Nature Ganganbaigal of Tengger Cavalry
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Nature Ganganbaigal of Tengger Cavalry

So many great Maryland Deathfest spillover tours pass through Chicago this week that the Reader couldn’t preview them all. (It’s the music section, not the metal section.) I wrote about Ufomammut and Anaal Nathrakh, but I didn’t manage to cover what I’m pretty sure is the first Chicago show by Czech grinders Lycanthropy or the bonkers avant-black-metal bill of Thantifaxath and Imperial Triumphant.

So for today’s 12 O’Clock Track, why did I pick a band that doesn’t have a gig in town and in fact has never played in the States at all? Well, if the words “Mongolian folk” and “death metal” in the headline haven’t answered that question already, I’m not sure how much further I’m going to get with you.

Nature Ganganbaigal, an ethnic Mongolian born in Beijing, founded Tengger Cavalry as a one-man studio project in 2009. (“Tengger” is a sky god worshipped by ancient Turkic peoples as well as the name of a desert in Inner Mongolia.) He expanded it into a live band in 2013 with the addition of Hasi and Xin Wang on morin khuur (traditional Mongolian horsehead fiddle), Mural on dombra (a long-necked Asian lute), Wei Wang on bass, and Kai Ding on drums. In that context he sticks to guitar and vocals, including khoomei, or Mongolian throat singing—I think I hear the rumbling kargyraa and the whistling sygyt styles on Tengger Cavalry’s recordings, but I’m hardly an expert. “It took a long time for me to finally figure it out that it was worth going onstage with my music,” Ganganbaigal says.

He’s now working on a master’s in music at New York University, studying scoring for film and multimedia (which in his case means video games). The rest of the band still lives in China, so the new Tengger Cavalry album—a rerecorded and expanded version of the 2010 release Blood Shaman Sacrifice, coming out May 18 on Metal Hell Records—is once again a solo effort. “I did all the recording and producing in my studio near Manhattan,” Ganganbaigal says. “I recorded guitar, vocal, morin khuur, and other ethnic instruments. The drums are programmed. I spent tons of hours to craft and polish the sound to make it sound authentic.”

Ganganbaigal brought a morin khuur with him from China, holding it on his lap on the plane rather than entrust it to the tender mercies of airline baggage handlers. And he helps keep homesickness at bay with regular trips to Jamaica Bay to go horseback riding. Tengger Cavalry’s music often borrows the inexorable galloping rhythms of Mongolian folk music, which evolved alongside the people’s nomadic way of life—the vast open spaces and sparse human population of the central Asian steppes can mean you spend a lot of time on a horse. Ganganbaigal’s swirling, stately melodies draw from the same sources, evoking the bittersweet solitude of a lone rider, the sounds of the unceasing wind, and the merciless grandeur of the landscape.

“In college, I did have a band called Hell Savior, which was a really traditional, old-school thrash metal thing. I just realized it’s cool, the Satan stuff, but not something that can touch your heart,” he told Kim Kelly in an excellent recent interview for Noisey. “If you want to become an artist, it’s more than anger. At the end of the day, the reason you listen to this music every day is because you want something that will touch your heart with something beautiful and not just hatred, like ‘I hate the world!’ I think metal is beyond that.”

Like many ethnic Mongolians, Ganganbaigal has a complex spiritual identity shaped by the overlap of different cultures—his beliefs combine aspects of traditional shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. “I long to put something beautiful into my music, like horses, grass, love, rocks, sky,” he told Kelly. “With Tengger Cavalry, people can feel the hardcore toughness but also the love and compassion.”

Ganganbaigal was gracious enough to share with me a full stream of Blood Sacrifice Shaman before its release. If the Soundcloud embed above works for you the way it works for me, though, you can’t skip from song to song in the player. On Bandcamp you can have your pick of the album tracks “Tengger Cavalry,” “Horseman,” and “Hero.”

Given the Chinese government’s long-standing hostility to expressions of ethnic identity, it’s a small miracle that Tengger Cavalry even exists. But the group is thriving at home, with six albums out already, and Ganganbaigal hopes to persuade his bandmates to join him in the States for a tour. I’ll be looking for them on next year’s Maryland Deathfest schedule for sure.

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.