The Playtime Live Music Festival took place last weekend, and I was clever enough to make sure I went to at least one of its two days. My husband (a music festival virgin) and I, drove down to Ulaanbaatar from Darkhan, and camped out for Saturday’s bands. What I learned: The Mongolian music scene is amazing.
This was the twelfth year of the annual music festival, and according to one friend who’s been attending on and off for over a decade, it keeps getting bigger and better. The bands are getting better, the festival organizers are running things with more efficiency, security is more civilized, and less fights break out. What I love is that it’s organized by music lovers; people trying to create opportunity for bands and fans to experience something spectacular.
As you can imagine, Ulaanbaatar doesn’t really show up on most international tour circuits, but Playtime organizers have managed to pull in international bands in recent years. This year’s international bands were Storm, an industrial/hip-hop/metal band from Russia that has played at Playtime previously, and Mono, a shoegaze band (heavy on the glockenspiel) from Japan. The rest of the bands that played (40 in all) were local talents. They ranged from singer songwriters, to cover bands, to indie rock superstars. Each day boasted an eclectic lineup that appealed to a wide range of genres.
The festival takes place on the furthest edge of Ulaanbaatar, at Mongol Shiltgeen’s (Hotel Mongolia) River Beach Resort in Gachuurt, on the banks of the Tuul River. Driving out to Gachuurt you pass by Naran Tuul, the country’s largest open air market, and you wind through the westernmost fringes of the city’s ger (traditional Mongolian nomadic home) districts. The ger districts are a maze of residential hashaas (fenced off lots). Sixty percent of the city’s residents reside in the capital’s ger districts. They lack direct access to the municipal water, sewage, and power networks, but the people there make due, patching in to power lines, and getting water from neighborhood wells. A good number of ger district residents are from Mongolia’s far flung provinces, where hashaas are the norm in the province centerss and smaller towns. Nomads don’t need fences, but when they congregate in permanent settlements, boundaries help make sense of the norms of more urban living.
Gachuurt is less cramped than UB’s ger districts encircling the city center. Many families build “summer homes” there to escape the pollution and traffic, but mostly to connect to nature. Mongolians hold traditional ties to their land dear. The literature, songs and iconic imagery of the nation praise the land, and even UB residents who’ve been city dwellers for decades, long to be connected to those traditions. Gachuurt has no new high rise apartments or business complexes on the horizon, it’s just a sleepy valley of brick and log houses.
The Tuul River is wider, deeper and less visibly polluted here. Trees grow along its banks, biding time before they’re illegally harvested, and small clusters of livestock led by patient herders on foot, drink from its quiet banks. Organic and non-organic farms operate here year round, supplying UB with produce in the late spring through early fall. In the summer, it’s a place of growth and rejuvenation. Mongol Shiltgeen, built as an homage to the sprawling monasteries of old, is a resort hotel popular for weddings, group getaways, and photo ops for tourists continuing on to Terelj National Park. Guests can sleep in “temple” rooms, traditionally sized Mongol gers, or opulent stone gers for $60-$180 a night. It offers the comforts of modern living in a setting that evokes the picturesque Mongolia of old, the one most tourists come here to see. It’s a bit weather beaten and rough around the edges, like most things in Mongolia, which adds to its charming authenticity. This is the setting for one of Mongolia’s most cutting edge, progressive cultural events. Playtime is set in Ulaanbaatar’s closest natural playground, furthest from the steel and cement testaments to its economic boom.
Playtime operates two stages. A mini stage for smaller, less renowned bands and all of the weekend’s DJs (16 in all), and a main stage for the main attractions. The stages were set up cleverly, with Playtime’s audio engineers taking care to keep one from drowning out the other.
The first band I saw at Playtime was an AC/DC cover band, maybe Shugam – I wasn’t sure if the bands were playing on schedule. The band featured an immaculately fro-ed vocalist, a girl drummer, and a girl bass player. The crowd, gathered under a nearby tree and gazebo -maybe trying to avoid the afternoon sun, but more likely trying to be cool characters- kept a distance. I moved in close for photos and sing-a-longs. Oblivious. It was a blast. A sign of what was to come.
My husband was back in UB, at Naran Tuul buying us a tent so we could spend the night at Playtime’s Tent City. The tents are great for having a place to crash when you’ve partied too hard, playing cards, making out, and for pretending to sleep at 3 am when 80 percent of Playtime is still in full swing. It doesn’t come with the restorative effects of a night under the Mongolian night sky, but it’s a lot more fun.
