“Kush” of Giant Steppes of Jazz: Self-taught jazz musicians learn from our workshops

By Michelle Tolson

Giant Steppes of Jazz Festival, running October 2nd to 6th, is an international jazz festival based in Ulaanbaatar with roots going back to 2006. Since that time, the festival has grown from an every two year event to an annual event. The festival was created by the Giant Steppes of Jazz NGO, which was established by jazz enthusiasts. The NGO is dedicated to: organizing the festival; conducting fundraising in support of jazz artists and projects; and to preparing TV and FM radio programs on jazz history and music, according to their mission statement. Z.Enkhmunkh, otherwise known as “Kush,” is a board member of the NGO and is also a local jazz artist who is part of the duo “Kush and Oyuka.” He has answered a few questions about the upcoming festival this week.

-According to the history pages of the Steppes of Jazz NGO website, jazz is not so much of a new thing in Mongolia as its history goes back to the time of the Bogd Khan. Apparently, a musician from the US spent some time playing at the winter and summer palace of the previous Bogd Khan. What can you tell us about these roots of jazz in Mongolia that go back almost 100 years?
-To be honest with you, I’m not really very familiar with this specific story from 100 years ago. And it is not easy to get to know any hundred-year old story—not only about jazz, but also about the music industry in general because of the fact that the administrative [government] method was different then. Our government turned into a people’s government—what we call soviet—until 1989. We have only been provided with a very limited source of information about our music industry, especially before the 1950s. At the same time, when our society changed to soviet, we became aware of a music school which was established in 1937 and this gave us a huge opportunity to learn classical styles which things are now based on. I have heard that some of the musicians and composers were able to learn a significant amount of jazz when they had studied oversea, mostly in Russia (the old USSR).
What we mentioned in our website is pretty basic enough to know how far the roots went by back, I think.
-The 6th Annual Giant Steppes of Jazz Festival is gearing up to start this week, October 2nd –6th. You’ve been working on the project for some time now. What can you tell us about the history of the NGO and how you’ve seen it evolve since you’ve taken part in it?
-The history of the NGO is really interesting. Basically, it was established by people who are jazz enthusiasts.
Oyuka and I used to play at a lounge called “Level” near the Ulaanbaatar Department Store. This was in July 2008, when some of the volunteers who had worked together during the Culture Naadam event came over and listened to our performance. We were playing “What a wonderful world” by Louie Armstrong which was one of the very few jazz songs out of our repertoire at that moment. One of the new mates was Oggie, the development director of the Arts Council of Mongolia. She said “I want to introduce you to a guy who is connected with the jazz NGO,” after the gig that night. [At that time] I didn’t have any idea that we even had a jazz NGO. A few days later she invited me to meet Enkhbat –the former director of the Giant Steppes of Jazz NGO, who is still on the board team. [They were] talking about the international festival, and encouraging me to work with them as we were having lunch together. I had never been involved either in organizing or managing an event [before], except for the Culture Naadam Festival.
I started as a coordinator in 2008, then event manager in 2009, and then became a board member last year. I can’t draw any conclusions on how GSJ got bigger; likewise my other board members have all had a hand in it from the beginning. Even now, I am the youngest member of the board. However, I can see a significant difference over the last few years. Music is to [listen to]. If we don’t have any audience to hear the jazz, it is hard to continue our events. I wouldn’t say there weren’t many fans of jazz, in fact there were some. But I can really see people are getting much more enthusiastic about jazz through the Festivals, especially since it became an annual Festival in 2010. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm from international musicians has dramatically increased—which is a good sign, I think. This year we received a record of nearly 30 applicants. People are getting much more familiar with us, not only locals but also internationals.
We are looking forward to the GSJ Festival turning into one of the Asian Jazz Festivals in the future. I really want to see that!
-Do you attribute this success to the festival becoming more popular or is this also influenced by the growing popularity of the country? Have expats and travelers with an interest in jazz learned about your program from spending time in the country or has this growing interest come from the NGO’s network with other jazz festivals?
-As I said, it really is getting bigger. Why? Because on one side, the local listeners have grown a lot lately, especially young people, who are one in every three persons in Mongolia. On the other side, musicians who are interested in Mongolia’s festival from overseas have substantially increased [in number]. It is both [situations], which cross at one right point. How do we recruit the international artists? Basically in three ways: They contact us through 1) our website, 2) the local embassy and 3) our friends or when we travel somewhere. Deb Rasmussen is the Canadian based international artist liaison for the NGO and runs it extremely well.
