BEHIND THE SCENES with Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis

Did you travel to Mongolia with a particular story in mind to tell, or were you more interested in collecting recordings and letting them shape your documentary

Hal Cannon: I went to Mongolia intending to record the experience both as a radio story and to capture archival material. The Western Folklife Center [ed. note: where Hal and Taki work] has a very active archive with staffing, and it's a priority of our organization to document traditional life in a wildly changing world. When I returned from the trip I had recorded so much and I was so full of thoughts that I was compiled to write about it, trying to come to terms with the experience. So not only did Taki have to go through the tape and the transcripts but he had to bear with my impressions and interpretations. In the end there was so much to consider that it made the editing difficult. Our editor at WESUN , Stu Seidel, had asked for an audio postcard. After he heard our first edit, coming in at 20 minutes, he commented, "We asked for a postcard and you sent us a whole damn letter.

From Sagebrush to Steppe presents a variety of different scenes and characters as it follows the shape of your trip. Are there any single stories from your experience that you'd like to focus on if you ever return

HC: We are working on another piece from our recordings for our monthly series that airs on Weekend Edition Sunday -- What's in a Song. It will be about the reemergence of Ghengis Khan as a modern folk hero in Mongolia and how this has translated into songs from the traditional to hip-hop. I also became fascinated with the cultural value of milk as both a Buddhist and Shamanistic symbol of purity and of nurture. I just scratched the surface recording lullabies and ceremonial use of fermented mares milk. It would take another trip to delve into the subject

Taki Telonidis: I would be very interested in going to Mongolia and doing an expanded version of the Ghengis Khan story that Hal mentioned above. Ghengis Khan is the key to the creation of a cultural identity for the modern Mongolian people, who at long-last are free of Soviet (and before that Chinese) domination. Although demonized in the West, GK's reemerging story is far more complex and positive. Yes he was ruthless if you chose to resist his conquest, but he also elevated the status of women in society, promoted free trade in his huge empire, and established a meritocracy in government. Not bad. I'm interested in a piece that weaves together this history with Ghengis as folk hero, while also revealing the many real ways that his influence extends to modern life here in the West

What are some of the challenges in producing a story about a faraway place that most of your listeners have never traveled to themselves yet may have distinct stereotypes about? How do you translate huge cultural differences through sound and text

TT: One of the biggest challenges in producing radio from so foreign a land is that the language and sounds (the audio) of the place don't send the same cues that might come from a more familiar place. There's no point of reference because everything is so exotic. In this case, I think we were aided by the fact that I was not able to accompany Hal on this trip to Mongolia. Because I didn't see the sights and smell the smells, I had to rely on the raw audio exclusively

For three days, I locked myself in our editing room, closed my eyes, and listened to the 20 hours of audio Hal recorded. This process helped us to focus on the strongest sounds and scenes. Along the way, Hal and I had a series of conversations to fill in the blanks, and develop themes for the story's narrative. I'm particularly proud of the last scene in the piece where we chose not to translate the words of Mongolian herdsman Tseye. This trip was an emotional experience both for the cowboys and the Mongolians, and the emotion in his voice said it all. Words would only get in the way

Hal -- around the middle of the program, you mention a longing for a certain musical language that you suspect Westerners have lost. Can you reflect a bit more on this idea

HC: A Zen teacher and musician friend introduced me to the idea of objective music. It's a concept the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff talked about, an idea that music can have a specific objective outcome whether it puts you into a trance or soothes the beast within. I had an ahhhh moment when recording a woman singing a song to her yak to help in the milking. From that moment I started seeing all the ways music was part of the daily conversation of rural people in Mongolia. So much of our music in the modern world goes one way. We are bombarded by background sound that comes at us rather than through us. And it seems the objective power of music, has been lost in the deluge

There's an interesting discussion about the value of cultural exchange programs on the Western Folklife Center's Web site blog, The Deep West. What did you find most meaningful about the exchange between the Mongolian and American cowboys

HC: There is something in the American spirit, or at the very least the cowboy spirit, that wants to get in there and do some good and to get it done without fuss. Our group did not want this exchange to be trivial like some Disneyesque vision of cowboy and cowgirl figurines all circled, holding hands singing "It's a Small World." The challenge came in balancing the gift of what you have to share with the gift of receiving with all your senses. For the cowboys this is where I saw growth. In the process friends in remote places were made one at a time, sharing a song, riding horseback, side, by side

When I asked Tseye, one of the Mongolian horse wranglers about the exchange he summed it up, "We always greet visitors and we don't even know whether you are friend or foe. During my childhood I was taught in my school that Americans are imperialists and I was brought up with an offensive attitude. As I am interested in hunting, I even thought when I grow up I will buy a very good rifle and I will go into the battle. Then when I saw real actual people my whole impression changed and my attitude is now really friendly. I am deeply touched to travel with them in my country."### If you were given the chance to make an audio documentary about the culture of any other place in the world, where would you choose and why

HC: While technology and transportation have made the world smaller it seems we have not kept pace with the basic humanity of a smaller world, the ethics of neighborliness. We are seeing every day how deadly cultural clashes can be. So I guess I want to work in places where there is hope, where there is openness. I was in Brazil last year where I felt a kind of trust and possibility that I have not experienced in this country for some time. I'd love to capture that somehow through sound. TT: The Mongolia piece makes me realize that we have something to learn from just about anyone, anywhere. There isn't a particular place or places where I'd like to make radio, except to say the more off the beaten track the better. I'd also be interested in a project that brought radio producers from far off places to America, people who otherwise would not have the opportunity to work here. Reporting on and interpreting their first-hand experiences for audiences back home might break some of the stereotypes that other people have of us -- while giving us a new perspective on ourselves.