Batbold Bavuu makes no secret of the fact he’s suffering from last night. Few can blame the man better known as Boldoo; yesterday marked the end of Mongolia’s most recent COVID-19 lockdown, meaning this passionate 42-year-old musician and artist could reopen the record shop he established in 2015, legitimising any celebrations.
First set up after he inherited a huge archive of albums the Mongolian State Conservatory was giving away, back then Dund Gol was the only vinyl store operating in the country. Since stocked with a mixture of car boot finds, specialist orders and gems unearthed in closets, an emerging record culture has also gripped the capital, Ulaanbaata, encouraging other stores to open. We call to discuss the city’s musical landscape today, but talk of North Korean and East German pressings start us out on political history.
“After 1990, when the West arrived, traditional Mongolian music died,” says Boldoo after we ask if truly homegrown tunes are still popular. “They're all copying Western stuff. There is no traditional music now. It’s gone, because the people and the government never cared about that culture after the revolution.”
“I think the important thing to know is that before, Mongolia had no private property - everybody was paid by the state. Everybody works for the state. So there was no market economy. The mindset is interesting for musicians. They just got paid the salary, monthly salary, and created music. They don't care about sales, it was all run by state ministry,” he continues, explaining when that system collapsed artists were cast adrift and faced impossible competition from foreign industries and global stars, including US artists who were previously banned.
“In the 1970s there were some cool kids smuggling vinyl into Mongolia from the West, some were the kids of diplomatic people. Like someone who worked at an embassy. It was a crime, contraband, you know? You could go to jail because of selling records,” Boldoo says, recounting how — ironically — the country’s first rock band, Soyol Erdene, was originally formed to replicate Liverpool’s most famous sons.
“There is a story that in 1971 the minister for culture asked traditional musicians: ‘I have heard there’s a band called The Beatles, can you play like them? The minister then bought them a drum set and Yamaha synthesiser,” he says of how the outfit was put together. “There’s certainly a lot happening in their free-wheeling, immersive, explorative arrangements, exoticism married to more familiar pop, rock, and psychedelic elements. An all-but-forgotten release, in 2021 it’s among the Communist-era stock now selling well with overseas customers.”
“I sold a record by The Bayan Mongol Variety Group to Elijah Wood from Lord of the Rings for $500US. I just put it up on Discogs and suddenly somebody from Beverly Hills had ordered it. It was Elijah Wood. Then I found out he’s into DJing that kind of exotic Asian thing. I think he DJs with a friend, the project is called Wooden Wisdom,” Boldoo excitedly recalls. “Some Russian contacts got copies printed again, because of me. I was selling very well on Discogs, so they thought it's a good idea. They sent me the new prints, and I'm selling here for about $80 or something.”
Despite clear appreciation for gems from Mongolia’s hidden past, Boldoo is keen to point out Dund Gol is really aimed at Mongolia’s growing DJ community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering his own output as an MC and work as writer and music maker in the domestic hip hop community, where he’s been active since 1994, he proudly tells us that rhymes are the most in-demand sounds among heads, with gangster rap particularly popular. Another trend that has roots in politics.
“Mongolian people never liked Communism, so they have something to tell. That’s why hip hop is very popular. It’s free speech,” says Boldoo, describing his role in Ulaanbaatar’s contemporary music scene as the guy keeping shelves expertly stocked, and passionately putting young ones onto names like J Dilla and De La Soul. “Some people listen to records because they like the memories. But now young people are getting into vinyl because of DJing. I’m introducing new vinyl to new kids. Like a new culture, not that memorabilia kind of thing.”
Boldoo’s eye for opportunity and ear for quality are matched by an ambitious streak that becomes clearer as our conversation approaches its conclusion. While acknowledging the freedoms offered by democracy, selling and celebrating Western music culture, he also recognises that talent closer to home will always struggle without organised support and networks, an issue that clearly plays on his mind.
“There was no copyright and stuff before. So I think this market economy is better for musicians, but there's no music company here. You know, everybody's independent. It's hard for musicians to survive. To be in the market economy. And it's hard for musicians to manage themselves,” Boldoo says, before moving on to what he would like to do about it, given half the chance. “We need to create one big music organisation, to bring Mongolian artists together now.”