AnDa Union brings traditional Mongolian music to Austin

By Yvonne Lim Wilson

Listening to the music of AnDa Union, one can vividly picture life on the Mongolian grasslands, horses galloping, ancient sorrows and everyday joys. The sound is like nothing else, evoking the energy of Native American music, the operatic vocals of Chinese music, even strains of American country music, yet the sound is wholly original, at once ancient and modern.

AnDa Union are a group of ten young Mongolians living in Hohhot, China who describe themselves as “music gatherers” to reengage and reconnect young Mongols with their culture.

“Young Mongolians like us now understand how important our culture is but maybe the next generation won’t care and we have to prevent this from happening,” Bataar, the drummer of the band, wrote on AnDa Union’s website.

The singers, who have all trained musically as young children, perform hoomai, a guttural throat song, as well as urtinduu, a long-song. They play instruments including the morin huur (horse head fiddle), the maodun chaoer, (three-holed flute), as well as Mongolian versions of the lute, and mouth harp.

These performers have been captivating audiences around the world for the past eight years, sharing the sounds and stories of Mongolia. Several years ago, film producer Tim Pearce fell in love with AnDa Union’s haunting and beautiful sound. He went on to produce the documentary, “AnDa Union: From the Steppes to the City,” in 2011 and has since become the band’s manager.

“I realized audiences wanted to know: where does this music come from? In the film we travel with them about them to discover where the music comes from,” Pearce said. “We learned a lot about their music. We found love stories, drinking songs … we shot 150 hours of film and had a whole crew out there.”

With so much rich footage, Pearce worked in filmed segments into AnDa Union’s concert shows. AnDa Union performs at Bass Concert Hall on the UT Austin campus this Thursday and DVD copies of the film will be available for sale at the show.

Pearce made time to speak with Asian Austin as the band was en route making its way to Austin. For details about AnDa Union, visit http://www.andaunion.com.

AA: How would you describe AnDa Union’s music to those who are not familiar with Mongolian music?
TP: We had a fantastic article that called us Crosby, Stills and Nash with Tibetan bells on. Country music fans love our music. We gets kids who go to see Lady Gaga come and say that [AnDa Union] was the coolest thing ever. I think the music is very accessible to old and young alike. The Mongolian empire stretched from China to the Austrian Empire so they absorbed so much. This comes from the grasslands, from nature: that makes it universal. They use Western scale in music. Culturally, it’s a very different culture. They are really quite a bridge from West to East.

AA: AnDa Union’s music sounds so fresh, emotional and spiritual—from the gestures, sounds and facial expressions, so much of it seems like storytelling. What are some of these stories?
TP: Mongolian music is part of their everyday life. As a nomadic people, the stories are their culture. There are stories about heroes in the past, another about a girl who was ill and cured by a shaman. There are many about a mother singing about a daughter leaving home. They are nomads; the population is spread out. When a daughter leaves to marry, the mother may never see her again.

AA: What makes AnDa Union’s music stand out from traditional Mongolian music?
TP: With traditional music, you sit down with a family and you are a guest. You have some wine. There will be one person singing. It’s so very beautiful, it will bring tears to your eyes. AnDa Union found a way to have an ensemble to combine different instruments and bring all these elements together to produce a very powerful feeling. They have arranged these traditional songs to capture the essence of when you are alone singing.

AA: What does the name “AnDa Union” mean?
TP: “Anda” means blood brother—your brother or sister you are born with; your blood brother you choose. Traditionally, you would each cut your hands and your blood would mingle. There is a famous story about Chinggis [Ghengis] Khan and his blood brother.

AA: The website mentions that AnDa Union performs different styles of Mongolian music. What are some of these different styles?
TP: There are many, many tribes that are Mongolian and were unified [by Genghis Khan]. For example, the Buryats came out of Russia about 200 years ago, migrated from China and have different traditions. The Ewenke live in tipis and ride reindeer. In the west is Xinjiang on the border of Kazakhstan. They have lived isolated from other Mongolians for hundreds of years, so it’s very different. They all have different songs, accents, different style of clothing. They all developed their own styles of talking and music. There are enormous differences.

AA: Do they mix the different styles?
TP: They may present a song from Western Mongolia and may use some trope singing, which is not something they do in Western Mongolia.

AA: Are there modern elements to AnDa Union’s music?
TP: We embrace technology. When they play, they rock; they really rock. They are performing really old songs, but they are today’s songs because these songs are alive. They are songs they still sing. It’s relevant; it’s not an old, ancient song. It’s their music.

Originally published October 2013

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