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Back Roads Beat

Crashing Corporate Christmas Parties in Mongolia

By Published: January 10, 2007
One of the first groups was also one of the most interesting from a jazz perspective, as a sextet of three traditional string-instruments and a reed-based horn provided the lead sounds for modernist arrangements of ancient tunes, with a drum/bass combo backing them up. The compositions were intriguing in rhythmic complexity, but something of a letdown in their repetitiveness—songs typically alternated between patterns. Hopes the horn player would go off on a wild improvisation tangent proved futile.

Other performers were a similar mix of interesting and disappointing. The appeal was hearing unusual vocals and instruments I'd heard on CDs performed live. Part of the disappointment was their largely ceremonial nature, with visual elements such as elaborate fur outfits and proper dance steps often taking priority over sound. Also, even the best playing suffered the indignity of distortion because a too-loud sound system allowed drums to overwhelm everything else. Finally, it felt like an overview of the "Mongolian Music 101" many doubtless play for tourists, or like a band sticking to greatest hits at a concert instead of stretching out on a more intimate stage.

Talking to the musicians proved difficult, a bit a of surprise since English is supposedly gaining in popularity as a second language with younger Mongolians. At best I was able to get names (or so I thought, more on that in a moment), the instruments they were playing and a comment along the lines of "it's fun to play the music of our ancestors." One consistency was none seemed to play jazz or have thoughts on similarities it might have to the ancient tunes.

As for names, there was a fair amount of confusion over what proved to be a misunderstanding of culture, not language. I kept getting only first names, although other times they wrote what turned out to be their village or instrument of choice next to them. It turns out surnames were eliminated in the 1920s by the Communist party. The ban was lifted in 1997, but many still observe the practice even though the population has reached the point where it's causing numerous complications because of the multitude of duplicate names.

Those passing out fliers at the tables were more accustomed to English-speakers, but weren't much help in my hunt. Representatives of a couple of hotels that reportedly hosted occasional jazz acts said they didn't know of any, if they ever existed.

An afternoon exploring downtown on foot proved a great deal more painful as the cold drove me indoors every block or so to stores selling clothes and other staples. Nothing about them was especially noteworthy compared to similar Asian cities not in the first economic-tier, or any given low-rent U.S. neighborhood, for that matter. On the streets in many countries there's something rather unique for sale (i.e. people being able to weigh themselves on bathroom scales in Kyrgyzstan) and in Mongolia the surprise was seeing how many official phones were offered at sidewalk tables because of the large percentage of the population without one.

It seemed a gold strike might be in order on the main street at a rustic wooden storefront which fading letters proclaimed to be the Chingis Beer Jazz Club. A flier promising live music that evening was on the door and, while they weren't open yet, a couple of people including the manager were inside. Alas, after exchanging drawings and a few words of common English, it became clear it was a rock gig. Jazz was either a non-existent or long- ago presence despite the pub's name.

But the hunt wasn't in vain. A couple of record stores dominated by Asian and U.S. pop had some decent traditional instrumentals among the tourist-oriented Mongolian compilations. Better, at least in theory, was the discovery of an album by the saxophonist for the Black And White Band. But the nine-song disc is a dead ringer for a Kenny G knockoff that, much as I wanted to like it, couldn't get excited about. It's cleanly played and recorded, but the melodies are simple, the rhythm sections robotic, and there's only occasional faint hints of a Mongolian accent that might add depth. Among the better efforts with such character is "Manan," a slow-building sequence of phrases by different players to a steady contemporary beat (hear or download the song).

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