Interview: Nature Ganganbaigal (Tengger Cavalry)
I’ve been waiting for this interview since Maryland Deathfest 2012. A selection of the Invisible Oranges staff sat huddled around a television and an Xbox, nursing our hangovers, listening to new music, dissecting one another’s ‘hit lists’ for the day.
Rhys Williams piped up. “Dude, put on that Tengger Cavalry record.”
What’s Tengger Cavalry? (Stupid me at the time. Rhys had already reviewed the album here.)
“A heathen folk-metal band from China.”
My first thought: that sounds like an awful idea. We slapped the album on anyway. Second thought: NOPE! GREAT IDEA! I was instantly taken by the group’s mix of Mongolian folk music and groovy metal riffs. Led by guitarist and vocalist Nature Ganganbaigal (formerly Zhang), the band has since proved prolific, recording and/or re-recording nearly an album per year. 2013’s The Expedition wound up on my year-end list at this site, while its successor, Ancient Call made those of both Rhys and Dan Lawrence (and would have made my honorable mentions had I chose to include any).
Pursuant to that praise, I exchanged emails with Ganganbaigal. The songwriter allows his eccentricity to flourish in his personal life as well as on record. Following the Tengger Cavalry Facebook feed opens a window into his mind, not only in terms of music but in terms of his love of farm animals, as well as the children’s animated television show My Little Pony. My exchange with Ganganbaigal, cleaned up for full English-language proficiency, follows below.
It’s good to finally speak with you. I’ve been listening to your music for several years, now, and while Tengger Cavalry is still relatively unknown, even in the US metal underground, I do get a vague sense that you’re building steam and acquiring a fanbase. What is your listener base like in the PRC, and what do you think is your listener base like overseas? I’m not just talking about the size, but what kind of people as well?
Hey man nice to talk to you too. I think for both the domestic audience and the overseas audience, what they have in common are that first, they very interested in pagan metal or folk metal (celtic metal, viking metal, etc.), and second, they like to explore new metal music combining with different culture. Many of Tengger Cavalry’s fans get very excited when they find out that there is a band like us, mixing the folk metal composition skills they familiar with new ethnic music. Also, I think for some fans, they also love pagan folk and world music, since that also creates very exotic and soul touching sounds.
The PRC is a massive country and I am wondering, if you could help me get a better idea of where you live and make music? What is it like there, in terms of environment and the culture? I think in terms of modern China most Europeans and Americans probably only think of The Great Wall or Shanghai, places they’ve seen in movies.
China is getting more and more internationalized; we have Arch Enemy, Metallica, Dream Theatre, Exodus, Eluveitie and so many other great metal bands come here to perform. So, it is convenient for metal player to get the equipment they want. I mostly get my equipment and instruments set up in my own home studio and spend time making music. China has a huge potential market for us to promote music, so it is definitely a perfect place to rock the earth.
I know you just returned from NYC. Out of curiosity, what were you doing in New York, and did you perchance see any shows here?
I am currently studying Film Music Composition at New York University (graduate degree). So I mostly compose music for film and commercials. Last year my film score was performed in Symphony Space in New York; I also got chance to play Mongolian fiddle Morin Khuur and throat singing with New York University Orchestral in theatre.
So how did Tengger Cavalry start? It’s obviously your baby, but you work with several other musicians, it’s a relatively large band. How did the band begin, and where did you find everyone else?
It started as my solo project as I was exploring the basic idea of combining traditional folk metal with Mongolian folk music. and then I decided to do a live show performance since many people told me they would love to see us on stage. I found most of my players in Beijing, the capital of China and then we kept rehearsing. It is very cool experience to cooperate with different instruments and feel their sound on stage
So I have no idea what the metal scene is like in China. I know there are other extreme metal bands from the PRC, but I can imagine it being difficult to find places to do shows, or buy gear that can make ‘metallic’ distortion, etc. Can you tell me about your experience as a musician in the PRC?
Actually Beijing has some really great metal live houses. I used to think Beijing's metal show places are not fancy enough but after living in New York for a long time and experiencing so many bars, I find out those Beijing metal houses are pretty sick. We have at least 4 to 5 very good live houses that have good drums, speakers and mixers.
When did you start playing guitar, and what got you into metal music?
I got into metal music when I was in middle school. At that time I was pretty angry and suffered from peer pressure so listened to Slipknot all the time [laughs]. I start to play guitar when I was in high school and at that time I started a heavy metal band in my high school and that scared the shit out of my high school music teacher!
