24 September, 2021

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The Fall of Communism and Rise of Heavily Metal in Mongolia

A distorted stringed instrument gradually builds in intensity, accompanied by a pumping bassline, rock drums, and percussion. Then, out of nowhere, a deep pulsating synthesizer-like sound, impossibly made from the human voice, a breakdown, some cymbal crashes, and the earth-shattering voices of Galbadrakh “Gala” Tsendbaatar and Nyamjantsan “Jaya” Galsanjamts, imbued with the quintessential abrasive “growl” of the American death metal superstars, chanting words in their native Mongolian tongue, leaning into each hiss (or, more accurately, alveolar lateral fricatives), trill, and complex syllabic structure quintessential to the ancient language. Gala and Jaya, lead singers of The HU, open their album with an epic image of a stalwart warrior of the thirteenth century Mongolian Empire on horseback “outriding the mountains and steppes,” carrying a golden gereg, or diplomatic passport (and namesake of the song and album), carrying a message: “Listen, be feared / Listen and revere / Listen, kneel / Listen to the will of the Great Khan.” As in Genghis.

“Mongolian heavy metal” are three words that you might have never thought to put together. But for bands like The HU, shredding on the morin khuur (or “horse fiddle”) with solos that put Metallica to shame and throat singing galore—with lyrics coming from ancient poetry, fables, and war chants, as well as modern reflection on Mongolian identity—can be thought of more as a natural response to the eventual fall of communism in the country three decades ago, after a long period of the simultaneous repression of traditional art forms and foreign cultural influence.

Music has always been more than entertainment. All across the world, music has been a means of cultural expression and differentiation—between emo kids and band kids, Boomers and Gen Z, and, in Mongolia, the Khalkha and the Kalmyks, for instance. But it is a long-established trend in history that tools like music that have the capacity to build cultural enclaves can be (and often are) seen as challenges to social or political authority. Indeed, the history of trying to ban or regulate music appears to be deeply intertwined with the history of music itself. Even Plato, in Book III of The Republic, argued to ban every instrument except the harp and lyre in his idealized state.

In twentieth-century communist countries, by and large, artistic censorship was the law of the land. For much of its existence, the Soviet Union had a strict ban on Western-imported music deemed decadent, with the idea that foreign influence would get in the way of the long-anticipated communist revolution. Music distribution was controlled by a state-controlled company called Melodiya, which ensured all music would be vetted by the revolutionary government. As the government went through periods of eased restrictions and crackdowns, often corresponding to changes in leadership and foreign policy, bands had their licenses to perform and release music issued and canceled.

In 1921, Mongolia was under occupation at the hands of the army of Chinese warlord Xu Shuzheng. The Soviet Union saw an opportunity to back local Mongolian communist revolutionaries to end the occupation and give themselves a friendly communist government in Central Asia. Over the course of that year, the Soviet Red Army and Mongolian communist revolutionaries crushed the occupying forces and reestablished Mongolia as an independent, non-communist nation with close ties to the Soviet Union. Conveniently for the revolutionaries, the aging leader died (with rumors that he was poisoned by Soviet spies), and the nation transitioned to a communist Mongolian People’s Republic. When the communist regime took power, Mongolia was underdeveloped and socially stratified, leaving the nation vulnerable to the will of the Soviets. At the command of Joseph Stalin, for the next several decades, the autocratic government made massive efforts to cleanse the nation of people, ideas, and institutions deemed to be threats to Soviet control—even major communist leaders who failed to submit to Stalin’s authority.

It quickly became apparent to the regime that the cultural diversity of the Mongolian people would make transforming the nation into a truly communist and modernized (according to its own views) an onerous task. After Stalin ordered the collectivization of Mongolian agriculture in 1828, which resulted in widespread dispersion and famine, a rebel group of common herdsmen, Buddhist clergy, and even some Party members banded together under the leaders of Buddhist lamas and launched a shockingly robust nationwide offensive against the Party. While the insurgency was eventually put down by the Soviets in a massive land and air counteroffensive, the resilience of the insurgency, along with the widespread famine and economic instability caused by collectivization, compelled Stalin to go back on his order and put an immediate end to the initiative.

Soon, the Party was carrying out Stalinist purges, which saw the arrest, deportation, and murder of tens of thousands of citizens, largely local leaders, nobility, and Buddhist clergy (the latter of which represented over a third of the male population). In addition, they curbed immigration from the Buryat and Kalmyk ethnic groups (who largely identified as Mongolian peoples) and repressed and killed members living within Mongolian borders en masse, at least in part to prevent any major pan-Mongolianist movement, attempting to unify the dispersed Mongolian peoples, from arising, lest it challenges the Soviet-backed regime’s chokehold on the nation.

