It's important to address your expectations of concerts and events: your preconceptions of the way the musicians might present themselves and their motives. With AnDa Union I was ready for a touristy, diluted and commercialised imitation of traditional music with Mongolian novelties thrown in to complement shiny costumes and baubles. I was so wrong. The ensemble features incredibly skilled and talented musicians, immersed in their culture and surrounded by its music. AnDa Union are passionate about their Inner Mongolian heritage and are working hard to promote their language and traditions both at home and abroad. It's a brand of passion that is always bound up with stunning talent, and these musicians' mastery of a disappearing style is reason enough for its preservation.
The Mongolian national instrument, the Morin Khuur (a two-stringed, bowed instrument with a trapezoidal soundbox and a horse's head scroll) formed the centrepiece of the ensemble, with several players performing together. Filling in other parts of the texture were an Ikh Khuur (a larger form of the Morin Khuur), an impressive array of percussion and various flutes. But riding over the top for most of the set was the most incredible throat singing. While practised in different forms around the world, the Mongolian style features a held fundamental tone with the singer manoeuvring their vocal chords to produce differing tones over the top. It requires great control and years to master, but the members of AnDa Union produced a stunning display. Individually, or as a group, their tonal richness was emphasised by their consummate skill, at times sounding the overtones louder than the fundamental. Throat singing, because of its very natural method of production, elicits fantastic sonic relationships that resonate within the chest and in the singing space. When the whole group was singing together, the ethereal nature of the sound shimmered in the cavernous St Barnabas, enrapturing the audience.
Beyond the music the group are a joy to see perform. They buzz with a vibrant energy when playing, catching the audience in their whirling tunes. The two main singers, appearing intermittently, burst with panache with their horseman's yelps and dancing. By the end of the concert large areas of the audience were desperately restraining themselves from leaping onto the stage to join in.
But AnDa Union aren't a traditional ensemble. They've all spent a large part of their lives studying Mongolian instruments and music, and this has informed their own compositions. While they pay homage to their favourite folk tunes - often those that originate from their home towns - they are interspersed with new songs and pieces written by the band members. These new compositions are built on Mongolian styles and harmonies, shaped by the requirements of the instruments, but are imbued with hints of more modern rhythms and Western styles. This isn't as an attempt at popularisation or accessibility, but a manifestation of AnDa Union's contemporary expression. They seek to reconcile two different Mongolian cultures, the old and the new, and their music is the epitome of their challenge.