Monday, June 10, 2013

NEWS: In Mongolia, an Unexpected Genre Takes Root

Originally posted on Wall Street Journal - Mar 19, 2013
By Debra Bruno

A still from ‘Mongolian Bling’

Ulaanbaatar isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think about hip-hop.

But the Mongolian capital of 1 million people is the unlikely center of a rap renaissance. That spirit has been captured in “Mongolian Bling,” a film by first-time director Benj Binks.

The 90-minute documentary, which opened Beijing’s Asian Cinema Week, has a busy schedule ahead. After its showings in Beijing and Shanghai, it plays next month in Toronto, Vancouver and Hartford, Conn., followed by May screenings in London and San Diego.

“Mongolian Bling” trails Gennie, Gee and Quiza, hip-hop artists of varying degrees of local success as they attempt to build their careers, develop a following and debate the authenticity of their work. The film’s theme is “identity, youth, passion, the influence of Western culture and trends on traditional culture,” said Mr. Binks, 34 years old, a native of Australia who got interested in Mongolia while leading tours on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

“I arrived in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, expecting nomads and herders, and instead found hip-hop, which just caught me off guard,” he said.

Even though he had only one five-minute short under his belt, Mr. Binks decided that making a film about hip-hop would be a way to tell “what it means to be Mongolian in this day and age.” It took him six years to finish.

Mongolia’s rappers style themselves after what they’ve seen of the American hip-hop scene, with tattoos, baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts. But their sound is distinctive because of the consonant-heavy Mongolian language and, in some cases, the use of traditional instruments like the matouqin, a stringed instrument similar to a cello.

Middle-class Mongolian teenagers discovered Vanilla Ice and Jay-Z in the 1990s, but hip-hop took hold more strongly in Ulaanbaatar’s ger district, where many of the city’s residents live in smoggy, semi-nomadic conditions. One traditional musician, Bayarmagnai, argues that rap showed up even earlier, with Genghis Khan, citing nomads’ use of rhythmic storytelling set to music.

“Mongolian rappers say they’re developing hip-hop that originated in America in 1979,” he says in “Mongolian Bling.” “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s obvious hip-hop traveled to America from Mongolia.”

But it is twentysomething Gennie, called “the queen of Mongolian hip-hop” by one musician in the film, who commands the most attention. A rare example of a woman with a local following, she listens in “Mongolian Bling” as her grandmother demonstrates traditional singing techniques and warns her about becoming too westernized.

The lyrics to Gennie’s own music hint at her frustrations with traditional life. “I’m one of the women who are the majority among our few people,” begins one. “In this society of chaos, everybody says they have equal rights — to be honest, there is very little truth in that.”