In the past few years I have had the good fortune to travel quite a bit for my music, visiting many well traveled cities like Paris, London, Tangiers, and some more off the beaten path locales like Bulgaria and the Yukon, but none so exotic as Mongolia (Don’t know where Mongolia is on a map? Don’t worry, when I got called for the tour I wasn’t too sure either; I had to look it up. It’s between Russia and China, check it out). When I googled the country I discovered it has permafrost (yes, it really is THAT cold), salted milk tea (yes, I drank some), and is virtually untouched by the touring Jazz community. Duke Ellington did not visit Mongolia on his Far East Tour, Louis Armstrong never played there, not even Wynton Marsalis has visited (yet). The listening audience of Mongolia was undiscovered country. I had no idea what to expect.
I feel like all I hear these days are cries of “Jazz Is Dead!”, “There aren’t any women at my gigs!” “Young people don’t like Jazz!” Let me tell you, if you’ve ever wanted to disprove all these ideas at once, visit Mongolia. The agency that brought me to Mongolia is Jazz Lab and it is run by a young woman, Mandukhai, who believes that Jazz is the sound of freedom and she wants to bring that to her countrymen through a series of concerts and educational outreach. Many of the students at the school are young women, earnestly involved in the study of the music, not as a technical exercise like so many students I encounter, but as a way of thinking, a metaphysical pursuit destined to bring happiness and peace to their fellow human beings. There are very serious Jazz fans there, who listen to Clifford Brown and Sarah Vaughan and watch Jazz youtube videos all day long. In all my life I have never encountered so many young women, who, like myself, want to talk about Jazz all day and then go out for cake and shopping. It was an amazing experience, to travel halfway around the world and find myself surrounded by people like myself.
Between the long philosophical discussions about Jazz, lessons, listening sessions, and performing, I had time to get a Mongolian makeover (seriously one of the best hair and makeup jobs I have ever experienced), try many Mongolian dishes (lots of mutton) including yak meat, climb up a giant hill in -36*F weather (my lungs were burning), attempt to speak Mongolian (SUPER hard), buy lots and lots of cashmere (love it), attend a Christmas party complete with a Santa who handed out oreos (one of the most fun parties of my life), and drink salted milk tea. Salted Milk Tea is a typical Mongolian drink and it’s basically just what it sounds like, Tea with milk and salt. When I first tried it the taste reminded me of the ocean (it’s really that salty), and I shared my observation at the table. Everyone was immediately interested, as many of them had never seen or been in an ocean, and everyone began gulping the drink down, exclaiming “the ocean tastes like salted milk tea!!” I hope I haven’t set their expectations too high.
Mongolia was an amazing experience and I can’t wait to get back and see my newfound friends again. When I visit in the warmer months they promised me we would go horse back riding and sing under the big blue sky. I can’t wait. In the meantime I wish them all the best in their Jazz endeavors!
Check back here next week to read about South Korea, which I toured after Mongolia this past December. Lots of excellent food experiences, including eating silk worms. Thanks for reading!