The lights go dark as a pounding war beat fills the room. A slow, steady chant of “Hu! Hu! Hu!” erupts over the tribal rhythm as ungodly guttural sounds flow underneath. A melody of strings begins to dance in the air when the buzzing intensity of electric guitars comes crashing down in a rain of heavy metal destruction. This is the sound of Mongolian folk metal band the Hu.
Yes, you read that right. Mongolian folk metal.
Not to be confused with that other band, the Hu’s name stems from hunnu, the Mongolian word for “people”—which some believe to be the root of the “Hun” moniker (as in Attila). Similar to other folk metal found around the world, their sound combines the ancient instruments, and sometimes poetry, of their ancestors with the modern composition of hard rock and heavy metal.
“It is important for us to introduce the traditional Mongolian instruments to the world,” explains founding member Galbadrakh Tsendbaatar (known as Gala) through translator Solongo Batbold. Classically trained, Gala graduated from music school at the Mongolian State Conservatory and has played his instrument, the morin khuur—a traditional horsehead fiddle—for the past 22 years.
“These instruments already perfectly match for rock music. It was a fascinating idea to create new music that can be unique enough, but still save the components of hard rock and heavy metal,” he says.
Every band wants to label their sound “unique,” but when it comes to the Hu, it’s the only accurate description. Simply put, there’s no band like them in the West.
Along with the morin khuur, they also incorporate the tumur hhuur (mouth harp), tsuur (an end-blown flute), a tovshuur (a two- or three-stringed lute), khoomei (Mongolian guttural throat singing), war drums and chanting. It’s music as infectious as it is mysterious. Tapping deep into the listener’s primal instincts, it defies anyone within earshot not to bang their head while simultaneously chanting “Hu! Hu! Hu!” during choruses (and often between songs, which is way more fun than clapping). It’s a living example of the idea that music is a universal language that connects us all to each other—and something greater.
“When we were in Texas, there were a bunch of guys in the front row—and I kid you not—who knew every song, word for word, in Mongol,” Batbold tells me before the interview. “It’s a really incredible thing.”
The Hu formed in 2016 when music producer Dashka—who is based in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, as is the band—gathered the members for the project. However, it wasn’t until September 2019 they released their debut LP, The Gereg, named after a diplomatic passport carried by nobles during the 13th Century, under Genghis Khan’s rule.
Shortly after its release, the band embarked on a North American tour and quickly gained a following. In November of that year, two of their songs were featured in the Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order game. One of them, “Sugaan Essena,” has the band singing in a Mongolian-Star Wars hybrid language they invented.
The Hu also play an outstanding cover of Metallica’s “Sad But True” in Mongol, and were asked to record “Through the Never” for the Metallica Blacklist cover album.
“[Our popularity] has happened in a very short time compared to what we thought it would take us,” Gala admits. “We are all thankful for our fans and appreciative of their support.”
During the 2020 lockdowns, which found the band stranded in Australia for two months before they could return home, they took their time to write and record their sophomore album, Rumble of Thunder, which drops on Sept. 2. Continuing the Hu’s connection to their cultural identity, Rumble of Thunder drives at themes of respect for the environment, life and the Eternal Blue Sky of their ancestors.
“As a Mongolian, the Eternal Blue Sky is one of the things we have to respect,” Gala explains. “So we try to display that in our music. It’s not about religion, but the message it gives: peace on Earth, respect for nature, respect for elders and fundamentals of the Mongolian people.”
The band is currently touring with Megadeth and Five Finger Death Punch, but will be playing a one-off headlining show at the Catalyst on Monday, August 22.
“We have a great idea for our third album,” he says. “We’re still working on it, but we will really sit down and try some stuff after the tour.”
The Hu play Monday, Aug. 22 at 8pm (doors 7pm). $28.50 adv/$32 door/$127.50 VIP. Catalyst Club, 1101 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. catalystclub.com.