If you think winter in Chicago is brutal, try visiting Mongolia in February.
Local indie rockers Canasta did just that recently, spending ten days touring the remote country as part of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' Arts Envoy Program. While there, the band performed concerts and participated in seminars with local artists and musicians--all while struggling with temperatures that averaged around 25 degrees below zero.
"I would say a lot of the trip was closer to roughing it than I'm used to," said singer Matt Priest, 36. "So some of that caught me off guard."
Reached less than 24 hours after returning to Chicago, the jet-lagged Roscoe Village resident talked about his attempts at traditional Mongolian throat singing, the reaction locals had to the band's music and why he's glad he was never challenged to a wrestling match.
I imagine packing for a trip like this was a daunting task.
It was really daunting, actually. And to be honest, I'm pretty bad at packing to begin with. We would talk to some people and they would be like, "Oh, it's going to be freezing. Bring all your best winter gear." Then other people were like, "It sounds worse on paper than it is." It turned out to be every bit as intense as those people that were warning us claimed it would be.
What was the most jaw-dropping part of the experience?
For some reason with "jaw-dropping" I think of something that was a little bit negative. During the winter, (Mongolian capitol) Ulaanbaatar is the most polluted city on the planet. A lot of people burn coal, and they have entire districts where lower-income folks ... burn whatever they can get their hands on--tires and all sorts of other things. The moment we got off the plane it was negative 44 degrees and you could instantly taste the pollution in the air.
How did the locals respond to your music?
It was a mix of people who were fascinated and didn't know really how to react and people who were totally loving it. Everywhere we went I think we made an impression, and they definitely made an impression on us.
Did anyone try to teach you traditional throat singing?
I did spend about 20 minutes speaking to this guy in this one town who was sort of the master of the art form. I did my approximation of it, which he thought was pretty funny. Then he showed me how you really do it, and after about five seconds my throat was already tearing up. It was like, "If I do this anymore I'm not going to be able to sing tonight."
Did you have any Andrew Zimmern/"Bizarre Foods" experiences when it came to the cuisine?
As a band we actually all watched that footage before we went over there to see what the strangest stuff would be. But for the most part nothing we faced was insurmountable. They'll supposedly take a goat and use a blowtorch to get all the fur off it and then they'll stuff it with hot rocks to cook it from the inside out, but we did not witness that. There was a lot of mutton and fried noodles and fried rice and dumplings and soups. There was also tea everywhere, which was something I loved.
The country's most popular sport is wrestling. Were you ever challenged to a match?
We were not. I've heard it's a huge deal over there, but we didn't experience any of that. It's interesting, we had so many shows and workshops scheduled that even though we took in lots of real-life culture just being there, we didn't have a whole lot of time for museums and monasteries and things like that.
What do you think the result would have been if someone had challenged you to wrestle?
We're musicians before we're athletes, and the Mongolian people...I feel a really great word to describe them is resilience because there are all sorts of things about their way of life and the weather that I found to be really, really tough. Towards the end of it I was like, "I can't do this anymore. I'm glad we're going home." And here are these people that live it every day.
So you're saying you would have gotten your butts kicked?
I'm saying we would have gotten our butts absolutely kicked. They're tough people, man.