Listening to Metal in the World: Music, Identity, and the Other

‘Hey Jarrod, you like world music right? Check out this Mongolian band called 13th Bell’.

I received this text a few weeks ago and was quite piqued by their choice of words. ‘World music’, what exactly is that? More often than not, this genre of music has been constantly utilised to categorise songs that sample and/or include musical elements that are derived from a particular minority ethnic group. More specifically, language and vocal technique are the primary factors that allude to this strange term. I remember as a child, I listened to a song called Witchi-Tai-To by Brewer and Shipley and the entire experience was quite intriguing. The chorus consisted of a peyote chant that was accompanied with a tabla keeping rhythm and an acoustic guitar. As an anthropologist of sound and music, I am often loosely referred to as an ethnomusicologist, which I always found to possess a curious prefix. I want to take this opportunity to take a step back and revisit the elusive meaning of what the prefix ethno means, and whether it is analogous to the study of ‘world’ music (or ‘traditional’). Many times, I am asked about and ask myself: what is so appealing about experiencing music that is so distant from your own culture, what is music’s connection with social identities, and why is it so pertinent to both the performer(s) and the listener(s)?

Witchi-Tai-To by Brewer and Shipley, originally sung by Native American musician Jim Pepper

We cannot escape talking about these issues without first acknowledging the rise of globalisation and the new transnational flows of media, technology, and popular culture. Within this flow, music, in its broadest sense, becomes more and more transient and intersectional. Musical groups from, what we refer to as the ‘West’, adopt, record, and utilise ethnographic samples that often play the role of the exotic musical Other. This creates a sense of wonder and fantasy that has long plagued much of humanity leading to not-so-great results, such as colonisation and cultural degradation. Early anthropological texts often paint fantastical and alluring tales based on their observations of ‘savages’ from ‘primitive’ cultures. These stories carry with them certain shifts of power (im)balances, with the anthropologist playing the role of the voice of reason, the objective observer and sympathiser for the ‘uncivilised’. Over time, with the rise of cultural relativism and acknowledgement of positionality, the anthropologist too, becomes critical of themselves. Additionally, with the age of the internet, especially with the birth of audio streaming, accessibility to different kinds of ‘world music’ has brought this genre into the global contemporary consciousness. Here, ‘traditional’ becomes entangled in this web of complex relations with new technology, businesses and aesthetics.

In 2000, the ethnomusicologist Steven Feld notes that ‘… it has taken only one hundred years for sound recording technologies to amplify sonic exchange to a point that overwhelms prior and contiguous histories of travel, migration, contact, colonisation, diaspora, and dispersal’ (145). In this sense, the ‘world’ is brought to what he calls a marketplace expansion. This globalisation has afforded our ears the ability to travel around the world, so to speak, in the comfort of our homes while sitting on our symbolic armchairs. According to Feld, this cultural mixing shifts the experience of listening to music by means of stylistic, genericisation, hybridisation, and revitalisation.

So what has this got to do with listening to Mongolian metal music? Well, everything. Formed in 2016 and made popular through a myriad of talent shows and music competitions, the Mongolian band, The Hu, peaked in popularity around 2019 as audiences connected with their music through what my friend describes as ‘some kind of visceral connection with the music’. The galloping rhythm and the sounds of Mongolian instruments with the signature Khoomei or throat singing technique showcase yet another alluring, ‘exotic’ musical style. However this time, it is the Mongolians who are performing their own music on their own terms – creating a genre that I personally wouldn’t call metal music. The fascination for and demand for the exotic had birthed the rise of many more Mongolian musicians who adapt and create new hybridised styles of music for a global audience. Some popular groups that you can check out are: Khusugtun, Altan Urag, and Hanggai, to name a few. Of course, their repertoires do not only consist of heavy metal music and goosebumps-inducing vocal fries; they bring with them ballads, prayers or chants shaped to fit into the mould of ‘world music’ at large.

