Since the emergence of heavy music in the 1970’s and its peak in popularity in the 1980's, today metal music has developed into a well-defined genre with fans all over the world. Still, besides being a single global music genre, metal is also a very diverse type of music. In this paper, I will analyze the subgenre of folk metal focusing on Mongolian folk metal, in order to examine how this particular subgenre represents both Mongolian folklore and the global metal culture. For the analysis of this phenomenon, I will use The Hu, a new up-and-coming Mongolian metal/rock band, as an example.
Mixing metal characteristics with Mongolian traditional instruments and folklore creates a unique combination, which highlights the diversity of metal music. This diversity is one of the genre's assets: from the British wave of heavy metal in the 1980’s to Mongolian throat-singing metal in the 21st century, the metal genre keeps evolving and expanding. Therefore, in what follows, I will be using hybridization theory as a framework to explain the seemingly perfect synergy between folklore and global metal.
In defense of Folk Metal: where the global meets the local
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, metal music had a booming period, in which bands such as Iron Maiden, Metallica and Judas Priest became extremely famous. However, starting from the 1990’s, mainstream tastes shifted towards pop music, and thus metal started to become the "opposing" genre. Even though metal was not mainstream anymore, it remained prolific and it expanded globally as a niche.
As Kahn-Harris (2011) notes, “metal music may be a cultural response to changing economic, social, or cultural conditions and may reflect global power dynamics.” In fact, it is common for metal artists to express political stances, like anarchism and environmentalism. A good example is System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, who is known to be an environmental activist and anti-government corruption advocate. Many of his songs touch on political issues like the wars propagated by the USA in the Middle East. At the same time, “as nations industrialize and enter the global economy, metal seems to become part of that nation’s cultural makeup. Individuals in a globalizing world may need an oppositional form of expression, and metal as a music genre provides a platform to express ideas” (Mayer-Timberlake, 2014). Perhaps the popularity of metal music can be ascribed to the freedom of expression it provides as a medium. The need for a counterculture against mainstream culture and the popularity of pop music is the heart that keeps pushing metal to become more and more popular across the globe today.
Folk metal can be combined seemingly with everything, giving rise to a plethora of creative possibilities and freedom of expression.
After this global success of metal overall, bands started to disperse and create different subgenres, combining other styles with metal and pushing the boundaries of what was deemed to be "classic" metal. Genres such as nu-metal and later symphonic metal, death metal and folk metal appeared as more experimental offshoots. As metal music became easily accessible and globalized, also thanks to new technological advances like the Internet, local bands started to combine metal with their own folklore and local culture, thus playing metal riffs accompanied by local instruments or vocal techniques. Such examples can be found in the folk metal subgenre, which consists of any type of folk music that uses metal arrangements. Ranging from Mongolian folk metal, to Celtic metal, samurai metal, viking metal, Romanian and Slavic metal, or Arab metal, folk metal can be combined seemingly with everything, giving rise to a plethora of creative possibilities and freedom of expression.
In order to understand why such bands as The Hu are emerging, one needs to grasp what folk metal actually means. Folk metal is not only a subgenre of metal that combines traditional instruments of a culture, but it often creates a more nation-centered type of music that can be shared through the metal fanbase. For instance, The Hu, the band we will focus on in the following section, expresses this through the lyrics of their songs, which are usually about Mongolian folk tales or about Genghis Khan, the great conqueror.
Because of the ethnocentric character of folk metal, a lot of discussion about folk metal being a way to deal with globalization and protect one’s own cultural heritage has started to emerge. An article published by Leeds Beckett University went as far as to call folk metal racist: “the folk in folk metal is a problematic ideology, a form of instrumental rationality about authenticity, nation and nationalism. The bands in this research are all trying to identify with some reputed folk culture that existed before modern times” (Spracklen, 2015). However, this view might seem somewhat misguided if one considers that folk metal is a product of globalization itself: it is the perfect example of hybridization, of mixing the local with the global, and definitely not an example of a clash of cultures rhetoric. In these times of globalization, even in "extreme" music genres like metal, which used to be associated with Satanism for a long time, a potential clash of cultures rhetoric (Christianity vs. Metal) cannot be observed anymore as metal has started to hybridize. The emergence of Christian metal, for example, may represent a factor that shook the association of metal to evil. Consequently, metal has now expanded to more genres that can more easily please bigger audiences.
Folk metal being regarded as a way to protect one’s heritage might also be considered somewhat far-fetched, considering that one can promote their local musical styles without infusing them with metal in the first place. Metal can be primarily considered a Western (British and American) product, but folk metal is not only British and American: it remains a metal subgenre but it also has a distinct ethnic identity of its own. This is one of the main reasons I chose The Hu as an example. How can The Hu be a purely nationalistic band if they make use of a genre that started in the West? As a band, they showcase the beauty of Mongolian folklore by making use of the metal genre, blending Eastern and Western cultural elements. The band's lead singer himself has stated in interviews that he is “confident that the band's mixture of Eastern and Western, old and new is resonating with adventurous rock fans.” The Hu is there to prove that folk metal has nothing to do with white metal culture but that it represents a hybrid genre that can be at home in any corner of the world.
The Hu: Mongolian folklore embodied in metal
The Hu are a folk metal/rock group formed in 2016 in Mongolia. They make use of Mongolian instruments such as the morin khuur ("horsehead fiddle"), the tumur khuur ("Jew's harp") and the Mongolian guitar (tovshuur), alongside the bass and drums of rock music. The singing technique is Mongolian throat singing, which, combined with metal guitar riffs and drumming sounds, becomes as aggressive as metal vocals.