Is it easy to find metal to just casually listen to in China?
Oh yeah. There were plenty of CD stores that used to sell extreme metal and black metal ten years ago in China and then when the internet came it changed everything. Now people get music from website and seems like CDs became plastic shits, which is very sad.
Obviously your heritage is important enough to you that it’ the central theme in all of your music. I’m going to be honest with you, I didn’t know much at all about Mongolian culture until I heard your music and then started digging. How did you become acquainted with your own heritage? Was it something you were raised in or had to learn about yourself?
My ancestors came from far away Mongolian grassland hundreds of years ago and then settled down in China. But I value a person's own choice and belief more than blood heritage, because that is the ultimate source that your soul belongs to. I keep practicing Mongolian fiddle and throat singing, and I deeply believe in nomadic culture and shamanism, which worships nature, sky father and earth mother.
This might sound like a dumb question… it’s also a question I’ve never had to ask anyone but… Can you ride a horse? Or have you done so?
I took professional horse riding lessons so I could handle a horse and make it trot and gallop if everything goes well, haha. I always gallop on the boundless Mongolian grassland with horses. Best experience ever in the entire world.
There’s a song on Ancient Call that is sung in English, “Summon the Warrior.” Why did you decide to do a song in English and why that song in particular?
I think I love to write a Middle Eastern music inspired song in each album. On Sunesu Cavalry the similar situation happens in the song “Golden Horde.” Because Mongolian cavalry reached the Middle East, it has such a deep connection with Turkey nomadic culture, so I would love to have this cultural connection connected in English.
I feel odd sometimes when listening to your band, because while the folk elements and melodies are beautiful and catchy, I worry that I don’t have enough knowledge about the history of the melodies, where they come from and such, to really understand and appreciate it fully. For example, I understand enough about the blues to appreciate Black Sabbath, and then Metallica and so on (Actually now I know much more about the blues!) By contrast, I knew nothing previously of Mongolian folk music other than what I might have heard on a film soundtrack, so listening to Tengger Cavalry to me is like letting a time traveler hear Metallica as their first introduction to Western music. It is exciting, but I worry that I’m missing something. Can you help me fill in… what more do you think I must hear and understand to appreciate Tengger Cavalry?
Thank you so much for appreciating Mongolian music and Tengger Cavalry. I would say listen to more other Mongolian folk bands to get familiar with the nomadic sound and orchestration first. bands that worth listening to are Hanggai, Haya, Nine Treasures and other related Mongolian rock folk bands. I think you can find them on Spotify
Tengger Cavalry doesn’t seem to be very inspired by more extreme metal bands. Vocals aside it’s not much heavier than Pantera. However you growl instead of singing. Why growl?
I think growling does not necessarily mean ‘extreme’ or ‘anger.’ For me it is more like a sound to carry the bravery and toughness of the cavalry. ‘Cause singing is a little bit too soft for a cavalry man galloping through the rain of blood to see through the sky.
I’ve followed you on Facebook for a while, and I noticed a few things. First, you posted some pictures of lambs, which reminded me of these calendars of metal musicians posing with their pet cats. Do you think it’s natural in metal to have this sort of other, sentimental self?
Actually we didn't post very personal stuff. All the stuff we posted are related to our music or nomadic culture cause we want people to know more about the Mongolian culture. I think it depends on audience. If your audience love to see those things, then you could post it, but I assume my nomadic warriors will not like it if I post my dog everyday. [laughs]
The other thing I saw was that you like the cartoon My Little Pony. Considering you write music about horses that’s doubly interesting to me. Some people seem to really like the show! What is the appeal of My Little Pony?
For a western audience My Little Pony might be weird, but for nomadic people who really have deep connection and experiential understanding about ponies and horses, it’s just a lot of fun to watch. Besides the show teaches the theme of love, which enhances the Buddhist belief.
The end of The Expedition had several more mellow, folk instrumental songs. But Ancient Call just goes hard from front-to-back. “Legend on Horseback” closes it out, and it’s got some of your most crushing moments. Why was that the direction you went in, and do you see that going the other way any time soon?
I think maybe subconsciously it is more about you watching the nomadic horseman gallop towards the distant land. The whole album tells a story of the life of the horseman and at the last chapter you see that they need to travel far away to survive. There is hope but also sadness in it I think.
What is your goal with Tengger Cavalry?
To achieve more international audience and share our culture with more people.