“I want to celebrate Mongolian culture in my own way.”
Nature Ganganbaigal is explaining the inspiration for his folk-metal band Tengger Cavalry, started as a one-man project in his native Beijing in 2010. “A part of me is metal but a part of me is also very folky,” the now New York City–based frontman and guitarist says over pints at Greenpoint metal bar Saint Vitus. But, far from Woodie Guthrie, the folk he’s talking about is that of the nomadic people of Mongolia. His band blends traditional melodic lines played on the morin khuur — or horsehead fiddle — with death/black metal riffs. (Indeed, Ganganbaigal’s sub-bass-overtone vocals and lyrics about ancient bravery and nature-worship tip the vibe squarely in the direction of black metal.)
Folk metal as a genre has seen some hokey moments, particularly in its Viking manifestations, but Mongolian folk metal is arguably the most metal of the subgenre’s permutations. Perhaps it’s because Mongolian culture — battle-ready yet profoundly in tune with both nature and the spirit world — lends itself readily to a metal aesthetic. Ganganbaigal’s sonorous throat-singing provides a compelling alternative to the typical clean vocals-versus-screaming/growling dichotomy in metal while the emotional range of the horsehead fiddle contributes operatic drama. The name Tengger refers to the Mongolian sky god; the band’s recently re-recorded first album bears the extremely metal title of Blood Sacrifice Shaman. Metal’s roar and driving rhythms in turn provide an excellent musical language for conveying the free and indomitable spirit of the untamed grasslands — or maybe it’s just the band leader’s gifts as a composer that make the synthesis seem obvious.
Tengger Cavalry has become an established name in China and the global metal community. Ganganbaigal eventually built up a full band and went on to headline Chinese festivals and win awards at home. Abroad, the band has been the subject of appreciative write-ups from major metal press including Terrorizer. But in 2014, Ganganbaigal put the project on hold to pursue a master’s in film music composition at New York University. While in school, he released an album of Mongolian-inspired instrumental music, To Where Tengger Leads Me, partly composed of epic reimaginings of Tengger Cavalry songs. He does intend to continue writing music for film and video games, but the musician, who hopes to secure an artist green card, is focused on his band right now. A new album is in the works.
While he admits that metal is his first love, Ganganbaigal has played pure traditional folk, including an appearance at this year’s Naadam celebration in Central Park, a local observance of Mongolia’s most important festival, which traditionally features wrestling, horse races, and archery contests. He’s been dedicated to the study of traditional Mongolian instruments and throat-singing for eight years, but he insists he’s “still learning.” He’ll get a chance to explore Tengger Cavalry’s folk side in an upcoming unplugged performance at Carnegie Hall. The enthusiastic response to his live collaboration with an American folk band at Lincoln Center inspired him to try to mount a show with acoustic versions of Tengger Cavalry songs. The EP Overture for Carnegie Unplugged, posted to the quartet’s Bandcamp page, is meant to show fans what they can expect. Using it as a guide, the concert should be less metal and more Mongolian folk music with a post-rock feel, an interesting concept in itself.
After graduating from NYU, Ganganbaigal tackled the challenge of reforming the band stateside. He was fortunate to track down players who not only had the chops to join the cavalry but were able to really appreciate the project’s aims as well. His campaign started on BandMix.com, where he found accomplished death metal bassist Alex Abayev, who was on the verge of deleting his account when he saw Ganganbaigal’s message. Abayev comes from a Russian Jewish background but hails from Uzbekistan. “He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, Mongolian stuff, Central Asian, that’s something that I can relate to. I want to give it a shot,’ ” Ganganbaigal says. Abayev brought in metal drummer Yuri Liak, originally from Ukraine. The frontman met American-born horsehead fiddle player Robert McLaughlin at the Naadam celebration. McLaughlin is passionate about the culture and spirituality of the Tuvan people, a south-Siberian ethnic group with Mongol roots and a very similar culture to that of the Mongolian people. “It’s very important that the people in my band get it, not just musically but culturally — that they know what it is,” Ganganbaigal says.
At a recent show in New Jersey, Ganganbaigal performed in a traditional Mongolian winter hat. The mic stand was adorned with strips of sheep fur and the stage decorated with prayer flags and animal skulls. The other members were decked out in traditional Central Asian garb as well, as they are in the band’s press photos. When Ganganbaigal posted the new band photos online, he was introduced to American racial politics, receiving negative comments from people angered by images of white folk wearing traditional Asian clothes and posing with Mongolian instruments. The commenters were concerned about issues of cultural appropriation, but Ganganbaigal, who is half–ethnic Mongolian and half-Chinese, views the band in terms of cultural exchange. “We’re all weird people. It’s a mix,” he says of his bandmates. He was taken aback by the commenters: “When I released the photos from the photo shoot, I thought people were going to love it. I thought in America it’s a melting pot and everyone is the same and we all embrace each other.” The American reality is, of course, more complex than that ideal.
Frustrated but undeterred, Ganganbaigal has two words for his online detractors. “Fuck them.” “It’s music,” he observes. “If people think, ‘Oh, they’re white dudes, why are they playing Mongolian music?’ maybe Asian people shouldn’t listen to rock music.” He points out the evangelism (to put it lightly) that is at the root of Mongolian identity, saying “one thing I can tell you is that, thirteenth-century Genghis Khan, he made everybody Mongolian! Genghis Khan doesn’t give a fuck about your race. If you are loyal to him, you can serve in his army.” Tengger Cavalry, it seems, has the same employment policy.
True to his metal side, Ganganbaigal has never let the opinions of others deter him from his artistic vision. In a completely different way, his band pushed the envelope in China, too. Mongolians are a recognized minority in China and there are more ethnic Mongolians in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia than in Mongolia proper. In the northerly city of Beijing, located very close to Inner Mongolia, there are many ethnic Mongolians like Ganganbaigal. In his words, “they live in China, far away from the grassland, but they know where they come from.” Ganganbaigal says that, while Mongolian culture is not suppressed, proudly calling oneself Mongolian, rather than Chinese, will get you some strange looks. Too strong an assertion of Mongolian identity is frowned upon. “They don’t discourage you from talking about that, but they don’t encourage it, either. They say, ‘Oh, everyone is Chinese.’ If you want to put on a show and celebrate Genghis Khan, you have to say the title of the concert in a certain way. They were very sensitive about that. You have to be politically correct.”
Blood sacrifice is in fact an occasional part of Mongolian shamanic ritual, and the titular track on Tengger Cavalry’s most recent album is a musical description of it. “It’s about the process where the shaman summons the deity and the deity possesses them. And the shaman dances and the ritual finishes. We’re using music to try to represent that process,” Ganganbaigal explains.
Sacrificing a goat or sheep is still a part of the shamanic tradition among Mongolian nomadic people. Ganganbaigal’s own beliefs are a mixture of shamanism and Buddhism that is common in Mongolia. He is quick to assure that the invocation of ritual bloodshed here is not meant to shock or offend — far from it. “It’s in a very respectful way. It’s not in a brutal way. Mongolian people respect every living creature. Everything dies for a reason,” he says. It might not be brutal, but it’s still pretty heavy.