Mongolian Rock n' Roll
by Vicki Rosenzweig
One of the odder things Lise Eisenberg and I did on our recent trip to Hong Kong was to attend a Mongolian rock and roll concert. It made perfect sense to us -- we were both thinking of Hong Kong as an adventure, and our trip overlapped with the Hong Kong International Arts Festival. Tengger and the Wolf Band weren't our only entertainment choices, even if we eliminated karaoke bars and only looked at the arts festival: we had missed Mark Morris Dance, but we could have seen the Montreal Philharmonic.
We both knew what a philharmonic orchestra would sound like. Mongolian rock and roll sounded appealingly exotic. All we knew about Tengger was from the festival posters, which mentioned awards from a Beijing arts festival and the Montreal International Film Festival. That was good enough for us to walk up to the ticket booth. I asked for cheap tickets for the following night. All gone. How about Friday at Tsuen Wan Town Hall? They had them, but, "Do you know where that is?" No, we didn't, and the question sounded a bit ominous. Were we going to be miles beyond mass transit, in a neighborhood where nobody spoke our language? Not one to scare off the customers, even customers who had no idea what they were buying, the cashier told us: you take the subway to the end of this line, then walk over here, for me it's about a 15-minute walk. Fine, here's my credit card, we'll take two of the HK$80 seats (that's about $10 US).
Getting dressed that morning, my obvious choice was my Flash Girls t-shirt: what better to wear to a concert by a rock band I'd never heard of than a shirt for a rock band that nobody in Hong Kong had ever heard of? I hadn't yet figured out that Hong Kong people never wear t-shirts, not even at rock concerts. It didn't really matter what I wore, though: as the only two white people in the balcony, we'd have stood out no matter what we wore, and were cheerfully overlooked in any case.
Tsuen Wan is one of Hong Kong's "New Towns." Half a million people live in high-rise buildings where a village of 20,000 stood 20 years ago. Along with the houses, the government has put up supermarkets, offices, schools, factories, and the Town Hall, which has offices, meeting rooms, a little cafe, and an auditorium. It felt a bit like Lincoln Center, without the "serious culture" overtones that Lincoln Center has even when it's trying to be casual. We were given a concert program listing all the songs (and Tengger's astrological sign, blood type, and favorite food). The pre-concert announcements, welcoming us to the International Arts Festival and asking us not to smoke or use cellular phones, were in both Cantonese and English. Policy, I guess: I doubt there were ten people there who spoke English but not Cantonese.
The concert was bilingual, but not in English: Tengger sang in Cantonese and Mongolian, and he explained the Mongolian songs in Cantonese.
So there we are, halfway around the world, not understanding a word of the songs, and the whole experience feels very familiar.
It's still a rock concert. Down on the stage, dry ice fog is swirling through colored lights as we wait for the show to start. The guys look like rock musicians, and the program cover is vaguely psychedelic, complete with something that might be a flying saucer.
The surprising thing about the concert was that it didn't feel or sound odd. The musical idiom was very familiar -- Western-style pop, with a few folk songs -- and I had the bizarre feeling that if I listened a little longer, the lyrics would start to make sense. They never did, of course: I don't know Cantonese or Mongolian. But everyone around me understood, and familiar cues told me the songs should make sense to me too.
The cues were so familiar that the whole experience did make sense. Lyrics aren't the point of most rock anyway, so why not Cantonese? Why not Mongolian folk songs instead of Irish? I didn't have to know the language to know that Tengger was telling the story, in Cantonese, before each Mongolian folk song. I didn't have to understand a word to recognize the ritual of introducing the band, though that was the only place I did understand a word: apparently the Cantonese words for "guitar" and "keyboards" are . . . "guitar" and "keyboards." Even without knowing the language, I knew the rules better than some people: a few got up to leave the first time the band left the stage. We knew better: regardless of language, the concert isn't over until the house lights come up. So everyone clapped for a while, and the band came back out and played a bit longer.
After the concert, I went downstairs and bought one of Tengger's CDs. I'd probably have bought a t-shirt if they'd been selling any, but nobody else would have.
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