Of course, if you didn’t have a tent to take a break in, you could always try passing out at one of the food stalls.
Mongolians are largely sympathetic to the woes of the over-indulgent. This biker got off with just a few tweaks of his ear after the manager at the Shashlik House outpost let him nap for a half an hour.
The food, on the whole, was fresh and inexpensive. There were vendors selling tons of bootleg band shirts, but unfortunately merchandise from the bands playing the festival was nowhere to be found. An expat hippie had a giant circus tent set up for selling coffee, veggie sandwiches, and providing shade for acoustic guitar jam sessions. I passed on those, but was stoked to see some kids assembling a crazy art installation that involved plaster casts, a bathtub and ram horns. Your standard festival weirdos were also wandering around all day, morosely prepared for photo-ops. There was a pack of Wild West Indians in fringe, a spectacular display of patches on denim vests, and a couple of buddies in corpse paint getting lots of attention all afternoon.
My favorite Saturday sets:
Silent Scream -The day’s first appearance of an unapologetic addicted-to-double-bass drummer. Many more followed. The vocalist favored the schizo “I’m Cookie Monster. No! I’m Elmo!!” vocals that I got bored with in the late ’90s, but they were still pretty fun.
UFO – They had a Death Cab For Cutie vibe, with a pleasantly plump crooner on vocals and a mellow sound.
Marquis on the Radio – My new pal, Munkh Orgil Turbold, is a young guy with a lot of street cred. He spent years in the NYC music scene, working on stage (dude, The Fugees!) and in the studio. Now he’s the prodigal son, making huge waves in the Mongolian music scene, producing, playing and recording music for some of the biggest bands in UB, from The Lemons to the State Philharmonic. He’s helped bring together some of UB’s best rock musicians to form Marquis on the Radio. They pulled together a pretty solid, but brief, set for Saturday. I look forward to hearing more from them.
STORM – This band took me back. Their electro-metal style tricked me though. They were dressed like the clean-cut East Coast hardcore bands of the late ’90s. But they sounded more like Linkin Park. They had dueling vocals that went rappy sometimes, and weird dance beats behind metal guitars. But they put on a solid, polished set. In typical Russian fashion, they bossed the crowd around, but they were super gracious, thanking the crowd and really putting on a great show.
The Lemons - Undoubtedly one of the most popular bands amongst Mongolians under 35. These guys would fit right in at Coachella, CMJ, FYF, or Pitchfork. I imagine someday soon they’ll be hitting those stages. They’ve been at it for a while, trying to forge a new scene in UB. They’ve succeeded. They drew the biggest crowd of the entire day, and I heard everyone around me singing along to their songs. Guys held their gals, and even the longhaired metal kids bobbed their heads in tightpantsed solidarity.
Rains hit Playtime all late afternoon and into the evening, but the crowds barely thinned. At “The Beach”, barefoot dancers cheered each clap of thunder. It never got cold enough to drive everyone away, and as long as there was music playing, people were going to be there for it.
After a pretty sleepless night, we packed up our tent in the morning, while most of Playtime was just barely falling asleep, and regretfully headed back home. Thankfully, Mongolian TV is great about covering pretty much ANYTHING happening in Mongolia, and we spent Sunday night watching sets by the bands we were missing.
Two Western-made documentaries about the music scenes exploding here have been made so far, Live From UB (now in post-production and looking for support) about the rock scene that birthed Playtime, and Mongolian Bling, a documentary about a few slices of the Mongolian hip hop scene. Both films are cashing in on the hype and novelty of capturing “nomads” doing modern things, but they attempt to provide a deeper look at what’s happening in Mongolia’s post-Soviet pop culture. I’m not sure that either film captures anything “underground”, but they both capture music scenes that are making a serious impact on the musical future of the nation. The reality of the Mongolian music scene is that it’s mostly made up of well-informed, creative city kids, not a bunch of countryside transplants. Most, if not all, of them have been urbanized all their lives. They’re as interested in forging a unique identity as they are in gaining access to their inspirations – domestic and foreign. Their music sometimes represents the blending of traditional and modern musical values, but mostly it represents how they see their place in the world.
Bands looking for an unforgettable summer adventure, come out and play Playtime. It’ll remind you what these things are all about. Not VIP passes and after parties. Not celebrities being spotted in the wings. It’s not even about headlining.
It’s about the people who love your music and giving them a reason to want more.