Khusugtun performing in the 2011 BBC Proms
Altan Urag’s Official Music Video of ‘Khukh Tolboton’
Hanggai performing in a Chinese talent show

Hybridisation and self-representation

Hybridised iterations of minority ethnic music, by ‘ethnic’ musicians (sometimes, the word ‘music’ doesn’t even exist to some cultures) have been going on for a long time, not even just in the ‘West’ but as a global movement. Take for example, the Paiwan, the focus of my current research. The closest word to music is ‘song’ (senay), which does not actually live up to the entire concept of ‘music’ according to the English language. I had always been told that ‘music’ is intertwined with everyday life, it is not separate nor an exclusive form of expression. Similarly, many Paiwan musicians also ‘world‘ their songs by including popular musical instruments and mixing lyrics from multiple languages such as Paiwan, Mandarin and English. This accessibility and application of language and musical styles, form a kind of ‘world music’ genre that applies mainstream ‘western’ musical sensibilities into their own musical world.

World music had always been a ‘thing’ in popular music, which really took flight during the ‘age of discovery’ that lasted from the 15th to 18th century. However, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when this type of musical emulation began, or how widely it has been adopted since. I am sure most of you are familiar with Claude Debussy, the late-19th and 20th French composer and his then-revolutionary use of the pentatonic scale, ‘inspired’ by Japanese music and art (especially ukiyo-e). However, such ‘inspiration’ has its limits. You may have heard about the relatively recent backlash to the German band, Enigma with their popular yet controversial song ‘Return to Innocence’, and the French group, Deep Forest, who both sampled an Amis weeding song (Ladhiw) and a Baegu lullaby (Rorogwela) respectively. Both groups faced harsh criticism from the public, especially Enigma, who faced a lawsuit for unauthorised use of their voices without crediting the singers.

World music today has moved with the times, learning from the mistakes of predecessors and also becoming internalised by musicians that belong to and are exposed to the global world. Minority ethnic musicians from within China have started to rise in popularity. In 2013, the competition, China Idol, propelled four indigenous singers into the limelight. Their incorporation of their musical heritage managed to win over the hearts of the general viewership in China and beyond. Yunggeima (Monpa), Alai (Kazakh), Tuo Yinfu (Hui) and Hulengsi (Mongol) became fan favourites after performing a ‘world music’ version of a Coco Lee song (想你的365天), which had steered them far in the competition – with Yunggeima being the runner up and Alai in sixth place. 

The fame that both Yunggeima and Alai had been bestowed sent them on a trajectory towards the global stage, where their music started to morph to fit the mould of what we know as ‘world music’. Singing her own arrangements of Tibetan Buddhist chants and adopting Tibetan vocal techniques, Yunggeima had been, in the eyes of her fans, an embodiment of exotic spirituality. Even her fans refer to her as a Goddess (女神), which she understandably is not comfortable with, but which she maintains anyway as part of her performer’s persona. Alai post-competition chooses to perform with a guitar, incorporating the Kazakh language, vocal techniques, and instruments while singing predominantly in Mandarin. Both Yunggeima and Alai live in China and therefore have a specific target audience to accommodate to. The idea of identity becomes enmeshed in the nexus of their musical performances and the persona that had endeared them to their fans. Therefore they are restrained from achieving true ‘global’ success, due to these parameters of performances. By extension, the ‘exotic’ and spiritual experience in their music could just be seen as the result of a highly curated kind of musicking. This would be different for Mongolian bands based in Mongolia.   

Mongolian metal, spirituality and identity-making

The apparent spiritual and zen-like ‘viscerality’ that we often experience in world music is already part of Mongolian cultural identity (see Tengriism). The galloping rhythm and vocal fry technique, which are characteristic of metal music, is also very similar to Mongolian music. Of course, the horse is essential to Mongolian communities and therefore it is not surprising and fortuitous to assume that it would play a role in their musical development.

Overtone singing, in its myriad names and techniques, has become something that everyone has heard at least once in their lives – whether consciously or otherwise. It is a naturally occurring phenomenon in the experience of sound. However, the Mongolians, among other overtone singing cultures, have managed to master amplifying this sound in various ways. The Mongolian identity is therefore much more prevalent in ‘Mongolian metal’ specifically because of all these parallels. I believe the introduction of Mongolian instruments (including the voice) is the primary component towards portraying ‘self’ into the musical moment. Instruments contain their own biography in which its musicality weaves in and out of a tapestry of relationships that include all parties – performer, listener, instrument. This tapestry transcends sociohistorical contexts and possesses a ‘sociality’ that doesn’t only have to be human, nor does it have to be ‘traditional’.