Mongolian music quickly became another target of the communization of Mongolia. The Party watered down styles of Mongolian music and imbued traditional songs with communist messaging. Hoping to extend its ‘modernization’ of the nation to its music, the Party forced musicians to learn Western classical musical notation and fashioned ‘modern’ versions of traditional instruments. Other styles and instruments, especially ones associated with the Mongolian nobility or Buddhist communities, were outright banned. Music that seemed too traditional, ethnically distinct, or religious to the communist authorities was prohibited. The communist Mongolian People’s Party sent musicians armed with a hodgepodge of ‘national’ instruments to perform for nomadic groups to enforce their new cultural vision upon them. Mongolia never established record distributing companies, so the Soviet Union’s label Melodiya stepped in, becoming yet another hammer to shape Mongolian culture in the likeness of the communist regime in charge. Russian musicologists were employed to fuse Mongolian musical elements with communist-approved European musical traditions.

While some ancient musical traditions, like the ancient long heroic epic form (known as baatarlag tuul), were preserved as symbols of national artistic genius, they were almost always censored, nationalized, and secularized to meet the demands of the Party.

Indeed, the official sense of Mongolian national pride had been redefined, and the lyrics of the state-approved songs reflected this. Before the nation’s fall to communism, Genghis Khan had been a symbol of Mongolian (specifically eastern Mongolian) pride as the warlord and statesman who had united the various tribes of Mongolia, founded the Mongolian Empire (which would become the largest contiguous empires of all time shortly after his death), and ushered Mongolia into a golden age of artistic creativity and economic prosperity—and much of Central Asia into a century of relative peace and stability. In much of western Mongolia, the celebrated Galdan Boshigt Khan held a similar role as a symbol of national pride. Before communism, the Khans and their descendants had been the subjects of many artistic masterpieces—from vibrant paintings to inspiring war ballads. Under communism, art that referenced symbols of national pride like the Khans in a positive light were deemed incompatible with the Party’s agenda and version of nationalism. So they were banned.

At the same time, the Party, much like that of the Soviet Union, tried to keep new Western genres like pop and rock and roll out of the country. These novel forms were seen as symbols of bourgeois decadence and impediments to the communist revolution, and the autocratic regime tried its hand at keeping the entrapments of guitar solos and amplified music out of the state-sanctioned conception of Mongolian culture. However, with the rise of underground rock bands and rigs that specialized in smuggling in records from the West, rock and roll was there to stay.

By the late 1960s, the Party had introduced its own, state-sanctioned form of music: estrad, or “variety,” music. A limited number of state-approved bands were formed and allowed to sell records, one of them being Soyol Erdene, which was formed in 1971. Similar to other forms of state-sanctioned music, though, the music and lyrics were carefully regulated. By and large, the songs had the same instrumentations and following simple rhythms. When the music had vocals, the lyrics were often nationalistic and always relatively tame. Unlike Western music at the time, overdriven guitars were hardly used. The underground bands continued, but it wasn’t until the fall of Communism in the 1990s that rock and pop music—and heavy metal—took off.

 The HU describe themselves as a “Hunnu rock” group, after the Mongolian Hunnu (or Xiongnu) confederation of nomadic tribes in the 3rd century BC to late 1st century AD whose frequent raids prompted the construction of the Great Wall of China. As they rediscover and reinvent traditional art forms that were banned under the communist regime, they set their own definition of what it means to be Mongolian. They no longer need to praise Party members as their heroes and shy away from the distinct musical traditions of their ancestors. They bring new life to the classics, build off of the traditions of the West, and as if riding away on horseback in the Mongolian steppes, they carry a gereg and the message of Genghis Khan, warlord and traditional symbol of Mongolian national pride, fearlessly proclaim to the world: “Listen, be feared / Listen and revere / Listen, kneel / Listen to the will of the Great Khan.”

Sources used:

The HU: www.thehuofficial.com.

Morris Rossabi: Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists.

Marina N. Baldano, Victor I. Dyatlov, and Svetlana V. Kirichenko: “Buryat Migrations and Diasporas in Historical Space and Time” in Journal of Siberian Federal University. Humanities & Social Sciences.

Carole Pegg: Mongolian Music, Dance, and Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities.

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Jacob Shaw is a student at Horace Mann school in New York. He is also a composer, musician, and playwright.

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