Plus, I would really like to mention our supporters. We have the kindest jazz supporters that I have ever seen—for instance the local embassy, consulate, venues, hotels and some other organization that we associate with. It would have been extremely hard to make all this happen if they didn’t support us. We are grateful for them.
-Has the Mongolian expat community in other countries helped contribute to the festival’s growing popularity? Have Mongolian musicians traveled more to other jazz festivals?
-I don’t think that I have seen any Mongolian expat in other countries that have helped in [our] development. But I have seen international artists who have participated in our Festival help us.
Good question—almost no one. Recently Arga Bileg, the ethno jazz band, has been willing to participate in a Festival somewhere in the States. We really should give this more effort as jazz itself is such an international genre.
-What do you think is unique about the jazz scene in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia compared to other countries? How would you compare it?
-It’s an interesting question. The jazz scene here has very few bands within one picture. There is the big band “Bayan Mongol,” the standard jazz band “Pause,” ethno jazz band “Arga Bileg,” “Black and White,” and couple of singers, including Khulan, Misheel and maybe a few more, and my Kush and Oyuka duo.
The other aspect in our jazz scene is that we should focus more on improvisation. You know, improvisation is the main thing about playing jazz. Again, we need to be educated.
Arga Bileg is a unique band in Mongolia which has three Morin Khuurs [horse head fiddles--indigenous instrument to Mongolia], one percussion, one drum, one Yatga (Mongolian harp), and a piano. And the Morin Khuur players also [use] throat singing. The interesting thing about the band is that the piano mostly plays the jazz harmonies, plus the harp is tuned to the scale of jazz harmonies. That is the very first instrument that has been tuned in jazz, possibly. And they play both arranged Mongolian songs and their own composed music in an ethno style. Overall, Mongolian traditional music could be considered the unique characteristic that could be put [out] internationally.
I refuse to tell you good things about my own band. [Editor’s note: “Kush and Oyuka” is a very popular local jazz band].
-I notice that you also play the Morin Khuur (Horse Head Fiddle). Have you ever incorporated this into your jazz music?
-I haven’t tried it yet. It is both because I haven’t learned jazz harmony theory completely, and because technically the Morin Khuur is a very challenging instrument. But I have just mentioned that Arga Bileg is attempting to [work] the traditional Mongolian style into ethno modern jazz.
-I noticed that this year’s lineup includes workshops. How do the workshops contribute to the development of the local music scene?
-Each year we see the workshop as a vital part of the Festival. It is due to the fact that none of Ulaanbaatar’s music schools have a jazz music faculty or department. It is reasonable to be said that this is why there is almost no jazz musician scene booming in Ulaanbaatar—because of the educational system. Otherwise, the local jazz musicians here learn jazz only by themselves, or overseas. They really seem to learn jazz when you see their attendance.
On the other hand, the music school students [studies] from the Music and Dance College are based on classical music, [which] gives them chance to learn something new through the workshops, as the contemporary singing department students from the Arts and Culture University take some lessons from the international jazz singers. The workshop goes very well, because it is something new to them. However, it is not enough to give them a lesson on the whole of jazz theory once at a year. But let’s say it is better than zero. Like other countries, we are hoping the head of the Music College decides to [create] a jazz department soon.
This year’s schedule runs from October 2nd—6th. For information (including their daytime workshop), please visit their facebook page or call 9191-9011, 8978-9011, 8975-9011, 9400-2122. Here is a peek at the evening events:
October 2nd-Mongolian State Opera and Ballet Theater, 19:30-21:30pm
Jazz Night Jam at the Kempinski Hotel, 22:30pm-24:00am
October 3rd-Jazz Night Jam, Kempinski Hotel, 20:00-22:00
Jazz Night Jam, Blue Sky, 22:00-24:00
October 4th—18:00-19:30 Collaborate concert, Military Song and Dance Ensemble
20:00-22:00—Jazz Night Jam, Kempinski Hotel
22:00—Jazz Night Jam, Blue Sky Tower
October 5th—20:00-22:00 Gala Concert, Blue Sky Tower
Tickets can be purchased at several outlets, including:

Mongolian State Opera & Ballet Theater
Kempinski Hotel
Blue Sky Tower
Rosewood restaurant
Hi-Fi CD shop
Turning Point Café

Tickets for the opening concert at the Opera House are now on sale at any of the above outlets : 35,000 MNT for seats in the Grand Circle (Parter) and 25,000 MNT for seats in the balcony (Beletage).


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Posted by on Oct 1 2012. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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