Canadian-Mongolian jazz taps into the spirit of the steppes

Northern Lights is a contemporary jazz collective that encompasses the considerable talents of vocalist Deb Rasmussen percussionist Robin Tufts guitarist Keith Smith and bassist Simon Fisk. The darlings of local venues and veterans of numerous galas Northern Lights decided it was time to expand its influence beyond the boundaries of its beloved Canadian landscape and in 2006 ventured to Ulaanbaatar Mongolia where it headlined at the Giant Steppes International Jazz Festival.

“I’ve been traveling to Mongolia for work purposes since 1996 working on agricultural projects with herding groups and vegetable and grain growers” Rasmussen explains. “It was through the people I met in those training programs that I was introduced to musicians who were interested in jazz. Of course their biggest problem was the limited access to written or recorded music so we struck upon the idea of forming a jazz library that would provide those resources.”

Continuing to build on the groundwork it laid with its live concerts and subsequent workshops at the Mongolian festival the Northern Lights ensemble began to actively promote the development of improvisational music in that country. In 2008 the group returned to Ulaanbaatar to participate in a celebration of the 35th anniversary of the historic opening of Canada’s embassy in Mongolia.

“We were the only real traditional jazz group in attendance” recalls Tufts. “There were mainly local players in small trios and the National Army’s Big Band; we were by far the headliners. It was great to be perceived as being huge stars! The biggest difference that we saw between our 2006 and 2008 visits was how hungry the people had become for music.”

Responding to the demand they perceived for cross-cultural exchange the Canadian quartet recently extended its hospitality and support by inviting a group of Mongolian musicians to tour in Canada. This tour will welcome Odontungalag (Odno) who plays Khuuchir along with his Mongolian comrades Ganbolt and Ganzorig who play the Morin Khuur (horse head fiddle) and Khuchuur (an instrument resembling the Chinese Erhu) and perform Khuumii or Khoomii (throat singing). The trio performs traditional music from the steppes of Mongolia which evokes images of the grasslands deserts mountains and horses that are the life’s blood of the nomadic people of Mongolia.

“What struck us right away was the way they based their instrumental music on their immediate landscape” Tuft says of Northern Lights’ initial attempts at bringing the two groups together in rehearsal. “Their music is very grand and open like the steppes and it resonated with us because Northern Lights is very inspired by natural landscapes.”

Indeed the Mongolian troupe maintains its own culturally unique traditions and interpretations even as the ensembles work together to blend jazz into traditional Mongolian music and bring the sounds of Mongolian music into jazz.

The collaborative process in which the musical conventions of East and West echo and complement each other aids in the improvisation of a new and emerging sound fusion that is a symbol of an evolving partnership of artistic expression. “We want to present the purity of both traditions” Tufts says.