Horses thundering across the vast grasslands of Central Asia is only one of the sounds from the steppes evoked in the music of the Anda Union band.
Hailing from Inner Mongolia, an autonomous province of northern China, the group and its songs feature the whistles and trills, the guttural sound of throat singing (homai) and the long-song (urtinduu) that traditional Mongolian music is famous for.
“I was blown away by them,” said Tim Pearce of London, who first heard the group in Shanghai in 2006.
“There’s no one else doing anything like them,” said Pearce, who accompanied the band back to Inner Mongolia and later became their manager.
“Their music is moving and beautiful,” he said. “It’s powerful, and it really rocks as well.”
Anda (which means “blood brother” or “blood sister”) Union kicks off a 10-week tour of the United States on Friday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The group of 10 musicians will perform a range of songs reflecting the nomadic life of the Mongols, who traveled across the steppes — vast plateaus of grass — to graze herds of sheep, goats, horses and camels.
“It has a big, open sound,” said Pearce, about the music that emerged from the nomadic world of grass and sky.
Created by Genghis Khan in the 1200s, the Mongol Empire at its peak stretched from Siberia across the Central Asian steppes to eastern Europe, making it the largest contiguous empire in history.
“They’ve captured that and made the most amazing arrangements,” Pearce said. “It’s quite theatrical.”
Songs such as “Ten Thousand Galloping Horses” make good use of pounding percussion and strings bowed to sound like the whinnying of horses.
Quieter, more personal songs are about romantic love or about a mother singing to a married daughter who has moved far away to live with her husband’s family, Pearce said.
“The music is from the nomads, from the open spaces,” he said. “During the 1970s, it kind of died out, but the younger generation is rediscovering it.”
Primary among traditional Mongolian instruments is the horsehead fiddle (morin huur), a two-string instrument played with a bow like a cello.
Originally made from skin, bone and horsehair, it now features a wooden, square-shaped sound box connected to a long neck and pegboard, with the tip sometimes carved into a horse’s head.
Anda Union also uses three-hole flutes (maodun chaoer), as well as lutes and mouth harps.
In a style known as throat singing, the singers can produce two or more pitches at the same time.
Once the vocal chords are vibrating (a drone-like sound), the singer shapes the overtones from the vibrations using the lips, mouth, jaw and folds in the throat to create a second pitch.
In Mongolian long-song, singers hold the syllables in words for an extended time “with a lot of trills up and down,” Pearce said.
Anda Union’s singers and musicians grew up in different areas, but they are now all based in Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia.
They share a similar background in musical training, and they also performed with the Inner Mongolian state orchestras before forming their own group in 2003.
“The music was a bit stiff, because it was meant to be Mongolian music but they were trying to perform for Chinese audiences,” Pearce said.
Anda Union has since taken the music from their homeland, passed down through generations, and arranged it for today’s audiences, while also composing music of their own.
In 2011, Pearce and the group released a DVD called “Anda Union: From the Steppes to the City,” which records the band’s live performances during a road trip around Inner Mongolia.
“It’s like the Silk Road — it’s a doorway into the east,” said Pearce about the group and its music. “You’re transported to another time and place and reconnected with nature.”