Roots Revival, A Global Perspective—Part 1: Chinagrass
Reviewed: Albums by Hanggai, Mamer and Abigail Washburn
One of my favorite recent albums is by this guy who used to be in punk band but then started getting into traditional folk forms and now plays in a roots-music group…
This should sound like a familiar story. It describes countless artists and bands that have sprung up in the alt-country/roots-revival/Americana movement over the past two decades. It could be any number of records that have been written about in No Depression since its inception.
(Raise your hand if you think I might even be talking about you!*)
But the album I am talking about is by a band from China. For about ten years now a small, parallel musical movement has been unfolding among young Chinese musicians. Of the few albums that have seen widespread distribution in the West, one of the finest is 2008’s Introducing Hanggai. Hanggai hails from Beijing. Band-leader, Ilchi, once fronted a punk band called T9 before abandoning that style to explore the music and culture of his Mongolian roots. Though ethnically Mongolian, Ilchi had lost his native language and had to relearn it to sing in it. He made many trips to Inner Mongolia to study traditional instruments and singing technique. “At first glance, Beijing would appear to be a strange place for a Mongolian folk revival. Yet Hanggai are at the forefront of a musical movement in China that is finding its inspiration in native folk traditions that have been ignored and denigrated for decades,” reads the opening paragraph of the liner notes. Indeed, like many American roots musicians, the traditional way of life described in Hanggai’s songs is far removed from Ilchi’s urban background. But the music is no less compelling and sincere.
Introducing Hanggai, is definitely a hybrid of traditional and contemporary styles. You’ll hear occasional electric guitars and bass and even some programming and effects. But the dominant sound is that of the traditional acoustic instruments of Mongolia—like the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) and tobshur (two-stringed lute)—and of course throat-singing. The songs are all adaptations of traditional songs of the Mongolian grasslands. A Mongolian translator once told me that, lyrically, one third of Mongolian folk songs are odes to the beautiful landscapes of the homeland, another third are love songs and the rest are about horses. This is approximately true of Hanggai as well—although they do throw in a drinking song actually recorded in the midst of a rowdy party.
The average Western listener should find Introducing Hanggai totally accessible and rockin’ even if you don’t share my inexplicable obsession with Mongolian folk music. And, if you’re into American roots music, you should feel a certain resonance. If you’re not immediately hooked by the extremely catchy opening track “My Banjo and I,” try the heavy, gallop-rock-esque “Wuji,” or, my favorite, the grooving and exquisitely melodic “Flowers.” Highly recommended listening!
Hanggai’s second major release, He Who Travels Far (World Connection, 2010), is also a hybrid of modern and traditional but the balance leans much farther to the other side—lots more electric guitar, rock drums, piano, etc. New York avant-garde guitar hero Marc Ribot even makes a guest appearance on mandolin and electric guitar. This one plays more like a rock album with Mongolian folk influences whereas the previous one was essentially a Mongolian folk album with some rock influence. There’s electric guitar all over the place, from chimey, Edge-like harmonics to bluesy, classic-rock noodling. Sometimes it blends in nicely and sometimes it seems like they would have done better to leave it out. Harmonically, this album relies less on traditional, modal structures and pentatonic melodies, and features more Western-style diatonicism and functional harmony.
The album includes some original tunes alongside the traditional ones. A couple of the songs from their previous album reappear here in significantly different arrangements that play like Hanggai covering their own songs. He Who Travels Far has a few moments that are on par with Introducing Hanggai, but overall it seems a bit unfocused. With 17 songs, it also seems like one of those records where there’s maybe an album’s worth of strong stuff in there, but the quality is diluted by all the B-material (think The Clash’s Sandinista). Maybe it’s just a sophomore slump, or maybe I’m too much of a Mongolian folk purist, but I was a little disappointed after such a brilliant debut.
