Zhang Tianran: Mongolia takes root in metal
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.