A Brief Introduction to Contemporary Mongolian Pop
I’ve been fascinated by the pop scene of the East Asian nation of Mongolia for going on six years now. Here is some of what I’ve found exciting and interesting in Mongolian pop from the last year.
First, a disclaimer: I am not an expert. I can neither speak nor read Mongolian and I don’t know anybody who does. I’ve never been to Ulaanbaatar, and know it only from establishing shots and Google Earth. All that these notes can be are the observations of a far-distant outsider pleased that Mongolian videos on YouTube tend not to be region-locked.
That said, let’s start with a little bit of background. Present-day Mongolia is a tiny country of only three million people, almost half of whom live in the capital Ulaanbaatar on the green strip between Siberia and the Gobi Desert. It is entirely bordered by Russia and China, and since the decline of the Mongol Khanates in the late medieval period, its territory has been under the political influence of the Qing dynasty (1635–1911) and the Soviet Union (1925–1990) for most of its modern history. For a general overview of Mongolian music in the twentieth century, I’d direct you to this Culture Trip piece. A broader explanation of Mongolian pop since the early-90s transition to a market economy is outside my scope here, but I’ll try to point out some signposts along the way.
I will note that probably the vast majority of Mongolians would not recognize this sketch as giving anything like a full picture of their popular music: it’s leaving out so much, especially so much that is essentially Mongolian rather than in dialogue with international pop. In addition to vast quantities of folk and ballad music, Mongolia has a strong history of thoroughly credible hard rock bands and socially conscious rap crews, which I am largely ignoring here in favor of post-millennial dance, synthpop, and pop-rap. My taste, my rules.
If you’re intrigued by any of the music embedded here, I encourage you to check out everything I link to as well. My complete YouTube playlist of interesting Mongolian pop from 2017 and 2018 is here, sorted by date. If you speak or read Mongolian or you just know more than me about anything and I get something wrong, please let me know. I want to do right by this music.
As of this moment the biggest story in Mongolian pop is almost certainly girl group the Wasabies, formed on the local edition of Star Academy and funded in part by a national mobile phone company (you’ll see the GMobile logo in a lot of these videos). “U-GUI” (Without U) is their second single, a clenched-fist breakup anthem after the girl-power shoutalong “Girls Generation”. Which is, yes, a K-pop reference, as their name is a Japanese reference, and although their actual music sounds more like turn-of-the-millennium Radio Disney teenpop, they’re more or less the first Mongolian girl group to be explicitly patterned on Pacific Rim idol pop. Mongolia’s cultural relationship with the hallyu is relatively fraught: the nation’s entire population is smaller than South Korea’s fifth-largest city, but there’s a substantial immigrant-labor population of Mongolians in South Korea, and they’re treated about as well as immigrant laborers throughout the world tend to be. There is also substantial South Korean investment in Mongolian industry and commerce, which the smaller, poorer country tends to resent even though money’s nice. All of which is to say that the Wasabies are probably more about maintaining a certain amount of national pride than they are a serious attempt to compete internationally against the long-running machines of K- or J-pop.
Another way to distinguish Mongolian pop culture from South Korean is that it would be difficult to imagine a song as casually anti-establishment as this getting through many of the cultural and economic filters of K-pop. PacRap (a.k.a. Young Pac Man, with Pac pronounced Pace because it would be if spelled in Cyrillic and he didn’t pay attention in English class) is one of hundreds of young Mongolian rappers inspired by Soundcloud-wave hip-hop from around the world, in addition to Mongolia’s own long-standing urban hip-hop tradition. Ulaanbaatar is showing the strain of economic inequality, as the outskirts and suburbs crowd with migrants from the economically-depressed rural steppes (not to mention North Korean refugees) and the pressure cooker of ghettoized poverty breeds the same malaise and violence it does everywhere. Which, despite the colorful brightness of the video, is apparently what the song is about: the regimentation and rote learning of an underfunded education system fails to prepare students for the actual hardscrabble way-making of life. “Fuck system, fuck school” he warbles in AutoTune, not entirely incorrectly.
Mongolia’s hip-hop history is so long, with the first rap crew being established in the early 90s, that there have been multiple waves of formerly hardcore rappers going pop. Seryoja, who began his career in the early part of the decade spelling his rap name SeriouZ, has an excellent gruff delivery which makes this invitation to sensuality in the club spark in a way a less traditionally masculine voice might not (not unlike, say, 50 Cent). If Mongolian pop at the moment has a center, it might very well be something like this: as produced by the prolific and often chillwave-adjacent Ulaanbaatar production house Ocean Grey, its sense of forward motion and spacey cool is, if not particularly unique in world pop (which has more or less been blanketed in a Xanax haze since the rise of Drake), still quite distinctive, and one way that contemporary Mongolian pop stands out from its more youth-oriented East Asian counterparts.