Another major figure in the Chinese roots-revival scene (sometimes referred to as Chinagrass) is the one-named, Mamer, originally from Xinjiang in Western China. Now living in Beijing and performing with his band IZ (not to be confused with the iconic Hawaiian singer), Mamer is often credited with “single-handedly jump starting China’s alt-country scene.” Mamer’s solo debut, Eagle (Real World, 2009) is another interesting hybrid of modern and traditional. The album cover is a lovely photo of telephone lines stretching out across a vast West-China grassland with snow-capped mountains in the distance—symbolic of this musical fusion. If I had to place it somewhere on that continuum, I’d put it just to the modern side of center.
Mamer sings traditional songs of the nomadic Kazakh culture as well as originals—all in his native Kazakh language. The instrumentation includes the two-stringed dombra and other traditional instruments alongside acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, loops, samples, and plenty of wonderfully boingy jaw-harp. Bela Fleck makes a guest appearance as do members of Hanggai. Eagle is moody, atmospheric and evocative. Mamer’s deep resonant voice is beautiful and there’s some nice playing on both the traditional and modern instruments. But somehow, as a whole, the album comes across a little bland—it’s as if the modern and traditional elements cancel each other out and prevent either one from really shining. Melodically and texturally it doesn’t grab me. The melodies are often droney and monotone (perhaps I’m just not well-enough versed in the Kazakh style?) and the modern drum and bass grooves (that mellow hip-hop-influenced rock style that has been so ubiquitous in Western pop since the 90’s) seem a little played-out—too rooted in a stylistic fad of the present that will soon seem cheesy and dated whereas the traditional music, when left alone, might have had the power to seem timeless.
In any discussion of Chinagrass, it’s worth mentioning the music of Abigail Washburn even though it’s of a significantly different ilk. Washburn is not Chinese, but a young, American banjo player and singer who has been covered extensively on No Depression. In addition to her stellar solo career, she is part of the all-female bluegrass band, Uncle Earl. Washburn spent some years living in Beijing where she learned to speak Mandarin (she sings in it sometimes too) and took in a lot of Chinese musical influence. A couple years ago she formed The Sparrow Quartet (an ensemble of two banjos, violin and cello with Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee) and recorded Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet (Nettwerk, 2010). The album is a beautiful and innovative hybrid full of virtuosity and soul. It hints at bluegrass, Chinese folk, rock, blues and classical styles while not actually being any of these (though the song “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” is pretty darn bluegrassy). But while she seems to accept influence from these sources, she digests them and synthesizes them with her own singular artistic vision to produce something entirely original.
Abigail Washburn’s latest, City of Refuge, is not with the Sparrow Quartet but it does feature a long parade of guest artists including Hanggai and musicians from My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, Old Crow Medicine Show and Turtle Island String Quartet. Avant-garde Chinese composer and guzheng player, Wu Fei (whose 2008 album Yuan is worth a listen) also appears. City of Refuge is another collection of originals (bookended by a couple traditional numbers) by Washburn in collaboration with Kai Welch. The album still bears her unique aesthetic signature but is much more straight ahead than The Sparrow Quartet. Disappointingly, most of the album could even be considered “radio-friendly”—the daring compositional style of the Sparrow Quartet is replaced by simple pop songs with catchy, repetitive choruses. There’s no singing in Mandarin and despite the Asian-themed cover art and the musical contribution of Wu Fei and Hanggai, her Chinese influence is less apparent. But the textures are lush and beautiful with strings, brass, piano, and vocal harmonies draped around Washburn’s fine open-back banjo playing and expressive singing. Poppy as it is, it’s still a fairly interesting record from one of today’s most exciting new-grass artists. Definitely worth checking out.
I leave you with a video clip that was posted on No Depression back in April featuring an interview/jam session with Abigail Washburn, Hanggai and Bela Fleck on a Beijing rooftop:
*Ok, I admit it, I’m talking about me, too. I used to be a rocker, now I play in a roots music band called the Waxwings.