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Back Roads Beat

Crashing Corporate Christmas Parties in Mongolia

By Published: January 10, 2007
Bellows first visited Mongolia in 1995 during a trip between Russia and the Far East, performing a week of concerts at the Music College in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. He returned a year later after receiving an invitation to teach jazz improvisation to students educated mostly in classical music from Russian teachers.

"The students want to swing, but very few had or have the feeling for creativity," he observed. "I found a few and built from those."

The strength of Mongolian musicians, he added, is their interest in learning and practicing.

"They have much more time than in the west and are not always busy, so they can spend hours in rehearsal and learning harmony and chords and new sounds," he wrote.

A handful are now in advanced music studies in other countries, including a bassist who switched from classical to jazz and is in Rome.

"If I go to Italy she would be my bassist," Bellows wrote. "Why? Because she has the feel. As you know, jazz is freedom of expression, improvisation (and) syncopation among other things. She has all of this. The big thing is to get them to loosen up and create and have fun."

Included in Bellows' 2004 light jazz/world double-CD All Of Music is "Ayanii Shuvuud" (listen/download), featuring a number of Mongolia's most notable jazz-playing musicians including pianist/drummer N. Gambat and Degi, a woman who is probably the country's most famous violinists.

"When jazz pianist Bob Bellow first played in Mongolia, he showed musicians here what real jazz harmony and rhythm is," Gambat said in an interview during the first Giant Steppes festival in 2004.

Gambat is general regarded as Mongolia's most acclaimed jazz musician, performing songs as part of a larger repertoire since the early 1990s and increasingly devoting his time to it in recent years. A classically trained pianist, he is the drummer in Tromans' UBop Band because "he is practically the only drummer in the city who can come close to the subtleties of the swing feel," according to Tromans, adding new educational programs are changing that rapidly.

Gambat, an original member of the Black And White band when it formed 10 years ago, said outside influences have been vital for his jazz development.

"I was first introduced to jazz when I studied at the Armenian Music Conservatory...but when I went to Berkley School of Music in Boston in 2002 I saw that jazz is so different (in the U.S.)," he said during the 2004 interview. "We have a lot to learn. In Mongolia we are just playing the surface."

"Mongolians play the morin khuur with an instinct and inherent sense of the instrument. Someone in the U.S. could learn the morin khuur there, but if they came to Mongolia and played, their sound and style would be totally different from a Mongolian's, because they learned it in a foreign land."

Gambat, performed in Calgary in February of 2005 under what that city's paper called a "fledgling" Canada-Mongolia jazz-exchange program. Part of that exchange includes the Northern Lights Quartet, which performed with Gambat in Canada and at the 2006 Giant Steppes festival.

"He doesn't have the kind of loose free-flow that people who have been improvising all their lives have," said Robin Tufts, the NLQ's drummer, in a Canadian radio station interview. "But he has big ears and a very keen sensibility of jazz."

Gambat is also composing songs that tend to have a folk quality and simple harmonic structure, which makes them fun to play, Tufts said.

Another Canadian with musical ties to Mongolia is vocalist Deb Rasmussen, who has been making regular trips there since 1996 as agricultural economist and fundraiser for children's and cultural causes. She started Mongolia's jazz library in 2002 after interviewing musicians there and learning about the dearth of material.

"We accumulated about 160 recordings, a few real books and the Ken Burns book on jazz history," she wrote in an e-mail. "We tried to get recordings that would follow the development of jazz from early ragtime through to recent recordings and feature as many of the most important individual players as possible."

A few more items have been added since, but educational materials are still in short supply.

"What's needed most now are theory materials and instructional materials," Rasmussen noted. "Self-teaching and practice materials would be very useful for different instruments and vocals."

Rural Mongolian life is largely unchanged from centuries ago and some aspects of city life are still reminiscent of Cold War-era Moscow. But Rasmussen said the population has a 98 percent literacy rate and a reverence for music that's natural for jazz.

"Within Mongolia's growing urban middle class, I think a Mongolian jazz will find an audience and I suspect it will be heavily influenced by their folk music traditions," she wrote. "At the same time, I think the general audience will warm first to the standards and big band music. Mongolia is a singing society, so jazz vocalists are going to find a welcoming audience."

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