The pop star with the biggest and most vocal fanbase in Mongolia is probably Uka, formerly (and on occasion still) of Kiwi, the girl group whose 2006 debut was a landmark in contemporary Mongolian pop. If Kiwi is comparable to Destiny’s Child, Uka, with her Western looks, long usually-blonde hair and choreographed performances, is undoubtedly their Beyoncé, which would make Namuun Kelly (and leaves the solo career-less Agi as Michelle). The video for “Gerel Asaa” even references Beyoncé’s eye-obscuring slouch hat from “Formation,” although again Ocean Grey’s signature chill-lush sound, all disco guitars, synth washes and sax samples, is nothing like Queen B’s taut bounce-derived R&B. “Gerel Asaa” (Light It Up) is something of a victory lap for Uka, who like any long-running pop queen (among much else, she is one of the judges on the Mongolian edition of The Voice) has engaged with many different styles of music over the years.
The top comment on this YouTube video reads simply “brunotsengel,” and many other commenters agree: “Hii! Moritoi Bai” (which Google tells me is literally “Hey! Have a horse,” but I’m too culturally ignorant to grasp any slang implications) sounds a lot like Bruno Mars, specifically 80s throwback R&B Zapp-imitating Bruno Mars. Bayartsengel (I should note here that all Mongolian pop stars, when they don’t use a stage name, are still mononymic because Mongolians, like the Icelandic, have no surnames; people usually use patronymics, often abbreviated to a single initial, to distinguish themselves online and in government forms, but can also use their mother’s name or indeed anything they want), although he’s been around a while, is still one of the youngest male pop stars in Mongolia, an admirably goofy presence in a scene which often takes itself very seriously in compensation for being so small.
Just like everywhere else, men may dominate Mongolian pop, but it’s the women who are making the most interesting and emotionally effective music. Hishigdalai (sometimes romanized as Khishigdalai) is one of Mongolia’s most promising young pop stars, with her warm, moody vocals and internationalist sensibility. This very 2017-sounding song has both an English name and an alternate Japanese name (“Umi no Kokoro,” heart of the sea), and the video was shot in Berlin with European models and haute couture. She’s been kicking around the Mongolian pop scene since winning the singing competition Universe Best Songs in 2011, but she leveled up when she began collaborating with the Ocean Grey production team last year on “Mi Senti”, a duet with handsome crooner Naki, and she’s been on fire ever since: “1+1” and “Tiichlene” are two of 2018’s best Mongolian pop songs.
The few Mongolian music charts I can find (mostly streaming) have rappers dominating the board, which only makes sense: it’s the 2010s everywhere. But hip-hop has taken root in Mongolia in a way it hasn’t elsewhere in East Asia, even South Korea, and there are plenty of local amateur musicological theories explaining why, from the language’s percussive nature making it a natural fit, to a long Mongolian tradition of oral storytelling through song, to uh rap being invented by medieval Mongols who passed it through trade routes to Africa and thence to the Americas. Regardless, even the most hardcore rap is pop in Mongolia in a way it typically isn’t outside the U.S. This song, for example, was made for the soundtrack to a big-budget Mongolian movie musical about hip-hop dance crews (derivative of the Step Up series, yes), but despite the zooming late-90s techno beat it’s still credible rapping, with female rapper AKO especially showing off a hyper-dense flow. The video includes cameos from the Hypeman roster, not all of whom I’m competent to recognize on sight, though Don Dior, Big Gee, and reggae toaster RatAbuZz are unmistakable.
Hip-hop is of course not just about rapping: you need someone to sing the creamy hooks, or to sing the creamy song your explosive, personality-driven rap goes into. Although there have been pop singers for a long time in Mongolia, the advent of specifically R&B-style singers is still relatively new, and likely a post-internet phenomenon. Although more or less everyone in this tiny scene has to have a second gig: Siente is perhaps better known to Mongol-pop fans as a video producer (his production house did Hishigdalai’s above, for example) than as a singer. But he’s got a lovely falsetto, and this twinkly, aching love song with laid-back rapper Mrs. M (whose solo work is worth hearing) ranks high for sheer loveliness among all the Mongolian music I’ve heard.
