Let’s play word association with places. If I said Hollywood you might respond with movies. London might produce Big Ben, while the South Pole would produce penguins. And depending on your state of mind, Sweden could prompt smorgasbord, Ikea and, for a few misguided souls, ABBA.
If you were asked to play the same game with Mongolia you might come up with yurts, or maybe even Genghis Khan. But it’s pretty certain you wouldn’t come up with boy bands or heavy metal. That is, unless you were a guy who says he was more or less the Simon Cowell of Mongolia, Reghu Ragunathan.
Reghu was born in Singapore, the child of an Indian Singaporean mother and a Malaysian father. But as a rebellious kid he didn’t really identify with those cultures, and the expectation of “going to the temple, marrying early and then gathering with the family to watch Tamil movies on Sunday.” Rather, he grew up on Solid Gold, listening to everyone from A-Ha to Dionne Warwick, with the first album he ever bought being “Somewhere in Time” from Iron Maiden. Like many a kid he wanted to be a rock guitarist, but without innate musical talent he went sideways, and focused on audio production.
He started learning the ropes in Singapore, then went to London to study further. After getting his degree, he did as many recent graduates do and returned to stay with his parents while finding work in a local studio. With Singapore being the Mecca for moderns of the east, local and regional musicians flocked there to record, including those from Mongolia. And while he couldn’t speak the language, his technical chops befriended him to Bold, then the lead singer of Camerton, that country’s most successful pop/boy band.
Bold asked Reghu if he could replicate what they had in Singapore a little closer to home. Reghu was no music studio designer or construction engineer, but figured he had nothing to lose: “I figured I’m probably going to crash and burn anyways, so why not give it a try?” He signed on, getting a real-world course not only in studio design and acoustics and even how to make the furniture he needed, but also in a foreign language in a place where he was served a sheep’s head at dinner: “As the guest I was offered the eyeballs, and when they went ‘squish’ in my mouth I threw up on my host.”
But he stuck it out, eventually meeting his wife and building a following. While the country has about 3.4 million people, nearly half live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar where Reghu was based. And so while popular association with the country is with those yurts, a large number of residents have tastes not dissimilar to other urban centers in the world. As with any locality, those tastes are influenced by history and custom. In music that meant traditional two and 3 string instruments crossed with rock and pop as well as the R&B sensibility of Boys II Men, leading to groups like the Mongolian folk rock-heavy metal band The Hu and their viral hit “Wolf Totem”which has 55 million views on YouTube.
As Reghu got more established he worked with some of the locally emerging acts of the day, including A-Sound, Maraljingoo and Uka. Later on he started Mongolia Live, an online destination for Mongolian culture and traditional and fusion music videos, one of which became No. 1 in France on the world music charts, racking up 12 million views on Facebook. And that Simon Cowell reference? Reghu was one of the judges on a well-known television show called Universe Best Songs. Contestants performed for a live audience, hoping to make the cut and move on to the next round. And if you make the obvious connection to “America’s Got Talent,” then Reghu was the obvious Cowell stand-in, including his catchphrase of “Medremj?” (Mongolian for “Feeling”) which actually became a thing in Ulaanbaatar.
These days Reghu is happy in New York, with friends and projects in his chosen profession, neither of which require him to eat animal heads. He says he’s “working on my second or third life,” noting it’s a long way from where he started. Or perhaps best said in words from the refrain of the Hu’s hit “Yuve Yuve Yu,” how strange, how strange.
Marc Wollin of Bedford finds there are stories everywhere if you ask. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at glancingaskance.blogspot.com, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.