ULAANBAATAR – When Pope Francis visited Mongolia earlier this year, it was spun as the ultimate in outreach to the peripheries – a trip literally to the other side of the world, the most sparsely populated country on earth, an almost forgotten place sandwiched between the two superpowers of China and Russia, and a country where the entire Catholic population of roughly 1,450 souls is roughly the size of a single small parish in, say, Italy or America.
As it happens, however, Mongolia these days isn’t nearly as peripheral as it may seem, at least as far as the music world is concerned.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, vast Mongol armies under the legendary Genghis Khan forged the largest empire in history, creating a pre-modern form of globalization known as the Pax Mongolica. Today, Mongols once again are conquering the world – not by force of arms, but through a unique, utterly intoxicating blend of heavy metal and traditional folk music that’s taken both song charts and social media by storm.
The great khan (“leader”) of this new conquest is a Mongolian band called “The HU,” whose pulsating music and soaring, movie-quality videos, all produced from a small studio called “Nature Sound” in the Mongolian capital city, have become the stuff of pop culture legend.
Members told Crux over the Christmas holidays that just like the Mongol khans of ages gone by, they’re fascinated by the pope, despite the fact that they practice Tengerism, the traditional indigenous spirituality of the Mongolian steppes centered on veneration of the eternal blue sky.
Indeed, they said, they feel a shared mission with the Pope of Rome to do nothing less ambitious than to save the world.
Speaking to Crux, three members of the band, including lead singer TS. Galbadrakh, known as “Gala,” and throat singer G. Nyamjantsan, who goes by “Jaya”, said that although they were touring in the United States when Pope Francis made his Aug. 31-Sept. 4 visit to Mongolia, they followed the trip and were impressed with the pontiff’s message.
Among other things, the bandmates praised the pope’s message on religious freedom, his efforts to bridge East and West, and his commitment to the environment.
“We Mongols are a nation with a higher sense and belief in traditional symbolism, and the Mongolians have received the visit of the Pope as of higher significance,” Jaya said, saying the pope’s words in Ulaanbaatar “perfectly matched with the mission, songs and the messages of our band and everything we talk about.”
“One of the main priorities and messages of the HU band that we aim to share with our fans and one of the concerns of the pope are the same: to protect and love Mother Nature. We want to spread this message of the importance of loving and protecting our nature, and perhaps voicing against the climate change that’s affecting us globally,” Gala said.
A fairly recent addition to the international music industry, The HU – a Mongol word meaning “human being” – is distinct for their use of Mongolian throat singing, a traditional musical technique tied to pastoral herders in Central Asia, fused with rock and heavy metal along with traditional instruments such as the Morin Khuur (horsehead fiddle), Tovshuur (three-stringed lute), Tsuur (Mongolian flute) and Tumur Khuur (jaw harp).
Once described by Elton John as “just the greatest new thing I’ve heard in a long time,” the HU refer to their unique musical genre as “Hunnu rock.”
Two videos of the first videos they released on YouTube in late 2018, “Yuve Yuve Yu” and “Wolf Totem”, have together garnered over 211 million views. In April 2019, “Wolf Totem” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hard Rock Digital Song Sales, making the HU the first Mongolian band to top a Billboard chart.
In November 2022, Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoula named The HU as UNESCO Artist for Peace at a ceremony at the organization’s headquarters.
Band members include founding members Gala, Jaya, B. Enkhsaikhan, called “Enkush,” and N. Temuulen, known as “Temka,” as well as several backup musicians and vocalists.
In their interview with Crux, Gala and Jaya spoke about the band’s own personal spirituality, their views of Pope Francis and his visit to Mongolia, and their desire to spread love and respect in an increasingly globalized world.
Please read below for excerpts of Crux’s interview with Gala and Jaya of the HU.
Crux: You guys were on tour in in Texas when the pope came to Mongolia, but did you know that the pope was coming and was that a big deal for Mongolians?
Gala: Of course, this was a huge event. The Pope is one of the most important and influential figures in the world. The Pope’s visit to Mongolia seemed to be of historical importance.
Do people talk about the visit? Do Mongolians feel proud that the Pope came?
Jaya: While on tour, we received regular updates about the visit of the Pope to Mongolia. Now the social networks are global, so there was a lot of news about the visit of the Pope to Mongolia. One of our new airplanes was named Guyuk, the emperor of the Great Mongol Empire. As you know, Guyuk Khan sent a letter to the Pope in the 13th century. So, the plane Guyuk arriving at the Mongolian airport during the departure of the Pope’s plane was symbolically like a historical coincidence for the Mongols, as if Guyuk Khan (was) bidding farewell to the Pope.
We Mongols are a nation with a higher sense and belief in traditional symbolism, and the Mongolians have received the visit of the Pope as of higher significance, recalling the centuries-old historical relations between the two countries. Half of the world’s population are Christians and the visit of the Pope, a world spiritual figure, to Mongolia was an important event. We received it with respect.
Usually when the Pope goes to a country it creates interest in that country, people become interested in the place the Pope is going. Did your hits on your YouTube videos go up when the Pope was here? Did you notice there was a ‘Pope-effect’ on your following?
Gala: Every country visited by the Pope gets in the center of attention all over the world, and of course the visit of the Pope to Mongolia was an important event. At that time, we didn’t really notice if our views increased sharply, because we were very busy with the tour. Our fans are all over the world, so the stream continues to grow day by day. Yet, I think it surely had impact on our views because the Pope’s visit to Mongolia attracted attention worldwide.
Would it mean something to you if you heard that the Pope liked your music?
