Heritage, Horses, and Tengger Cavalry: Inside the World of Mongolian Folk Metal
Listen to the stirring title track from Tengger Cavalry's new album, 'Blood Shaman Sacrifice.'
All photos courtesy of Tengger Cavalry
In many ways, Nature Ganganbaigal is a typical NYU student. He’s a smart, creative, thoughtful twentysomething who takes his work very seriously and is still a bit bewildered by the chaos that is New York City. He likes cider, and smiles often. He moved here to get his Master’s in music composition for film and video games, and turned down offers from universities overseas because he figured it might be difficult for him to feel welcome in tightly-knit European community, explaining that, “New York is more open-minded, and everybody comes to this country. It’s an immigrant’s country.”He was also drawn by the metal scene, which makes a lot of sense given his extracurricular activities. Nature’s not just a mild-mannered dude with a quick grin, he’s also the leader and visionary behind
Born in Beijing to an ethnic Mongolian family, Nature started the band in 2010, but got into heavy metal much earlier. He recalls seeing the “yellow label” metal CDs that used to be readily available in stores, and name-checks the usual suspects for a budding headbanger’s introduction to the dark arts: Metallica, Lamb of God, Slipknot. The latter caused some consternation at home when he was younger and still lived at home in a room plastered with metal posters. “My parents didn’t understand why I’d want to listen to it, especially because I was so into Slipknot. Every time my mother would walk into my room, she’d think it was gross,” he laughs, echoing the experience of so many other high school heshers, “She had this huge misunderstanding why I was into this horror culture.”
His parents can appreciate his love for metal now, but back then, they weren’t the only ones who looked askance at Nature’s musical choices. In the forty-odd years since it first came into the world kicking and screaming, metal’s bad reputation has gone global. “When I was in high school, people thought I was crazy. My music teacher thought I did drugs because I listened to metal. It’s just so many weird assumptions. If you listen to metal, you’re definitely into drugs, trying to end humanity. It’s so stupid.”
“I thought that America would be more open-minded, but I talked to people and realized it’s not like that; people are messed up in their mind,” he continues, his frustration apparent. “There’s so many good metal bands that are positive, and I don’t believe it has to be violent. I know so many metal guys that are vegetarian that are not like that. It’s so superficial for people to assume that because you are into metal, you’re into evil or violence, and it pisses me off so much. Fuck you, you know nothing about us.”
His tastes matured as he got older, and shifted away from angst towards something more powerful. By the time Nature was headed to college, the seeds for Tengger Cavalry had begun to germinate. “Slipknot was this really angry band, and represented the hatred I had toward social pressure, the way Chinese people think, and how they mess with me. And then I gradually thought I needed something more than hatred, I wanted courage and valor. Viking and power metal gave me more positive energy. They had an attitude like “I don’t give a shit about these people, I fight my own battle.” You don’t have to deal with the people that drag you down, it’s like “I don’t have to swear at you guys all the time!” he grins. “In college, I did have a band called Hell Savior which was a really traditional, old-school thrash metal thing. I just realized it’s cool, the Satan stuff, but not something that can touch your heart. If you want to become an artist, it’s more than anger. At the end of the day, the reason you listen to this music every day is because you want something that will touch your heart with something beautiful and not just hatred, like “I hate the world!” I think metal is beyond that.”
His tightly-held beliefs in Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism provide a deeper source for the positive message behind his music. “In Mongolia, it’s two religions combined together, so I believe in both and put the most of what I believe in into my music. It’s a universal thing, it’s not like if you don’t believe in my religion you’re going to die. Like nature, everyone can believe in nature,” he explains. “I long to put something beautiful into my music, like horses, grass, love, rocks, sky. With Tengger Cavalry, people can feel the hardcore toughness but also the love and compassion.” The band’s very name reflects how seriously Nature takes his spirituality—in Mongolian shamanism, “tengger” is the word for "sky father," or “god.” Every time Tengger Cavalry rides into battle onstage or off, they’re flying the banner of heaven.
Living in a metropolis like New York City has certainly been an adjustment for someone whose home-away-from-home is all grasslands and wide-open space, but Nature’s found a way to cope: every week, he heads down to Jamaica Bay to ride horses. A recent trip to Austin to visit a friend struck a chord, too. “Genghis Khan conquered different countries but he didn’t just oppress one country. He saw a lot of countries, experienced a lot and knew what he wanted. He has a really American spirit, he’s all about freedom. Same with Mongolians, it’s all about freedom. We are the cowboys of China. I went to Texas and it was so cool. They had a longhorn ranch and I talked to the cowgirls,” he enthuses. He also experienced a few hours of SXSW, and had an enlightening brush with our political system. “In Texas, they told me about the Republicans’ ideas, which is… wooow,” he ducks his head, widening his eyes and chuckling.
