It’s probably safe to say that most Americans have never heard anything quite like the songs The HU play. The band, from Ulaanbaatar—Mongolia’s capital city—call themselves “folk-metal,” but that term doesn’t capture the full scope of their sound, which is an epic blend of rock music and traditional Mongolian instrumentation and singing techniques. It is a fascinating combination, full of elements that will seem unique to Western listeners, such as the morin khuur (a two-stringed bowed instrument, also known as the “horsehead fiddle,” which is considered the national instrument of Mongolia) and throat singing (a deep, droning type of vocalization).
The band members know that they are likely the first ones to expose most people outside of Mongolia to their country’s musical components. As lead throat singer and morin khurr player Gala explains, “The ‘Gereg’ is the first diplomatic passport introduced to the world by our ancestors, and that’s the reason we called our [debut] album The Gereg, because we want it to be our diplomatic passport to the world, so we can travel to every nation and share our music.” He says the album is meant to be uplifting, with themes of “love, support, and courage.” While the songs are all sung in Mongolian, the band has released several videos that include English subtitles, in order to help people understand their message. (This interest in emphasizing common ground across nations is also reflected in the band name itself: as they explain on their website, thehuofficial.com, “HU is the Mongolian root word for human being.”)
The Gereg came out in September, though singles from it started being released in late 2018. The music has struck a responsive chord: the singles have all attained various degrees of U.S. chart success, most notably when the song “Wolf Totem” reached #1 on the Billboard “Hard Rock Digital Song Sales” list. The band has also charted in the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Spain, Australia, and Brazil. And as of this writing, the music video for another single, “Yuve Yuve Yu,” has racked up 28 million views on YouTube. These are impressive accomplishments for any debut effort, but especially so considering that The HU are the first Mongolian group to ever gain extensive international attention.
Gala and his fellow bandmates—Jaya (jaw harp, flutes, and throat singing), Enkush (lead morin khuur and throat singing) and Temka (tovshuur, a type of lute)—are calling from a hotel room in Nashville, the latest stop on their extensive North American tour. Though all members are present, only Gala and Jaya answer questions (via their tour manager and translator, Tuga). They say they take their role as Mongolian musical representatives very seriously.
“We’re named as the official cultural ambassadors of Mongolia to the world by our government,” Jaya says. “With this official title comes a lot of responsibility. All we hope and want to do is represent Mongolia in a positive way to the world. We’re representing our own country, our tradition and culture, everything about Mongolia.” The HU have succeeded so well in this role, in fact, this past May, the President of Mongolia, Khaltmaagiin Battulga, met with the members to personally thank them for representing their country.
While it may seem to audiences outside of Mongolia that The HU are something of an overnight success story, the truth is that decades of hard work were required to reach this moment. The members are all extremely well-educated, with each of them holding at least a university or conservatory degree in music. Gala estimates that they have, on average, studied throat singing for 10 years and played their instruments for 20 years or more.
“Not everyone throat sings in Mongolia,” says Jaya, who spent a decade teaching at the Mongolian state music conservatory prior to joining The HU. “It takes hard work and time to learn and master. Years of practice makes it better and better. And of course, you have to have the talent to start with—if you don’t have the talent, it doesn’t matter how many years you try, you’re going to go nowhere. So it’s a very special thing.”
While each of the members were already demonstrably talented, things really came into focus when the producer Dashka became involved. Says Jaya: “Dashka got this idea of mixing Mongolian music with Western rock music. He was doing research about Mongolian poetry, music, and musical instruments. We started the band in 2016, the four of us with Dashka. We worked hard and eventually found our own sound.” Gala agrees. “We worked so hard for this. We had to record some songs two or three times, because we wanted to make it perfect for our own mind.”
Gala says this same high work ethic applied to their music videos, as well. For example, for the video for “Yuve Yuve Yu,” he says the band “traveled over 5,000 kilometers off-road to the western Mongolian mountainsides, because we wanted to show the beauty of the nature in Mongolia. There were times we had to hike up with all our gear on, and our instruments, and it was so cold there because it’s so high. Next there would be hot sand dunes, burning hot.” But it was worth the strain and discomfort, he says, because now, “I think in the world, people see the beauty of it.”
Now that the band is halfway through their first U.S. tour—which has included numerous sold out shows so far—they are gratified to see first-hand how enthusiastic their new fans really are. The list of dates is exhaustive, involving far more shows than most bands usually undertake for their debut trek across this continent. They have also found themselves to be the focus of such frenzied fan encounters that they’ve been forced to stop doing informal post-show meet and greets, which were beginning to infringe on their tight travel schedule (they still meet fans who choose the VIP package that’s available for select shows; this option includes entry to watch the band’s soundcheck, priority access to the merchandise booth, and a signed CD or vinyl copy of The Gereg).
Exhausting as their tour schedule is, the band members say they are happy to put in the effort. “Even though there are so many days, we love what we are doing because we were born to do this,” Jaya says. “Everywhere we go, we see new faces, and when we play for them, we see a lot of encouragement and energy from the people, [a lot of] love and support. It’s a wonderful feeling to have that. Yes, after the show, we are so tired, but because of the successful concert, our souls are full. We just need to go to our bus and sleep, and then the next morning, we are ready to play again.” Gala agrees, saying “It’s been amazing here in America. Even though it’s our first time, everywhere we go, most of the shows are sold out. And when people chant, ‘HU, HU’ with us, all we feel is love and support from our American fans. The reactions of the people are priceless.”
After this U.S. tour ends on December 10 in Los Angeles, they’ll go home to Ulaanbaatar—but they won’t rest for long, as they are due to start a European tour in Hamburg, Germany, on January 15. “Next year is going to be so busy—we’ll be on tour almost the entire year, all around the world,” Gala says, though he promises, “Of course, we are planning to work on our second album. Whenever we have a little time at home, we will work on our music.”
But for now, they are trying to focus on the moment and really enjoy their first time experiencing America. They are grateful for the chance to play their music here, but they also want to use this opportunity spread the word that Mongolian music, overall, deserves our attention. “The Mongolian music scene is doing really good,” Gala says. “Ever since we chose the path of democracy, every genre and music can be played in our country. We’ve got so many rock bands and pop bands—all the genres are there. The biggest rock band, Haranga, just had their 30-year anniversary. And now we’re here, in America and Europe, representing the Mongolian music scene.”
“Mongolia is a land of rich history and tradition, and beautiful land,” Jaya says. “As Mongolians, we love and respect our history and ancestors, our parents, and the Mother Earth. That’s our message to the world. We’re inspiring people with courage, and asking them, ‘Be close to the nature, love and protect it, because we live in a big family, this big household, Earth, and we have to take care of it.’ That’s the message we want to share with Americans.”
The HU will play the Bowery Ballroom in New York City on November 17.