In Mongolia, a new generation's rock 'n' roll rooted in history

LAUREN KNAPP: Mongolia is a vast landscape of just three million people. Half its population is spread out across the rural countryside, herders and heirs to a nomadic culture epitomized by 13th century ruler Genghis Khan.

The rest live in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar, where a democratic revolution began 25 years ago, and ended seven decades of Soviet-style rule.

The first generation to grow up in this new society has come of age, and when I went to Mongolia, I wanted to see how their freedom expressed itself in music.

One of the first rock bands I met was Mohanik, a group of guys in their 20s performing classic rock.

But the covers are just a way to make cash. When I visited their practice space, I learned Mohanik is more interested in writing and playing their own songs.

ENERELT OTGONBAATAR: Our music sounds like it's, we think, it's youthful, energetic, Mongolian-flavored rock and roll.

TSOGT SAMBALKHUNDEV: We were not searching for Mongolian sound – it just came out.

LAUREN KNAPP: That Mongolian sound means traditional instruments like the horsehead fiddle, a small cello with two strings made out of horse tail hair, or a yoochin, a kind of dulcimer played with small hammers. 

ENERELT OTGONBAATAR: We think definitely this part would is a Mongolian sound, like this. That sounds to me like a Mongolian melody. And we've got the chorus part.

We know it sounds Mongolian to us.

LAUREN KNAPP: But for Mohanik, the line between Mongolian and western is blurred. 

In Mongolian rock, fusion is the operative word, and it started in the early 2000s with this band, Altan Urag, which electrified traditional Mongolian instruments. They've toured all over Asia and have played in Australia and the U.S.

NATSAGDORJ TSERENDORJ: If you see the other examples of other countries — like Latina music, African music, Turkish music — they are all based on the traditional musical identity, right? And that's why they are very popular around the world. And that's kind of a no brainer of how to really get famous in the world — just use the traditional music base.

LAUREN KNAPP: For every Mongolian rock band, fusion means something different. In the band Nisvanis, you can hear echoes of American grunge. 

Bands like these didn't happen overnight. During decades of Communist repression, western music was smuggled in. Albums by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Janis Joplin and The Beatles.

To cope with the growing popularity of western music, in the early 1970s, the former Communist government equipped some traditional musicians with electric guitars and drums called the group Soyol Erdene, which means cultural jewel.

NATSAGDORJ TSERENDORJ: This was the government band. It was funded from the government, — all the songs were strictly controlled in terms of the meaning. But Soyol Erdene, I mean they managed to start this modern rock and roll movement here.

LAUREN KNAPP: The movement saw dissidents writing and recording their own rock music and distributing it underground. 

TSEDEVDAMBA OYUNGEREL: Those were songs about reality unemployment and disparity of living standards – rebellion kind of song songs.

LAUREN KNAPP: This song called "The Ringing of the Bell," asked the people to be awakened by democracy. It became an anthem of the peaceful 1990 revolution that brought down the Communism and ushered in multi-party elections and free market reforms. 

TSEDEVDAMBA OYUNGEREL: I grew up standing in line for meat and milk and bread, you know? When I heard about market economy and when I heard about freedom and human rights and all these things, I just thought, "This is it." In the communist time, you should say only nice things about your country or about your mother or about your party. But you were not allowed to express other opinions. So that's why the freedom of speech and rock music is very much connected.

LAUREN KNAPP: For Mohanik, the goal is making music that is original and authentic. To make their new album connected to Mongolia ina more tangible way, they recorded outdoors, in the countryside. 

ENERELT OTGONBAATAR: We're not the real nomadic Mongolian people, we're like city people. It's not like we grew up riding horses and doing countryside stuff.

NATSAGDORJ TSERENDORJ: Any country develops, right? And I think after some years we will have a good music industry with good radio stations they will kind of guide their population to the right path. And very talented good artists shall be recognized.

ENERELT OTGONBAATAR: I don't really care about how many bands are there, I just want the overall general public to have a musical life. We're making something that will last.