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World Music Matters

Violons Barbares: riding high with Mongolia's horse head fiddle

Audio 12:29
Simon Frei

Violons Barbares (Barbaric violins) is a wild and rather wonderful trio from Mongolia, Bulgaria and France. RFI met the two fiddlers and a percussionist at a recent performance at the Musée Guimet in Paris to talk about Balkan melodies, throat singing and above all horse gallop from the Mongolian Steppes.


Dandarvaanchig Enkhjargal, conveniently shortened to Epi, plays the Mongolian morin khoor, a two-stringed fiddle decorated with a horse’s head.

Legend has it that a Mongol missed his dead horse so much that he used its head, bones and hair to make an instrument on which he started to play the familiar noises of his beloved horse.

Epi doesn’t go into this but does manage to make you visualise galloping horses when playing.

“In Mongolia, everything is about horses, all energy is in the horse," he says.

Dimitar Gougov provides the no less energetic Balkan element with some fine fiddling on the gadulka, a bowed instrument from Bulgaria with three melodic and 11 sympathetic strings.

While Gougov and Epi have a love-in on their fiddles, percussionist Fabien Guyot sits (and sometimes stands) between them producing an enthralling soundscape on his bespoke percussion set.

His toy shop includes African Dun-dun drums, Moroccan bendir, but also broken piled cymbals to provide “Asian colours”.

Then there are salad bowls, hot water bottles and his left foot will now and then tap on a cake box full of nuts, thimbles, coins and anything else that takes his fancy.

He plays with finger, nails, hands and a range of mallets and brushes.

“I have a lot of tricks, toys, that can follow the spirit of Violons Barbares’ music.. sometimes with rock and roll energy, sometimes with totally big spaces, big Steppes, so I’m changing the colour to make the landscapes different.”

Olivier Hoffschir

Horse gallop and sore throats

The resulting sound is very powerful, and exhilarating to watch.

“Bulgarian rhythmics is very complicated and percussion from Fabien is very rock and roll, and [with] Mongolian horse gallop it’s a good mix,” says Epi. “We have lots of fun.”

Epi is a master of Mongolian throat singing, a near-shamanistic drone that sounds impossibly low.

The two Europeans are picking it up quite successfully, even if “it makes your throat sore,” admits Guyot.

Less common for throat singers, Epi also performs diphonic chant, soaring like an eagle circling the grasslands.

From Bjork to Bach, Barbarians unite

Bulgarians are partly descended from Turkish-Mongol warlords who came on horseback. So the two fiddlers had common ground says Gougov, who formed the band in 2008.

“Mongolian and Bulgarian people were known [as] barbarian people. So that was the first thing.”

The band also wanted to avoid the serene, classical image of the violin which somehow didn’t fully correspond to their folk-rock, punk-tinged sound.

"[The term] ’Barbare' is something interesting,” says Gougov. [Our sound] is a little bit different so I think it was the good direction.”

“When we began the band we thought that we will create music from both traditions, beginning in the Balkans and [going] to Asia, to Mongolia,” Guyot adds. “And then we started travelling together and when you travel you listen to music, not just your own, but to rock music, Bjork, J.S. Bach.”

After a couple of years they didn’t so much throw tradition out the window, but build on it to create their own sound.

“We thought tradition [has] to be there, but we’re going to open the big window, to make a big space of exciting experiences.”

They gallop through that big space, from the Gobi desert, to Istanbul to the Balkans, with uber-energized versions of traditional songs (from Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and central Europe) and their own compositions.

Many are love songs, but with a torrid and cheeky twist. On stage they exploit that to the full. By way of introduction to one song Gougov adopts the tone of a horseman on the make: “Oh darling, come and have a ride on my horse!”. To which Epi replies with a horsey snort.

The traditional Bulgarian song Djore dos is played very fast. “It’s a love song that we transform into something like a disco song,” says Gougov.

Saturday yurt fever meanwhile is one of their own compositions: an ode to the beauty of the earth.

“The meaning of the song is very important because we need to love our mother earth," says Epi. "Don’t kill the woods and don’t [destroy] the mountains, we want our world [to] stay natural.”

Long Songs

Epi grew up a nomad on the taiga with his family and their herd of horses. So he knows a thing or two about nature.

“Nomadic life is very different because it’s a very natural life,” he says. “We produce zero plastic, everything is bio [organic].”

At the age of 12 he went to the Ulan Baator Conservatory where he studied horse-head violin for seven years under an eminent morin khuur master.

He’s lived in Germany since 1989 but remains very connected to his musical tradition which adapts easily to many different kinds of music.

“I learned many, many traditional songs from my child time. This is my soul. Mongolian music is very pentatonic music [there are] no chords, [it’s] without rhythmical part and [it’s] very free music.

“We have three different songs to sing: long songs [Urtyn duu], middle-long song, and normal songs.”

Unsurprisingly, Epi sings a lot of long songs.

“If you sing long songs it’s very exciting, from earth to sky, your soul feels free.”

The trio are currently touring with French jazz violinist Didier Lockwood and Guo Gan from China, a master of the ErHu fiddle.

“It’s a nice experience too because it’s a new opening, with a lot of improvisation,” Guyot concludes. “We have fun with this project.”

The band released Violons Barbares (2010) and Saulem Ai (2014). A third album is in the making. You'll have fun listening, but even more if you catch them live.

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Emma Marshall





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