Jazz in Mongolia – the unofficial version

Northern Lights: Deb Rasmussen, vocals; Keith Smith, guitar;Simon Fisk,

bass; Robin Tufts, percussion

-by Deb Rasmussen

I’d like to share with you the story of how the Giant Steppes Jazz Festival and the Jazz Exchange came to be. It’s a very nice story, and I think it’s a story that might be helpful and encouraging to anyone thinking about starting a new and, what many might think, an unlikely venture. I think it also reinforces that you never know what might happen in response to your words or actions.

I’ve been working in Mongolia since 1996 when I spent most of a year on a study of how nomadic herders had adjusted to life in a market economy. I had studied music seriously in my youth, but somehow I got sidetracked and ended up with a couple degrees in agricultural economics. For the past 15 years I’ve worked in Calgary for Agriteam Canada managing international development projects. It’s work I’m passionate about but, unfortunately, music fell by the wayside.

It was Mongolia that brought music back to me. Towards the end of that first project in Mongolia, I met an Australian singer/songwriter (David O’Conner) who was volunteering for Radio Mongolia and Keith Hudson, a Brit who was working at the local mint printing the Mongolian script. Ulaanbaatar has always had a great dance/club scene, but ten years ago, other entertainment was pretty limited so we started doing British pub nights with folk music and other goings on. People would join in with music, recitations and, one night, a Mongolian mime artist joined the fun. After coming back to Canada, I got serious about music again and went to one of Vivianne Cardinal’s jazz workshops, which led to going to the Banff Center’s jazz vocal workshops with Sheila Jordon and Jay Clayton in 2000 and 2001.

Back to Mongolia … When I’m there, I rent a room from a lady who’s a real character. Maria was a professional singer and entertainer before having a career in law. She speaks five languages and sings in seven. Maria introduced me to Pujevdorj (Puji), a prominent composer and performer who has a strong interest in jazz. Puji is a good friend of Ganbat’s and they had formed the first post-transition jazz band in Mongolia, the “Black and White Band”. I started going to some jazz nights in Ulaanbaatar and began carrying in charts and real books for Puji whenever I went back to Mongolia. Through Puji, I also met Khulaan, a tremendously talented young woman determined to sing jazz. It was at one of these jazz nights in 2001 when I first met Bob Bellows. Ganbat was also there, but we didn’t really meet at that time.

In November 2001, David O’Conner and I were both back in Mongolia. At the jazz workshop in Banff that summer, Randy Halberstadt had said to me

“Deb, your stories about jazz in Mongolia are so interesting, you should write an article for Downbeat”.

One night, David O’Conner called me up and said,”Deb, I’m out of material for my radio show. Can I interview you about the work you’re doing in Mongolia?”.

“Yes, as long as you’ll help me interview some jazz musicians to do this article for Downbeat”.

Both sets of interviews got done, but the article for Downbeat has never yet been written. But during that interview with the jazz musicians, the question was asked, “What’s your biggest constraint to playing jazz in Mongolia?” And the answer was access to the music. No songs on the radio, no books, no recordings. They were playing and trying and creating and adapting in almost complete isolation.

Sure, music is on the internet, but when the average monthly salary is $50 – $75/month, you don’t buy a computer or spend too much time online in an internet cafe listening to “the repertoire”. Remembering the wonderful listening library at the Banff Center, I asked the musicians if they thought a listening library would be helpful and they thought the idea was good. That stuck in my mind for a long time.

It was not until 2002 that I really got to know Ganbat. Puji introduced us just as Ganbat was heading off to do a summer jazz workshop at the Berklee school in Boston. We got together a few times just to go through tunes and ended up at a couple of jazz parties and jam sessions before he left. I was back in Mongolia in the fall of 2002 and the idea of the jazz library was still in my head. Ganbat, now back from Berklee, also thought it was a good idea, and we started to think about doing a benefit concert (pass the hat at the door) to raise money to purchase some CDs and books.

The main issue was where the library would be kept, where it could be maintained safely, without disappearing out the door, or getting locked in one person’s office where no one else could access it. I mentioned it to a couple of friends and they told me about the Arts Council of Mongolia, which had just been formed in 2001/2002. The Executive Director, Ariunaa, was very supportive. It turned out that the Arts Council had a music management project at the University of Arts and Culture. The Arts Council could give the library a “home” until a permanent home was found for it in one of the music teaching schools. The University of Arts and Culture has now become the permanent home of the jazz library.

We quickly organized the benefit concert. I was due to leave Mongolia just a few days later and Ganbat was off in Russia doing business, so it was really questionable if we could pull it off. Just as Ariunaa and I were meeting to decide if the Arts Council could support the Library and organize promo for the concert, Ganbat got close enough to Ulaanbaatar to come back into cell phone range. We talked to him and the decision was made – Ganbat could organize the musicians and venue on that short notice and Ariunaa and I, through our respective contacts, could get the people. Three days later we had a full house of 200 people and we got the funding needed to start the library. I bought the materials in Canada and between the suitcases of myself and other travelers we got the materials back to the Arts Council of Mongolia.

In November 2003, I was doing a small demo recording with Keith Smith, John Hyde and Robin Tufts. While we were doing that, Ganbat emailed me to see if I would be in Mongolia in May 2004. He was trying to get Bob Bellows to come back and wanted to do a concert. The idea was thrown out about bringing some Canadian musicians along, which quickly grew to the idea of a festival and a jazz workshop for teaching. Why stop there … why not have Ganbat and Khulaan come back to Canada to study after the Festival. Ganbat was keen and the idea of the jazz exchange started. We would begin with the Giant Steppes Jazz Festival in July 2004 and follow-up with Ganbat and Khulaan studying in Canada that fall.

