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A song for the grasslands

2021-03-18 (China Daily)


Musicians from Ulan Muqir of Zhenglan Banner tune their instruments as an appreciative audience gathers. The troupe travels from one location to another to entertain herdsmen who live in some of China's most remote areas. This particular performance was during the 2017 Naadam, a traditional Mongolian festival. CHINA DAILY

Inner Mongolia's remote corners provide the stage for entertainers ready to perform, Chen Nan and Yuan Hui report.

It was a hot summer's evening in 1993 and the sun had decided that its day's work was done. Gracefully it had descended and a breeze leisurely made its way across the grassland. Nature's stage was set and herdsmen living in the Zhenglan Banner of Xiliin Gol League in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, stopped their work and gathered, with an air of expectation, for the arrival of the Ulan Muqir, or Red Bud Troupe.

Ulan Muqir means "red bud" in Mongolian and the art troupe travels from one site to another, performing for herdsmen who live in some of China's most remote areas.

Tergel, then a 6-year-old boy, first watched the performance of the Ulan Muqir of Zhenglan Banner along with his grandmother. Impressed by the offerings, including singing and dancing, Tergel couldn't wait to watch the performances again.

In 2005, Tergel, at the age of 18, trained as a singer at the Inner Mongolia Arts University and later joined the Ulan Muqir of Zhenglan Banner.

Besides performing as a singer, he also plays piano, bass and morin khuur (horse-headed fiddle), a traditional musical instrument of the ethnic Mongolian group.

"I can still recall the first performance I did with the troupe. We did rehearsals every day and performed during the night. It was exhausting but rewarding. When I saw the warm feedback from the audience, it reminded me of my first experience of watching performances by the troupe," says Tergel.

Since 2005, Tergel has toured with the art troupe for more than 1,600 performances. That translates into more than 100 performances every year.

Tuul, 29, joined the Ulan Muqir of Zhenglan Banner in 2010 as a dancer after graduating from an art school in Erdos. "All of the artists are versatile. We sing, dance and play instruments. The blue sky was our curtain and the grassland our stage," Tuul says.

"We made lots of friends after each performance with the local people. They treated us like guests with hospitality and the best food they had. I feel at home and fulfilled," adds Tuul.

According to Bukh, the deputy director of the Ulan Muqir of Zhenglan Banner, Xiliin Gol League, there are 75 Ulan Muqir art troupes in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, bringing 7,000 performances to audiences of the region each year.

The Ulan Muqir of Zhenglan Banner is one of the earliest founded Ulan Muqir, which was established on Sept 25, 1957.

With a history of more than 60 years, the troupe had about six members when it was founded and now it has about 30 members with an average age of 36.

At 40 years of age, Bukh joined in the Ulan Muqir of Zhenglan Banner in 2000 as a dancer, and also sings and plays the morin khuur.


The artists travel to far-flung locations to entertain for holidays, such as Spring Festival in February (top); Bukh, deputy director of the Ulan Muqir of Zhenglan Banner (left) and a female dancer (right) perform for herdsmen. Performances are normally held outdoors and attract audiences ranging in numbers from the dozens to hundreds. CHINA DAILY

"When I was a child, we didn't have much contemporary entertainment like TV or cinema. We rode horses on the grassland and sang. The shows brought by Ulan Muqir troupes were our favorites," Bukh says.

As a member of the Ulan Muqir troupe, he tours across the Inner Mongolia autonomous region every year despite arduous road trips.

During the Spring Festival in February, the Ulan Muqir of Zhenglan Banner gave 10 performances on tour, performing a mixture of patriotic songs and traditional Mongolian folk songs.

"Performances of the Ulan Muqir troupes are usually held outdoors and open to audiences ranging from hundreds of people to a dozen. We don't have a formal stage. The audience just sits on the grass. Usually, the performances became a big party with local people joining in," says Bukh, adding that they also help herders do other tasks, such as milking cows, sheep shearing and sometimes offer musical training to children. "The sizes of the Ulan Muqir troupes are different but our goal is the same, to bring entertainment to the herders living in remote areas."

The Sunite Right Banner in Xiliin Gol League was the first Ulan Muqir, which was formed on June 17, 1957.

In 2017, performers of the Sunite Right Banner Ulan Muqir troupe wrote to President Xi Jinping, reviewing the art troupe's history during the past six decades as well as expressing their commitment to the development of the art troupe.

In the letter that Xi wrote back, he called on its members to preserve the tradition of Ulan Muqir and promote artistic innovation.

"In the new era, I hope you can carry forward the fine tradition of Ulan Muqir, and keep on serving the herdsmen," Xi wrote in the letter.

"It was a great encouragement for all of us, who are devoted to the Ulan Muqir art troupes," says Bukh.

While preserving the spirit of Ulan Muqir, artists also have tried to update their performances with new works, which are mostly based on the daily lives of Mongolian people. Bukh says that his troupe has the tradition of training young performers to carry on the legacy. They compose songs, which are based on local folk ballads as well as mixing contemporary music to entertain audiences of all ages.