In 2018, four aspiring young Mongolian musicians stormed onto YouTube — winning over millions of fans with their stunning music videos that showcased Mongolia’s breathtaking scenery. They introduced a new music genre dubbed “Hunnu rock,” a rich, experimental sound that blends heavy metal with traditional Mongolian folk instruments and throat singing.
“Our ancestors may be known for being warriors and conquerors but music is also integral to Mongolian culture,” said Gala, lead vocalist of the folk metal band The HU.
The singer spoke with VICE about their signature style and Mongolian pride and representation, ahead of an upcoming 2021 album release.
“We play Mongolian instruments like the morin khuur and tsuur like our ancestors did for thousands of years, but we take things a step further by incorporating throat singing into our sound and songs. It’s an art we are proud to share with fans around the world,” Gala said.
“Everything that we know was taught to us in our native language, Mongolian. We are the only band at the moment playing this unique genre of Hunnu rock — and hopefully we won’t be the last.”
Hailing from Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbaatar, where they are currently working on their upcoming album, the band’s popularity and success is tied to the love and passion they feel for their homeland.
Music and language play a huge part in Mongolian culture, spoken and sung by various ethnic groups and tribes.
Gala’s words come at a time when many ethnic Mongolians are seeing their native language replaced by Mandarin in schools, under a controversial new bilingual state curriculum assimilation program implemented in September by China’s ruling Communist Party.
In September, crowds of school children and parents in Inner Mongolia — an autonomous region of China — staged mass walkouts to speak out against the program, a rare instance of protest against the Chinese government. Many also sang Mongolian songs in support of their native tongue.
Rights groups said the official “bilingual policy” threatened children’s education, undermined local teachings, and risked eroding Mongolian language and cultural identities. On Aug. 23, Bainu, a social media platform popular with many Mongolian speakers, was also shut down.
While The HU has not directly commented on the issue, their music and influence resonate with people even more today.
"We believe every language in the world is beautiful in many ways. Behind every language there’s a unique history, culture and the spirit of the people who speak the language. Mongolian language is one of them and we are proud to speak this language,” Gala said.
“Mongolian is our native tongue — we speak it every day and choose to sing in Mongolian because we are so proud of our culture, as anyone should be. We all were born and raised in Mongolia and grew up speaking the language which has been alive for thousands of years.”
He added: “All languages are beautiful and we respect them as they paint a genuine picture of their origin that can only be expressed by an artist telling a story in their first language. Their language of origin. Everyone should be proud of where they’re from and should share that with the world. In our country Mongolia, all schools teach classes in Mongolian. In other countries they teach in their mother tongue. We respect all countries, cultures and languages.”
On stage, the band’s energy is infectious. Decked out in black leather, boots, and braids, all members sing in Mongolian with deep guttural roars, their lyrics peppered with old Mongolian war cries and poetry.
“Throat singing has been a singing technique for generations in the Mongol tribes. Our fathers, grandfathers, and mentors did it and we wanted to respect and honor them in our music while attempting to master the technique,” Gala said.
“We practiced the style and control for years, ever since we were kids. Now we’re infusing it into our songs because it feels natural to us. It’s who we are, it’s what we know, it’s where we come from and what we can be proud of.”
It’s earned them adoration from fans as far as Europe and in other Asian countries like Malaysia and Japan, who have started throat singing in the crowd, along with the band.
The band’s hard work and passion paid off in 2019 when they were awarded Mongolia’s highest state award, the Order of Genghis Khan, for promoting Mongolian culture around the world.
“The award was an unbelievable moment for us. To have been honored and humbled by the love and support that we’ve received from our countrymen.”
After the pandemic left them stranded in Australia for three months, the band is now safely home and has even held a virtual concert. They are currently recording their second studio album.
“Our fans can expect more songs depicting our signature Hunnu rock style. We are really excited to share our new material,” Gala said.
Editor's Note: Two quotes have been expanded to further include the band's thoughts on the Mongolian language.