We couldn’t get the funding in 2004 to get Northern Lights (Keith, John and Robin) to Mongolia, but the Giant Steppes went on and was a great success. The Arts Council stepped up to the plate again and provided us with logistical support and used their fundraising and ticket sales avenues. Ganbat did the programming and put the musicians through all their paces. I didn’t do much – suggested some schedules, did some budgeting and then showed up to sing. More than 700 people come out over the three nights (two sold out performances and scalpers working one of them) and the event broke even with a minimum amount of financial support ($1,300 USD in total; the rest was ticket sales at the door).

The Canadian side of the exchange experienced a few bumps. Khulaan couldn’t get a visa and the 44 North Koreans refugees that scaled the wall of the Embassy in Beijing and swarmed the Immigration Section in early October 2004 shelved Ganbat’s application for so long that we had to reschedule the entire original program into January 2005. Finally it all came together and Ganbat got to Calgary. Mount Royal College was extremely helpful and Keith, John, Robin and Bruce were wonderful, giving freely of their time and friendship. At the end of Ganbat’s stay in Canada, we had a concert at the Beatniq Jazz and Social Club with a program of standards, originals and Mongolian folk and pop tunes set into a jazz format.

Ganbat’s dream was to go back to Mongolia and focus on playing and promoting jazz and eventually opening a pop and jazz music school. This has all happened. Encouraged by his daughters, he sold his construction business and opened the Mealody Restaurant and Jazz Club in 2006. Then he formed the Giant Steppes of Jazz NGO whose members include some of Mongolia’s most influential musicians and business leaders. The NGO will host the Giant Steppes Jazz Festival every two or three years as well as other activities to promote jazz and provide jazz education opportunities for local musicians. A wonderful addition to this collection of international musical friends has been Steve Tromans, a jazz pianist and composer from Britain, who moved to UB in May 2006 to teach English for a year while he took a sabbatical from his music work. Steve and Ganbat met immediately through the help of the Arts Council and have formed the Steve Tromans U-Bop Band. In July 2006, Steve and Ganbat opened the Jazz Academy and began to teach jazz theory and performance. So much for the sabbatical!

Once the NGO formed and the Festival was a certainty for 2006, we started looking again for financial support in Canada to take the band to Mongolia. The Cultural Relations Program through the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA) seemed to be a fit and we worked hard to get a good proposal submitted to them in time. We were very fortunate to get the proposal approved quickly and Northern Lights (now Bruce, Keith, John and Robin) will be at the Giant Steppes Jazz Festival. In addition, Bob Bellows will be coming back for his sixth visit to Mongolia and the U-Bop Band will be the host band. With this, Ganbat’s dreams are really coming true – he’s playing and supporting jazz full time and will be able to return the hospitality and support that he was shown by his friends in Canada.

When we’re finished with the Giant Steppes Festival this year, Ganbat will come back to Canada with Degi, a classical and contemporary violinist who is one of Mongolia’s most famous young musicians, and Khulaan, the gifted young vocalist. They will continue their jazz education at Mount Royal College and the University of Saskatchewan and collaborate again with the Canadian musicians, creating new sounds and interpretations of the jazz idiom. With the Giant Steppes Jazz Society now established, Steve Tromans living in Mongolia and the Jazz Academy open, I think that Mongolian jazz is going to take flight.

This growth of jazz in Mongolia, the Listening Library, the Giant Steppes Festival and the Jazz Exchange has been a story about of a lot of coincidences, opportune meetings and some good luck, but mostly, I think it’s a testament to what a few people with a common dream can accomplish together. It’s been one of my most rewarding experiences and I’m deeply pleased to be a part of it.

The full Mongolian-Canadian collaboration consists of:

  • Keith Smith, guitar
  • Simon Fisk, bass
  • Robin Tufts, percussion
  • Deb Rasmussen, vocals
  • Odontungalag, Khuuchir (two-stringed violin)
  • Ganbolt, Morin Khuur (horse-head fiddle)
  • Ganzorig, Morin Khuur and Khuumii (throat singing)

Ganbolt and Ganzorig play together in the duo/ensemble called Altai Khangai

An in-Canada tour will begin in Vancouver with a performance at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research Conference “Contemporary Mongolia – Transitions, Development and Social Transformations” on November 16th.From there, the group would il travel to Alberta to further develop their collaborative materials during residency at the Banff Centre and to conduct performances at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal College in Calgary.Following Calgary, a performance will be conducted at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and will conclude in Ottawa at a reception hosted by the embassy of Mongolia on the joint occasions of the 35th Anniversary and Proclamation of the Mongolian Republic Wednesday, November 26. Invitees to the reception will be Canadian Government officials, members of the HC and Senate, the Diplomatic community in Ottawa and all those who work with Mongolia.

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5 Responses to Jazz in Mongolia – the unofficial version

  1. I bet this was a really cool trip.

  2. Your site is also very interesting, very calming effect just reading it. Will spend more time with certain areas. Well done and good luck with your work.

  3. Ernie says:

    Don't need luck, baby. I'm that good.

  4. Ernie says:

    Yeah, that was a slight against the Mongols, faithful Beelzebub. Marketing's on me to re-file something from the archives as "North" "South" and "West" China every week, and the pickings are getting slim. I thought dialectics negated quality, but I was wrong. It's marketing.

  5. Impuras says:

    Eigentlich kann mir mogolischen Jazz nur sehr schwerr vorstellen. Stellt doch einfach mal ein Videoclip ein

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