For a country with such a low-density population, Mongolia has a fairly robust entertainment industry, with several national television networks and cable providers and a film industry big enough to sustain historical epics, romantic comedies, and gritty dramas (although also small enough that the same actors appear in all of them). The pop-music industry often supports the film and TV industry; every Mongolian singer has done soundtrack work. This song was made for the soundtrack of the television series Havar (Spring), which looks a bit like a more cheaply made K-drama. The video has nothing to do with it, though, as hippie-fashioned singers Juka and Janna (both alums of the early-2010s girl group Anemone) romp through winter landscapes and electronic installations and share gazes meaningful enough to give shippers hearts for eyes.
A healthy chunk of my interest in Mongolian pop is due in large part to what a K-pop fan might describe as my “bias,” rapper/singer NMN, whose stage name is both an abbreviation of her given name, Nomin, as well as a simple inversion of the stage name of most famous rapper in the world at the time she started rapping. Not that she’s much like Eminem: she first came to prominence as the “cute girl” in the crew of labelmate, mentor, and frequent collaborator, goofball rapper Enerel, but she became a pop star thanks to scene-stealing duets with singers Zorigt and Orgil and rapper Tsetse. (Her solo material tends toward either reverence, moody bleakness, or the overtly political, which makes her an ill fit with the pseudo-gangbangers and hyper-materialists who dominate Mongolian hip-hop.) In 2016, she took part in a branding exercise by the Malaysian Tiger Beer label trying to make inroads on the Mongolian market (where beer lags well behind vodka as the alcohol of choice) — her branded collaboration with heartthrob indie-rock band The Shom (they wrote the music, she wrote the lyrics) was successful enough that this more uptempo sequel followed. The video’s retro setting and faux-aged cinematography is part of a nascent Ulaanbaatar hipster aesthetic, in which NMN is certainly a key player.
NMN’s other high-profile 2017 collaboration was perhaps the best song to come out of Mongolian pop all decade. Odonbat is an EDM producer who has been active for for years in the global trance scene; his 2017 team-up with protege Munkh-Orgil (MO) for an album’s worth of emotional, reflective late-night party anthems has been one of the most thrilling developments in contemporary Mongolian pop. The other three singles released from the Nocturne project have been “Miss U” and “Komorebi,” both featuring Maraljingoo on vocals, and “Otherside,” with Guli. But “Чам руу (2-U),” despite or rather because of NMN’s limited vocal capabilities (she has a sweet but thin voice, with a whispery texture and a deadpan delivery), is less a diva’s showcase than an interior monologue about aching physical desire at the club. The rubbery, plucking synths bear a ghostly resemblance to the sound of the traditional Mongolian yatga, but the build-and-drop structure, and the punching beats, are thoroughly contemporary.
2017 also saw the surprise return of the oldest and most established pop star in Mongolia, Ariunaa, whose banger-filled 1996 album Eros 1 was, along with boy band Camerton’s debut, more or less ground zero for contemporary Mongolian pop. (I don’t count ballad singers like Sarantuya or Angirmaa, though no doubt Mongolians themselves would disagree.) Her two-video “Cosmic” project, beginning with the apocalyptic techno “Utasnii Chin Dugaar” and concluding with this uplifting postapocalyptic disco (both once more produced by Ocean Grey), is among the most ambitious Mongolian pop production ever, and might well be the most expensive music videos ever shot in the country. The themes are typical rock-opera sci-fi, but despite the detailed costuming and props (Ariunaa’s own lavish appearance being a particular highlight), the real star of the video is the breathtaking Mongolian landscape.
Finally, although I’ve been talking here about Mongolia the country, it’s worth remembering that Mongolians are also an ethnic group, and that the number of ethnic Mongolians who are Russian or Chinese nationals dwarf those in the Mongolian state. Drive only a few hundred miles north of Ulaanbaatar and you’ll reach Ulan-Ude, a Siberian city which is the capital of the Buryat Republic, home to the Buryat Mongolians who have their own longstanding cultural traditions, music very much included. Miralza is a young Buryat pop princess, joined here by the traditional musical ensemble Badma Khanda. “Solongo” means Rainbow in Mongolian, and the video, with its tribal-futurist aesthetic, is a reminder that there’s far more going on in the Russian Federation than either the ethno-nationalists west of the Urals or the liberal Western scaremongers on Twitter would care for you to think about.
The world is bigger than the narratives we tell about it. This is one small contribution toward expanding those narratives, however slightly.