Watch this popular video of Alex Glenfield demonstrating some of the different techniques of overtone singing.

It is often a misnomer to think that authenticity in music is detrimental to its substance. I learnt this during my fieldwork in Taiwan when I asked a friend what she thought about the frequent addition of popular musical instruments such as a guitar, drum kit and a bass guitar, to accompany the performance of indigenous music that had always been sung a capella. This was something that puzzled me for a very long time, even after my fieldwork which led me to asking my friend that question. She responded, ‘I think it’s good. It shows that our culture is moving and progressing. Our music has always adopted the sounds of the environment, but now we are exposed to pop, rock, and jazz. Why can’t we incorporate those into our music then?’. She was right, of course. 

This is exactly what Feld meant by stylistic, genericisation, hybridisation and revitalisation. It made me reflect on Rice (2017) who mentioned how the constant reappropriation of self gives the music ‘… new meanings, and in that process creates a continually evolving sense of self, of identity, of community, and of “being in the world”’ (117). So, maybe Mongolian metal is an extension of the Mongolian social identity – it moves and adapts with the world, it is ‘being in the world’.

The next question is: why are non-Mongolians even more attracted to this genre? DeNora provides an ethnographic example where her interlocutor ‘Lucy’ uses music as a medium in which she can draw a connection between the musical material, her own identity, and a kind of social ideal. She ‘finds herself’, the ‘me in life’ within musical materials, in a manner that allows her to reflect on who she is and how she would like to be. DeNora writes,

‘viewed from the perspective of how music is used to regulate and constitute the self, the[se] “solitary and individualistic” practices … may be reviewed as part of a fundamentally social process of self-structuration, the constitution and maintenance of self. In this sense then, the ostensibly private sphere of music use is part and parcel of the cultural constitution of subjectivity, part of how individuals are involved in constituting themselves as social agents.’

(DeNora, 2000: 47-8)

In this sense, both the listener and performer engage in the same ‘visceral’ embodiment that moves from ‘public’ to ‘private’ spheres through an internalisation of the musical experience. 

Final thoughts

There is a self-regulating process in such musical encounters. It is a multi-faceted series of social relationships that appear to be a collective constitution of ‘self’. Each individual, from within their subjective spheres of relationality, constitutes themselves as a kind of ‘social agent’ (DeNora 2000: 48). This entangled web of relations therefore allows Mongolian metal to transcend beyond ‘world music’, with its lyrical, musical and functional traits – it is clear that there is a strong continuity in their musical practice. The agency of these musicians is evident through their creative (re)appropriation of popular music. With partial thanks to the accessibility of information through the world wide web, it is not too improbable to think that we have reached an epoch where ‘world music’ is obsolete, and cultural bearers create their own genres (about time), or simply just developed through equitable collaborations.  

When I watched the 13th bell music video for the first time, the first thing that struck me was the appropriation of native American clothing. It might not even be from any particular tribe, but it alluded to a kind of need to make themselves appear ‘different’ because Mongolian metal had become so mainstream in recent years. The scenery in the video was clearly not Mongolia, leaving the comment section confused. The lyrical and musical experience was also rather surreal. It was an interesting experience with the English translation of the lyrics, CGI effects, the signature Mongolian metal style and the exotic outfit all happening at once. 13th Bell, to me, represents the current state of what ‘world music’ is today. It had turned cultural appropriation on its head, like a tongue-in-cheek response to what ‘world music’ was and is, while also displaying collaborative efforts, for example, with an American production company (Cali Bros entertainment). I believe we are in the middle of a renaissance where Mongolian metal is redefining itself, with each band expanding outwards, appropriating and adapting visual and musical styles from around the world, pushing the limits of what terms like ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ mean (or doesn’t) today.

[Image of the Mongolian metal band Hanggai playing in a concert is sourced from Thesupermat, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Leave a Reply