In conversation, Hugjiltu’s voice is soft and gentle, like a whinnying foal nuzzling your hand for an apple. Such a tame disposition is surprising, considering his demeanor onstage and in the studio, where he brays like a bucking stallion.
That unbridled performing style is mostly due to his upbringing on ZaLute prairie in Inner Mongolia, a grassland rife with galloping steeds. Hugjiltu was born the son of local folk legend—which led to his immersion in several regional customs like Sihu story-telling, horse head fiddle playing and Khoomei throat singing. That traditionalist streak carries over in all aspects of his band, especially its name: Ajinai, which is a Mongolian term reserved for only the most pristine of Genghis Khan.
That penchant for ancient customs is evident on some song’s from the band’s latest album. Buren Bayar—Ajinai’s drummer, who hails from Inner Mongolia’s Xilingol grassland—says that traditionalism is especially apparent on Synthesis’ closing song, “Dald.” “The album’s last song is my favourite, mostly because I got the chance to play a shaman drum on it,” he says of the smaller, hand held drum that gives the song a uniquely terse, brawny beat.
And while Ajinai’s band name harkens back to a bygone era, that title is also used for a track on the troop’s new album, the song is also prone to some surprisingly modern multiculturalism.
“In Inner Monglia the name Ajinai means the best horse in the group,” Hugjiltu says during an interview, adding that such strength stems from adaptability, rather stodgy traditionalism, before elaborating: “The music sounds Mongolian at first, but the later parts of the song are faster and sound more like folk music from the Middle East or India.”
Ajinai’s compulsion for evolution is spurred, in part, by the numerous other bands in Beijing’s folk rock scene, especially in its growing Mongolian music scene. That niche has grown into thriving sub genre and its biggest band, Hanggai, hosts its own eponymous annual festival where its peers are invited onstage to play. Hugjiltu was a cofounder of Hanggai from 2005-2009. But unlike his former band– which favours more hard rock tendencies in its rendition of Mongolian folk— Ajinai instead built its reputation on subtler, more traditional rhythms.
But now, the band is attempting to diversify its repertoire. The new disc’s differs in many ways from Ajinai’s 2010 self titled debut, and chief among those changes is Synthesis’ production, which is far more polished and slick, compared to their last album’s rustic, weathered tones.
And yet, Ajinai hasn’t abandoned its roots by any means. Synthesis’ opening track is “Yil,” an instrumental featuring a nearly century old flute recording of an aged Mongolian folk melody. Meanwhile the third track, “Four Seas,” is, according to the record’s press release: “A Mongolian drinking song sung with friends and guests visiting from afar. Part of the melody is an adaptation of the Appalachian fiddle melodies and to reinforce the theme of friendship that spans great distances.”
And as Ajinai embarked on long journeys of their own, they began to worry about how fans in new locales could possibly relate to such exotic melodies. This was especially the case this past fall, when Ajinai was, according to a press release: “selected as one of a handful of bands from over 850 applicants worldwide to participate in the WOMEX 2014’s showcase selection on October 23 in Spain.”
“I got scared thinking that maybe foreign audiences wouldn’t understand us at all,” says Ajinai bassist Qiu Weiming, who is and tall, gangly, and who wears his hair in dread lock like braids. He adds: “I shouldn’t have been worried, because music has no borders.”
Guitarist Li Zhiwei concurs, adding: “In Europe, fans were friendlier and seemed to have a more direct link to the music. I loved playing there because people seemed to be more open, and it was really comfortable to play there under such a warm and sun.”
Qiu agrees, on both counts, saying: “I really liked the environment, everything was beautiful. It didn’t feel like you were travelling, so much as living in a perfect picture. And the fans there, they really liked us. In China, it seemed to take a lot longer for that to happen, it was a bit slower.”
Hugjiltu says China’s folk music scene and overall rock scene are developing so quickly that new fans should latch on to new bands in shorter order. He says that even his parents, who are an atypically traditional Mongolian couple, have grown accustomed to his globe trotting touring. “They just ask if I’m safe and where I am,” he says with a laugh about his elder’s nonchalantness during Ajinai’s recent European legs. Hugjiltu adds that only one of his relatives still harbours some novelty for his jet setting ways: “My nephew really gets happy. He’s always WeChatting me to ask “uncle what place have you gone?’ And he gets so excited his mom shows him pictures of the new places I’ve travelled to to perform.”
Ajinai’s China tour will kick off in Shanghai tonight at the QSW club at 9pm. After that, the band will perform the following gigs:
Ningbo on November 15, 9pm @ Ningbo Chengmen Kou Yin Culture Center
Hangzhou on November 16, 9pm @ 酒球会
Yi Wu on November 17, 9pm @ 隔壁酒吧
Shenzhen on November 21, 8.30pm @ 渡堂
Zhuhai on November 22, 8pm @ 文艺青年
Guangzhou on November 23, 8pm @ 191 space
For more information, visit: http://site.douban.com/a-ji-nai/