Jaya: It was very great for all of us to find out that the speech of the Pope perfectly matched with the mission, songs and the messages of our band and everything we talk about. Our songs combine our ancient beautiful traditional folk arts with modern music, they combine tradition and innovation, and connect the West and the East. In the same way, the Pope said in his speech during his visit to Mongolia, that it would be right for the Mongolians to develop by remembering what a powerful state we the Mongols had established in the past. This is the exact concept of the art that we are doing. That’s how it should go and that’s what (we) should do.
If we remember what a powerful state we used to be and develop today, we will develop in the correct way. In this society where everything is becoming globalized, I think that we should keep our identity, standing out by keeping who we are. So, we do think the speech by the Pope was so excellent. It is our duty to implement that ideal in our daily life and everything.
If you got an invitation to play in the Vatican for the Pope, would you say yes?
Of all of your music, what do you think the Pope would like the best? What’s the song you think he would like the most?
Gala: One of the main priorities and messages of the HU band that we aim to share with our fans and one of the concerns of the Pope are the same: to protect and love Mother Nature. We want to spread this message of the importance of loving and protecting our nature and perhaps voicing against the climate change that’s affecting us globally. So, our song “Mother Nature” would be the first and best song to sing for the Pope.
How important is religion in Mongolia, and spirituality in general?
Gala: Of course, it’s very important. Our ancestors, the great lord Chinggis Khaan, declared religious freedom already in the 13th century. So, the peoples of the Great Mongol Empire had the freedom to worship any religion or faith of their tradition and choice, and all the peoples were united under the banner of the Great Mongol Empire and could establish the Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace) for centuries. In the same way, it is very important that all human beings of this world to have the right and freedom to freely worship and respect their own traditions and religions. Moreover, it is very important to us because our music is meant for everyone in the world.
What about you guys personally?
Gala: Since the distant past, our Mongolians have been the worshippers of Tengri (Sky, Welkin), who pay respects and worship Tengri and ancestral spirits. We all honor our marvelous heritage and history of our ancestors, and we worship the Eternal Blue Tengri as our Father Sky. We are Tengri worshippers.
Spirituality is obviously a big part of your music. How would you say that inspires the songs that you choose to write?
Jaya: Of course, it has a great impact on us. Our approach and dedication toward our music and everything that creates us are based on our sincere faith and feelings. That’s how we achieve our mission, and we speak, do, show, and convey all these messages to people in the best possible way because all we do comes from our true faith and worship. If we don’t have our own beliefs, we can’t go this far and speak like this. We are a band of young men who have a sincere faith, and who are very aware that there is the Tengri above us, and that we must live righteously under the eternal Tengri.
Mongolia is striving, even politically through its ‘third neighbor policy,’ to be a bridge between East and West. How can your music contribute to being this bridge?
Jaya: Of course, we think we do. We introduce our Mongolian culture to every place we go, and now through our music, we present our history and the achievements of our ancestors in a positive way and make them understand it through our music. That is why we are fully confident that we are serving as an excellent bridge connecting the West and the East. Our fans and music experts confirm this.
That’s why we all keep working hard to make our music even better. What we lack in this world is love and respect. People do not love nature and we are exploiting everything today without thinking about the future. This attitude, this exploitation, leads to natural degradation and climate change. Therefore, what we are promoting to the world is our traditional nomadic culture, the nomadic way of life, all of which is about living in harmony with nature.
For instance, we Mongolians still wear our traditional boots with upturned toes so as not to disturb the ground. Through our arts, we introduce our heritage, promoting that our culture has been about loving and protecting nature since time immemorial. That’s why we incorporate all these concepts into our music, and all these messages are very important to us. We want a lot of people to listen to our music and to educate the future generations with such ideals.
You guys have used the word mission two or three times. To me it seems that what you’re after as a band isn’t just selling records, and it’s not just getting hits on your videos, but you’re actually trying to change the world. Is that right?
Jaya: That’s very true.
Gala: There are so many messages that we are trying to convey to the human race all around the world. For example, everyone has their own inner world, right? We see (that) people no longer see and feel that everyone has their own inner world because of today’s rapid development and its overwhelming impacts. Therefore, we sincerely want everyone to discover their inner world through our music, to find themselves, and to understand that they are entire worlds in themselves different from others.
There is also a mission of ours that people will regain faith, encouragement, love, and the strength to overcome all the hardships they are undergoing, through our music. That’s why we named our band ‘The HU.’ HU is a Mongolian root word meaning human being. We gave this name to our band in order to reach every place where the sun shines, and all mankind around the globe.
As Americans, we’d love to know what do you think of the United States?
Gala: The USA is the land of freedom. The USA is a huge country. So far, we’ve done 5-6 tours in America. Our American fans are really crazy and beautiful. They take so much from our music and give us in return so much energy and beautiful feelings. Plus, American barbecue is the best.
Since you guys are called the HU, do you like the Who, W-H-O? Can you do the song “Pinball Wizard” in Mongolian? Do you know this song?
Gala: We surely know the band “The Who”. It’s a famous and legendary band from England. I think it would also be very interesting if we, the HU and the Who, would tour together or make music together. Personally, I like their song “Behind Blue Eyes.”
What do you want people to know about you?
Jaya: Well, I’d like to say a kind of call for all the people. We humans on this earth, no matter where we were born, breathe air, drink water, and we are living on the same earth. We separate ourselves with borders, but we are children of the same earth. So, now it’s time for us to think without borders, we should love each other and our Mother Earth without borders. Some may say it’s my land or beyond their borders, it’s the territory of a foreign country, (but) we should ignore such views and love and protect nature borderless.
No matter who you are, you live on this earth, and we should love and respect each other and nature. Once you are born as a human being, you have an entire world inside you. So, we should treat each other with love and respect, and we shall love and cherish our nature. All these ideas are fully imbued in our songs, so listen to our music. Stay with us. To bring you delight with our tuneful music from the vast steppe, we keep working hard.
Follow Crux on X: @Crux