A land known for the ancient musical practice of "throat" singing, Mongolia is throbbing to a new beat: hip-hop. In a country where almost 60 percent of the population is younger than 30, hip-hop has become an effective way of making political statements and carving out a new Mongolian identity.
At a venue in Ulan Bator, the capital, rainbow lights flash as plumes of flame shoot into the air. Hip-hop has a huge following, and onstage this recent night is a who's who of the world of Mongolia's hip-hop scene. Bling-laden stars in baggy jeans and baseball caps strike poses. One performer has an enormous, drooling white dog tethered on a chain.
"We sing the truth, we tell the truth," says Kobe, lead singer of Ice Top, one of Mongolia's most popular bands. "That's why we are influential. In that sense, we do have political influence through song."
Music Of Free Expression, Protest
Hip-hop arrived in Mongolia in the early 1990s, just as the former Soviet satellite was implementing democratic reforms following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus hip-hop is often seen by young Mongolians as the music of free expression.
An example is a song that Ice Top made with a band called Dain ba Enh. The song's name is simply "76," after the number of members of parliament in Mongolia. It excoriates the politicians as corrupt, selfish and greedy.
"Clueless stupid guys are at the top of the state," the lyrics say. "They say they do this and that for the people. Bull----. They speak pretty words, but life is a pretty hell."
That "pretty hell" is highlighted in music videos shot against the blighted post-industrial backdrop of Mongolia's capital, with its potholed roads, ever-present pools of water and dilapidated buildings. The artists highlight Mongolians' poor living conditions, even in the country's most prosperous city.
Damdinbazar Manlai from Ice Top says the group is taking on social issues — and the establishment.
"We have homeless children, we have poverty, but we also have a very grand history that was inherited from our ancestors," he says. "We sing about kids living in sewers, and we ask, 'Where's your kid living?' We want to get a message to the corrupt upper class."
Traditions Of Shamans, Genghis Khan
Mongolia's grand history is also a preoccupation of the music. Sukhbaatar Amarmandakh, the original wild man of Mongolian music. Better known as Amraa, he started the country's first techno rap band — Har Sarnai, or Black Rose — in 1991, and was among the first artists to rap about the founder of the Mongol empire, Genghis Khan.
Before that, under Soviet control, any mention of Genghis Khan was forbidden. Amraa cites as his early inspirations Michael Jackson, Vanilla Ice and Mongolian shamans, whom he believes inspired hip-hop.
"Some say hip-hop comes from Africa. But I think it also comes from the way the shamans used to chant in the Genghis Khan period. The shamans use a drum, and those rhythms are similar to today's hip-hop," he says.
Amraa claims to be descended from a line of shamans, and says he sees hip-hop singers as modern-day shamans. "I have a calling, and that's why I'm sitting here creating. The hip-hop spirits called me to this," he says.
For Some, A Nationalist Message
Amraa tries to incorporate Mongolian elements into his band's music, weaving hip-hop rhythms with throat singing and traditional Mongolian long songs, so named for the way in which syllables are extended.
He is an unashamed Mongolian nationalist, hoping to instill young Mongolians with feelings of pride. His stage presence is fearsome, and slightly unhinged. He favors long wigs, a top hat, knee-high leather boots and militaristic Nazi-style uniforms.
And he worries about the purity of the Mongolian bloodline. "We have cases where Mongolians marry foreigners," he says. "I hope it's not all of us. I hope the majority will remain separate and keep their bloodlines pure."
The ugly side of Mongolian hip-hop is illustrated by a recent song by a band called 4 Zug. The title: "Don't Overstep The Limits, You Chinks." It is a violent, hate-filled tirade against Mongolia's massive neighbor, China.
There are very few such songs, according to Gregory Delaplace, an anthropologist and research associate at Cambridge University with an interest in Mongolian hip-hop. But he believes they do reflect popular concerns.
"The song basically translates a very well-spread idea in Mongolian society that Chinese people are sucking the resources out of the country, and threatening Mongol people as a people and as an independent entity," Delaplace says.
One enthusiastic hip-hop fan, 23-year-old Ariuntstseg Altankhuyug, says that to him, hip-hop is the music of free expression.
"This is a very important style of music," he says. "It tells everything that is inside of you. Most importantly, it's [the music of] free expression. It can say good things and bad things in a very free way."
Identity In Post-Soviet World
But in Mongolia, hip-hop is not the music of gangstas and guns. These mainly middle-class kids are turning out tender tributes to their mothers, as well as songs of social criticism. While a few artists take a nationalistic line, others preach a more moderate creed of self respect, "being real" and taking responsibility.
Aldar Jargal, a 22-year-old DJ, says he believes Mongolian hip-hop only really came of age once it started examining identity issues.
"They only started talking about being proud of our Mongolian identity and Genghis Khan a few years ago. It's good, because before that they were only copying Western bands or singing love songs," Jargal says.
In this way, hip-hop is tackling traditional themes, as well as providing an unlikely arena for political debate. It's also helping young Mongolians find themselves and their voice in the post-Soviet world.