An ancient warrior on horseback appears at the skyline, shadowed, and raises his staff as a call to battle. A gang of leather-clad motorcyclists convenes behind him, following his charge through the grassy hillsides.
So goes the cinematically beautiful opening sequence of the viral music video “Wolf Totem,” by the Mongolian rock band The Hu, which serves as a strong poetic introduction to the core identity of the band, their music, and the reasons for their rise to YouTube fame.
While the visuals are clear to follow, singing along is a challenge — unless you’re a trained Mongolian throat singer.
The four members of The Hu are, each having been classically trained to play traditional Mongolian instruments at Mongolia’s state conservatory. In 2016, they formed the band and began innovatively fusing traditional Mongolian music with headbanging rock riffs.
Like modern rock warriors, they raised their instruments and success followed the call.
The pursuit of YouTube virality may be just as difficult as learning to throat sing, but The Hu achieved it last fall after posting just two music videos (the other is for their single “Yuve Yuve Yu”) on a brand new channel. Now, they have over 26 million views on those videos and 400 thousand subscribers. The buzz took them from Mongolia and quickly put them on the global map, as well as the Billboard charts.
In the golden age of video content, that’s no small feat. Anything that stands a chance of surfacing above the white noise needs to be highly unique and fresh, while still being authentic. A tough balancing act, to be sure.
Fortunately for The Hu, their music tows that line to begin with.
Throat Singing And Headbanging
From its inception, The Hu endeavored to capture the tradition, authenticity, and originality of their culture’s instruments and music while bringing it to relevance in modern music.
“When we do this, we try to spiritually express this beautiful thing about Mongolian music. We think we will talk to everyone’s soul through our music,” Temka, the band’s guitarist, said in an interview with NPR earlier this year.
Among the traditional instruments they use are the horsehead fiddle, Mongolian guitar, and the Jew’s harp. By far the most unique — and viral — element of their music, though, is the incorporation of traditional Mongolian throat singing into their vocals.
Laid over heavy, warlike drums and thick bass, The Hu brings the ancient art of throat singing into the modern era with a punch.
“We want people to be interested in Mongolian history,” lead singer and horsehead fiddle player Gala said in a GQ interview, “and through our music [to] help people understand what we’re about, how beautiful our country is.”
The Romanticism Of Throat Singing
Throat singing originates from the Tuvan mountainous region that lays on the border of Mongolia. According to The Guardian’s David McNamee, throat singing was “[…] supposedly modeled on the harmonic resonances herders would find naturally occurring around valleys or waterfalls, with some vocal styles configured to mimic the sounds of animals, wind or water.”
The musical form represents a strong connection to the land and, as such, captures the nomadic tradition of Mongolian people.
“Testing the limits of vocal ingenuity, throat-singers can create sounds unlike anything in ordinary speech and song—carrying two musical lines simultaneously, say, or harmonizing with a waterfall,” write Theodore C. Levin and Michael E. Edgerton in a piece on Tuvan throat singing published in Scientific American.
Levin became the first American allowed to study music in Tuva in 1987, which ultimately became a concentration on the art, culture, and history of throat singing. Though The Hu is a new phenomenon attracting millions of views in Western countries, throat singing has long been popular in Mongolia.
“Professional ensembles have achieved celebrity status, and the favorite singers are symbols of national cultural identity.”
Emerging From The Mountains To YouTube
How was The Hu able to take traditional music and popularize it on YouTube?
Their overnight success speaks to current broader trends within content engagement and consumption.
Most importantly, it reinforces that successful content is authentic. Global media agency UM recently reported that “[a]uthenticity and identity will play a significant role in the near future, with most online consumers looking for original takes and innovative approaches to brand identity.”
The Hu was able to carry the authenticity and strong identity of traditional music and adapt it to more modern audiences. While Western listeners didn’t grow up on throat singing, the art captures an element of nostalgia and romanticism by way of the simple lifestyle that it recalls.
YouTube has been a major vehicle for people to create and post remixes and mash-ups. The nearly infinite library of video from all areas of pop culture has inspired funny, moving, and creative adaptations that reinvigorate the original feel of beloved content.
In this light, YouTube was the perfect platform for The Hu to release their music on. Viewers engaged visually with the world The Hu creates while being moved by the more modern, hard-hitting, accessible rock power chords.
Conquering — And Rocking — The World
If traditional Mongolian music guides the heart of the band, it’s their rock influences that pump it to life. The Hu has drawn inspiration from the likes of Rammstein, Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Tool, and System Of A Down.
Something about the vibrations of throat singing lends itself perfectly to the intensity of heavy rock and metal. It makes listeners feel like they too are roaming the hills of Mongolia as a part of Ghengis Kahn’s army, though maybe this time on a motorcycle.
The fusion has paid off for The Hu, who is now signed on the same record label as Motley Crue.
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