Seeing someone who grew up under China’s Communist Party blanche at the policies proposed by our own lawmakers was a bit sobering, but as Nature emphasizes, it’s still quite different. “It’s crazy, but you get used to it. You can’t do anything to them. You have to swallow it. You hate them, but at the end of the day they control everything so you just have to obey. You’re just a citizen. They’re a huge group. They have armies, weapons, you can’t fight with them,” he explains. “Our government makes the people disconnect from the world. Like, that’s a huge thing! C’mon, we don’t have Facebook in China!”
He’s had it particularly tough just by virtue of existing as a person with Mongolian heritage. China has a long, shameful history of repressing its ethnic minorities (and most of its citizens in general), and it’s affirming to see how Nature’s been able to channel that negativity into something that actively celebrates his roots. “My family is from a province in China that was a huge Mongolian settlement in ancient times. Genghis Khan invaded into the south, and there’s tons of Mongolians that never made it back; they just live in China forever. Chinese people from the north have strong Mongolian blood, but people don’t know that,” he explains. “You don't have the space to appreciate your own culture.”
Tengger Cavalry aims to change that, or at least create a space for other Mongolian people to celebrate their shared history. “It started as a solo project in the beginning. There was Viking and Celtic metal, so why not have Mongolian metal? We have our own stuff, we could totally combine it. More and more people were like, “Oh, that’s cool, maybe it’s worth a shot on the stage,” so I brought in more people to perform.”
Right now, Nature is currently busily promoting a re-recorded and expanded version of the album Blood Shaman Sacrifice, which first saw a limited release in China in 2010. He handled the recording himself in a studio in NYC, and it’s the most cinematic and engrossing Tengger Cavalry recording yet—totally modern yet wholly in touch with its ancient roots. Heavy thrash riffs mingle with black metal bombast and sinewy Eastern melodies, throat singing, frame drum, shaman bells, death growls, Mongolian fiddle, and the sound of the traditional horsehead fiddle that Nature brought back from China, holding the precious instrument carefully on his lap for the entire flight. “You know how a long time ago they had a famous country song called “United Airlines Broke My Guitar?” I didn’t want to have to write a Mongolian version!”
Once Blood Shaman Sacrifice comes out May 18, the future of Tengger Cavalry will be studded with question marks. Nature hopes to land a deal with a bigger label for the band’s next release (he’s got his eye on Napalm Records, an Austrian outfit that’s known for its love of folk metal) and is mulling over his ambitions to tour the States.
“Right now it’s a little awkward because right now we’re more of a studio band since they’re all in China and I’m in New York. So I was thinking of maybe recruiting them to come here. I’m not sure because I’m still trying to finish my Master’s Degree,” he says. “To play here, we either have to recruit American people to play or we plan a big tour from like San Francisco to here. I think that will happen in the future, with planning a tour you need to make sure you get an audience to show up and not like three people.”
He’d like to tour Europe as well, but the band’s origins present a problem. “ My country is socialist, so anywhere is hard to get to,” he says ruefully. “It’s hard to get into other countries because they don’t believe in you yet. China wants to do more business with the Western world now because we’re trying to be more open-minded, trying our best to appreciate more. But for Western countries it’s hard to check your background ‘cause you’re from a socialist country, so it’s still different. Coming here for school, I experienced some things with American customs and cops, they were not very nice. They’re rude to aliens. I understand though, they need to protect their people.”
Overall, the past five years have been good to Tengger Cavalry; they’ve released six full-length albums, and are about to release their seventh through an American label. They’ve built up a devoted fan base, played big festival shows in China, won awards, and Beijing—whose metal scene Nature swears is bigger and more intense than NYC’s—has even spawned more Mongolian folk metal bands, like the vibrant Nine Treasures and punk-influenced Hanggai. Nature sees this as a big plus for the Asian metal community. "As a group, it’s easier to know that there’s other Asian metal bands. Like, we don’t just have sushi or sticky rice, we have metal too," he emphasizes. "We want people to know we’re metal, too."
Nature is happy to report that their message has made an impact, as well. “We have some fans from China, Turkey and Europe that messaged me because my music makes them feel happy, and helps them face everything in life. I love that!" he grins. "That’s what life should be! You kick life’s ass and you shouldn’t hate it or feel afraid of it. Enjoy it!”
Note: A quote has been removed from this article by Nature's request because, as he says, he doesn't want to get into "political trouble."
'Blood Shaman Sacrifice' is out May 18 via Metal Hell Records.
Kim Kelly is following the ancient call on Twitter - @grimkim