Hanggai: Riders in the sky

Hanggai on the Green Stage

The crowd at the opening act on the Green Stage Sunday was smaller than usual, most likely owing to the probability that campers were still mopping up their tents and hotel stayers were hair-drying their sodden shoes. They really missed something. The Inner Mongolian big band, Hanggai, put on quite a show under mostly cloudy skies. 

Dressed in a smattering of traditional clothing but mostly looking like your average California slacker rock outfit, the huge group brought along its 7-member horn section, which didn’t always have a lot to do instrumentally, but their collective background voices gave the group its main selling point: irresistible choruses that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Front Man Iichi, sporting the coolest sunglasses at the festival, reportedly started out his music career in a punk band, and there was something of the snotty showman in his stage demeanor, goosing the crowd’s early morning desire to get this party started while demonstrating same by going through can after can of samples from Japan’s finest corporate breweries. “Kampai” seemed to be the only Japanese he knew, but he knew it well.

Though at least two members did some throat singing, and Iichi has said in interviews that his mission is to bring the traditional music of Mongolia to the city (the band is based in Beijing), for the most part the songs were a hodgepodge of traditional tropes and pop skills. One song, built around some sinuous trumpet lines, was a full-blooded blues, and one galloping horse song started out in bluegrass mode, complete with Chinese banjo and the Mongolian version of the erhu taking the fiddle parts. Pretty soon the song had taken on a life of its own and just kept getting faster and faster. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” on the Gobi Desert. 

The party purport was further promoted by the introductions. A non-Asian woman, the only member of the horn section in traditional dress, introduced the section in English using the kind of lingo you’d hear in a Vegas lounge act, except she concluded her stint by offering, “I hope you dance your ass off.” I’m sure she wasn’t disappointed.