the first time?
A: I first met Hanggai in Beijing back when frontman, Ilchi (“eee-lee-chee”) was leading a band called T9, in 2003 or so. T9 was a product of Ilchi’s love of Rage Against the Machine, a very popular band in turn-of-the-millennium Beijing. My rock band at the time was playing a gig with them, and I remember very clearly being worried that our music wasn’t heavy enough to appear with them. What I didn’t know was that they had just decided to go unplugged and a bit more folky. Suddenly, my band was too heavy. So what I remember most about our first meeting was being thrown for a loop!
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Hanggai performs at Harbourfront Centre on Aug. 11, 2012.
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on Aug 10, 2012