“For me, a musician’s first responsibility is to bring people joy.” Hugjiltu of Ajinai
Ajinai’s sound is built around the resonant tones of the horse-head fiddle and the other-worldly rumble of traditional Mongolian throat-singing, a combination which directly conveys the expansive solitude of the Inner Mongolian grasslands, as well as the rugged spirit of the nomadic way of life. For years, lead vocalist/instrumentalist Hugjiltu has been at the core of a Mongolian folk music revival that has taken root in Beijing, China, once capitol of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, and still home to a large ethnic Mongolian community. Resisting the commercialization of his traditional heritage, Hugjiltu walked away from an international recording contract to form Ajinai expressly as a vehicle for promoting the spiritual heart of Mongolian culture in the modern age. In the Mongolian language, “ajinai” means a powerful steed —a fitting symbol for the nomadic worldview that informs Ajinai’s music, as well as for dynamic surges between musical past and present that characterize their sound.
Artist Q&A: Ajinai (China)
Responses by Hugjiltu: bandleader, vocalist, instrumentalist.
Translation by Joshua Dyer
1. Tell us a little bit about Mongolia and the culture (and music) that influences your sound.
My family is has always been involved in Mongolian music, so I have been surrounded by it since an early age. I’ve played horse-head fiddle for many years, and studied various Mongolian vocal techniques. After coming to Beijing from Inner Mongolia, I met a lot of musicians playing other styles of music, and we began to work together in more modern formats, while trying to preserve the feeling of traditional Mongolian folk music. For a while I was doing Mongolian songs in a rock style, but too much of the traditional flavor was lost. Then I started experimenting with compositions and arrangements that were truer to the spirit of Mongolian music, forcing the modern instruments to adapt to the music, rather than dominate it. That was the motivation for forming Ajinai.
2. What has been the highlight of your performing career?
Every performance is a highlight for me, but I guess I could say my collaboration with Bela Flek and the Sparrow Quartet in 2006 in Beijing left the deepest impression. Bela has an amazing ability to quickly grasp and blend with any musical mood. Since he didn’t understand the words I was singing, he wanted the stage set-up to give him a clear view of me. He was able to perfectly match his paying to the the emotions he saw in my face. His eyes, ears and hands are totally connected that way. He’s an amazing musician.
3. What excites you about performing at the BaliSpirit Festival? Do you do yoga?
I’m looking forward to seeing the beach in Bali, and getting some sunshine. And I look forward to meeting the other performers. For me, music is about making friends, finding new people to collaborate with, and sharing some good times. I don’t do yoga, but I’m definitely going to give it a try.
4. What kind of audience response do you anticipate for your first performance in Indonesia?
I think they’ll like our music, especially the local Balinese audience. The Balinese also have well-preserved traditional music, so I think our music will have a special resonance for them.
5. What are your plans for the rest of the year? Will you hit the recording studio? Head off on tour?
We’re hoping to record a new CD, and we will tour Europe in July and August. At the end of the year we will tour China.
6. The BaliSpirit Festival is about social action, as well as great music. Do you feel that you have an obligation to represent your culture through music?
For me, a musician’s first responsibility is to bring people joy. Of course, we are also happy that we can use our music to help people. As a ethnic Mongolian living in China, I feel that the preservation of our traditional culture is very important. We’re an ethnic minority here, so this is a great responsibility. We have to interest young people in their own culture. Music is a great way to do that.