Zhang Tian­ran: Mon­go­lia takes root in metal

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS -

Zhang Tian­ran, whose Mon­go­lian name “Na­ture Gan­gan­bai­gal” might be more fa­mil­iar to New York rock fans, says Mon­go­lia for him is a deeply held faith.

The 27-year-old mu­si­cian showed up in Times Square on a sunny win­ter af­ter­noon dressed ca­su­ally but wrapped in a tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian printed head­scarf, which made him eas­ily rec­og­niz­able in the crowd.

On Oct 30, CNN broad­cast a video in­ter­view with Zhang ti­tled “One part metal, one part Mon­go­lia,” fea­tur­ing the ris­ing rocker in New York and his “Mon­go­lian folk metal mu­sic”.

The mu­si­cal style cre­ated by Zhang blends no­madic over­tone throat singing, the tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian horse­head fiddle and other no­madic mu­sic tra­di­tions of Cen­tral Asia with heavy metal rock.

“The Mon­go­lian folk mu­sic el­e­ments and heavy metal that I blend to­gether just re­in­force each other and achieve great har­mony,” the com­poser said.

Born of Mon­go­lian an­ces­try, Zhang has al­ways had a great in­ter­est in tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian mu­sic, cul­ture and ev­ery­thing re­lated to Mon­go­lia.

Raised in Beijing, which has been at the cen­ter of China’s rock scene since the 1980s, Zhang has been greatly in­flu­enced by rock mu­sic, es­pe­cially heavy metal.

“I have been play­ing both horse-head fiddle and gui­tar since I was in high school,” he said. “And I was ex­posed to a lot of mu­sic by for­eign heavy-metal bands that put the tra­di­tional folk mu­sic of their na­tions to­gether with mod­ern rock.

“I liked them a lot and got in­spired — why not blend the Mon­go­lian folk melodies I knew with heavy metal?”

Zhang said he thinks the Mon­go­lian cul­ture and rock mu­sic have a lot in com­mon. “Mon­go­lian cul­ture is about the horse, the ea­gle and the prairie.

A no­madic peo­ple has to be strong and coura­geous enough to strug­gle with na­ture, which are two char­ac­ter­is­tics I think a rocker should have,” said Zhang

When he be­gan to per­form af­ter mov­ing to New York in 2013, his Mon­go­lian folk metal mu­sic soon won ac­claim.

“It sur­prised me that Amer­i­can au­di­ences could understand and showed in­ter­est in what I was singing,” Zhang said. “Some of them truly take my mu­sic se­ri­ously, they even study the lyrics and dis­cuss them on­line to bet­ter understand the Mon­go­lia fea­tured in my songs.”

“In one of my per­for­mances in Oc­to­ber, an Amer­i­can in the au­di­ence even held up a flag with a por­trait of Genghis Khan,” Zhang said with a laugh.

Mod­est by na­ture, Zhang does not be­lieve that his mu­sic is really an au­thor­i­ta­tive car­rier of Mon­go­lian cul­ture.

“I think my mu­sic is more about the old civ­i­liza­tion seen from my point that I want to show to the au­di­ences, es­pe­cially the Western ones, to ex­cite their in­ter­est in it and then they learn more about it by them­selves,” Zhang said.

Zhang’s mu­sic fea­tures three as­pects of Mon­go­lia: the re­li­gious be­lief, which is Shaman­ism, the history and the daily life.

“For ex­am­ple, two of my songs — The Black Horse and The Blood Sac­ri­fice Shaman — were in­spired by the Mon­go­lian horse cul­ture and the rites of Shaman­ism,” Zhang said.

Spend­ing most of his life in China, with a free-lov­ing na­ture, Zhang was never the teacher’s pet.

He com­plied with his par­ents’ wishes to study in­dus­trial de­sign, which he was not that into in col­lege.

In­stead, Zhang im­mersed him­self in play­ing rock ’n’ roll and learn­ing mu­sic com­po­si­tion.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, Zhang ap­plied to a graduate pro­gram in mu­sic at New York Univer­sity with a con­cen­tra­tion in scor­ing for film and mul­ti­me­dia to get sys­tem­atic train­ing.

Zhang said the big­gest change in him­self af­ter mov­ing to New York has been that he has be­come more and more like a Mon­go­lian.

“I like the feel­ing of free­dom here, ev­ery­thing seems ac­cept­able here,” said Zhang.

“Artis­tic cre­ation needs free­dom, there is no free­dom, there is no art.”

His band, Teng­ger Cav­alry, was cre­ated in 2009 in Beijing with Chi­nese mem­bers. Teng­ger is the name of the sky god of the Mon­go­lian grass­lands.

if When he moved to New York, he re­formed the band with Amer­i­can mu­si­cians.

The lineup in­cludes bassist Alex Abayev, a half-Jewish half-Rus­sian from Uzbek­istan (which was once Mon­gol Em­pire ter­ri­tory); drum­mer Yuri Liak from Ukraine (which was also once part of the Mon­gol Em­pire); and fiddle player Robert McLaugh­lin, an Amer­i­can with a great in­ter­est in Mon­go­lian cul­ture.

“My band is just like a minia­ture of Genghis Khan’s troops in the 13 cen­tury, which was com­prised of war­riors from dif­fer­ent ar­eas in Cen­tral Asia when there was no con­ven­tional Mon­gols,” Zhang said. “That shows Mon­go­lian Spirit.”

“To us, Mon­go­lia is a kind of cul­ture, a kind of spirit and a kind of faith, which reaches far be­yond race and lin­eage,” Zhang said firmly.

Af­ter re­leas­ing four albums in Europe and the US, Teng­ger Cav­alry has be­come known as one of the most unique and in­no­va­tive metal bands in Asia.

Zhang said he would never use Mon­go­lia just as a hash­tag to at­tract eyes but really to make some good mu­sic that lets the au­di­ence hear and see Mon­go­lia, a cul­ture with a bril­liant history.

To en­sure the qual­ity of his mu­sic, Zhang in­sists on tour­ing the Mon­go­lian prairies to get in­spi­ra­tion be­fore making an al­bum.

For his next al­bum, he hopes to also in­clude some of the spirit of the US with more Amer­i­can mu­sic el­e­ments, since he has gained more life and mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ences in the states.

“The fu­ture is full of un­cer­tainty,” Zhang said. “What I can do is ac­cept the changes and enjoy.”

I like the feel­ing of free­dom here, ev­ery­thing seems ac­cept­able here.”


Top: Zhang Tian­ran (sec­ond from left) and other mem­bers of the Teng­ger Cav­alry. Above: The Teng­ger Cav­alry per­forms in New York.

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