The members of The Hu are metalheads that identify with the global identity of a metal artist but at the same time love the local aspects of Mongolia. This makes for a unique form of celebrating Mongolian folklore through the musical style they already love, and it showcases how “identity patterns are becoming more complex, as people assert local loyalties but want to share in global values and lifestyles” (Ken Booth, quoted in Lipschutz 1992: 396). In the end, The Hu feel like they own this piece of music as their uniquely original input, their voice in the bigger metal scene. On their official website, they showcase their uniqueness, describing themselves as: “a band from Mongolia that blends heavy metal and traditional Mongolian throat singing.”
To understand phenomena like Mongolian folk metal, we can analyze The Hu through hybridization theory as the band provides a great example of a mixture of global and local elements. Hybridization theory indeed covers the middle ground between so-called McDonaldization (homogenization) and Clash of Cultures. “With respect to cultural forms, hybridization is defined as “the ways in which forms become separated from existing practices and recombine with new forms in new practices"" (Nederveen Pieterse, 2004). In the case of The Hu, the existing global set of norms that define music as metal are combined with novel local elements, such as Mongolian folklore and history, Mongolian musical techniques, etc. “With so bracing a combination of sights and sounds, the Hu have been forging a highly improbable connection between the complexities of traditional Mongolian music and the 10-ton force of western metal” (Farber, 2019).
"A band from Mongolia that blends heavy metal and traditional Mongolian throat singing."
Another indication of hybridization in the case of The Hu is their recent collaboration with an already established, well-known American metal artist, Jacoby Shaddix from Papa Roach. The song they perform together is sung in both Mongolian and English, and the metal community embraced it as a proof that metal is boundless and language does not matter in the metal industry. Normally, The Hu write their songs entirely in Mongolian, and the name of the band translates to “human being.” By choosing to express themselves in Mongolian they keep their roots alive but share them with everyone through the popularity of metal music. Even though there are very few people that understand Mongolian in the West, people still enjoy their music.
As a case in point, one of the band's first songs titled “Yuve Yuve Yu” went viral immediately after its release on YouTube. In an interview extract on the music video of the song, the singer explains the choice of the clothing and scenery like this: "Our clothing is not exactly old Mongolian — it's still there, but we're making it rock-looking. And in order to do the 'Yuve Yuve Yu' video, we traveled [6,000 miles] off-road for so many days because we wanted to show the world how beautiful Mongolia is, how beautiful the nature is." As the singer points out, the style they created is based on Mongolian traditional clothing but it is made to look “rock”. This rock style element can be seen in the 80’s leather jacket added to their outfit, alongside more accessories such as skull rings, necklaces and bandannas, which overall give a more alternative look in contrast to the Mongolian elements (horses, feathers;. see Figures 1 & 2).
The musicians from The Hu were inspired by Western metal bands such as Metallica, Rammstein and System of a Down, and they consider Elton John one of their most important influences. “We love rock,” and “people have never heard it sound like this before. That’s why it’s connecting. It’s something new,” the lead singer says as one of his main points in an interview for The Guardian. When asked about the traditional elements in the project, he explains how he wants to share the Mongolian spirit through rock music. "This [traditional] music has been here thousands of years. In our culture, we believe that when we play morin khuur in a Mongolian house, it brings good spirits to the home, cleanses and purifies it. Through our music, we hope to inspire people with strength and bring out the positive in every person to become a warrior." Thus, holding Western metal as a pillar of their sound and combining it with their own culture, The Hu are mixing two completely distinct styles. “At a general level, hybridity concerns the mixture of phenomena that are held to be different, separate; hybridization then refers to a cross-category process”(Nederveen Pieterse, 2004). Mongolian throat singing is an ancient technique dating back to the times of tribalism in the region of present Mongolia (Altai and Sayan mountains). In combination with a newly formed genre, metal, which caught on in the 1980's, this "mélange" is a revival of old Mongolian through the use of a new, popular music style.
Mongolian Folklore with metal
The Hu is a Mongolian folk rock/metal band that incorporates Mongolian folklore in Western metal sounds, thus creating a hybrid genre of mixed global and local elements, a blend of West and East. The band also stands as a counter-example to the claim that folk metal is nationalistic. The Hu are proof that folk metal fits more into hybridization theory than it does in a theory of clash of cultures (which would suggest that folk metal exists to show national pride and national superiority). The Hu make the most of both Mongolian folklore through their music's style, themes, language and instrumentation and Western metal/rock influences that come from well-known metal bands like Metallica, which have had a huge impact on their style. In combining such different genres and musical styles, The Hu are a unique band that would not be possible without globalization and hybridization. Their uniqueness attracts a wide metal audience worldwide, but also a strong national audience in their home country. The international metal audience is pleased by the way their music sounds - it is catchy yet revolutionary, authentic. A band that is all about blending styles, The Hu deliver Mongolian feelings to the fans of heavy music around the world.
Farber, J. (2019). Steppe change: how Mongolian rock band the Hu conquered the world.
Kahn-Harris, Keith. (2011). 'You Are from Israel and That Is Enough to Hate You Forever': Racism, Globalization and Play within the Global Extreme Metal Scene. in Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World (pp. 200-226), Duke University Press.
Lipschutz, Ronald D. (1992). “Reconstructing World Politics: The Emergence of Global Civil Society.” Millennium 21(3).
Mayer, A., & Timberlake, J. M. (2014). “The Fist in the Face of God”: Heavy Metal Music and Decentralized Cultural Diffusion. Sociological Perspectives, 57(1), 27–51.
Nederveen Pieterse, J. (2004). Globalization and culture: Global mélange. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
Spracklen, K. (2015). "To Holmgard… and Beyond": Folk Metal Fantasies and Hegemonic White Masculinities. Metal Music Studies.