Interview: Violons Barbares @ Womad (July 2015)

Violons Barbares, as their name suggests, are indeed a wild trio. To say these guys are virtuosic would be an understatement. We interviewed the two fiddlers and percussionist just after their highly entertaining and mind-blowing set on The Radio 3 Charlie Gillett Stage on a wet WOMAD Sunday afternoon.

As well as being amazing instrumentalists the addition of their superb vocal skills makes this ensemble into something that sounds much bigger than it is. The three are Mongolian Dandarvaanchig Enkhjargal (otherwise known as Epi), Dimitar Gougov from Silistra, Bulgaria and Fabien Guyot from France.

Epi is a true showman and the joker of the band As soon as he started posing for the band’s photo shoot in his beautiful Mongolian costume we could tell we were in for an entertaining ride. He plays the morin khoor, the two-stringed Mongolian fiddle decorated with a horse’s head with one male (made from a stallion’s tail) and one female string (taken from a mare). His vocal skills are astonishing. In a flash he can switch from the style of an Indian Qawwali singer to Bulgarian folksong, then that wonderfully grungy throat and overtone singing that is so distinctive of his own steppe country of Mongolia. Fabien Guyot, the ‘wild’ percussionist of the band also joins in on vocals and is an indispensable addition to the group with his incredibly diverse skills and unusual set-up of percussion instruments. Dimitar provides the Balkan element with traditional Bulgarian songs and fine fiddling on the gadulka, a bowed instrument with three playing and ten sympathetic strings.

We began our conversation with Violons Barbares by asking them how they all met. Fabien the percussionist responded first:

We [himself and Dimitar] met 2001. Both of us were living in Strasbourg. We were both part of a collective called ‘La Sauce Piquante’ – Hot Sauce. We also played together in a group called ‘Le Grand Ensemble de la Méditerranée’ – The Big Mediterranean Ensemble.

Dimitar, the gadulka player then adds:

I met Epi in Germany in 2006. We were invited to take part in project called The Silk Road with ten musicians from all over the world – China, Mongolia, India Iran, Bulgaria, Turkey, Germany and Sweden. Anyway, he was the Mongolian and I was the Bulgarian. So that’s how we met, in the Silk Road project. Fabien and I live in Strasbourg and Epi lives one hour away in Germany – Karlsruhe. At the beginning it was like that. I heard the two instruments and thought ‘interesting! They are the same volume. Maybe we can play together”.

We asked Epi how he feels about mixing his Mongolian music with Bulgarian folk traditions:

This band is a completely different thing. We were all playing always with different projects and we had enough. This group is a new creation because when we come together we create new colour, new sounds, new feeling, new love, [laughs] ha ha no, I’m joking! It’s something new, nice! Dimitar is an amazing arranger, a fantastic composer [Dimitar makes modest sounds] and Fabien always has good ideas and makes good arrangements. So after making the arrangements what had been very easy traditional music is no more an easy thing! So it’s a funny thing then, giving us life, colour and love, everything!

We said it must be an interesting process mixing two different traditional musics together from such distances, from Mongolia to Bulgaria. We asked if they had to to learn a lot about each other’s music. Dimitar replied

A very good question! There are many things to learn. We try to play the music of each other but with a new element. I can’t play the Mongolian music correctly. It never can be the same thing, but we can make something different. And he [Epi] sings a Bulgarian song, not with the same character but he adds something new, something rich with a new voice [Dimitar demonstrates a bit of Mongolian throat singing]. We learn the text – the Mongolian or the Khazak text. We can’t speak the Mongolian language, but we can try to pronounce it correctly in the song. The new element was the percussion, it’s not Mongolian, it’s not Bulgarian, it’s something universal. It works!

During their show a short while before Epi announced that they were going to play a love song. Obviously the audience expected something sweet and lyrical, but instead the group set off at full pelt with an unexpected energy and pace. We mentioned it wasn’t like any love song we’d ever heard and Epi laughed, saying “our great percussion player Fabien Guyot told us always ‘love is best!’” to which Fabien responded, “ I never said that!” It was apparent that there is always a bit of gentle ribbing going on in this band. But Dimitar soon got back to the serious business of explaining about how the group put their songs together.

There are traditional songs but we play also a lot of compositions. I think there’s about 60% composed material and 40% traditional music. But also the compositions we make are very near to the traditional. Sometimes I try to compose something that sounds like Mongolian music, something between rock and Mongolian music. It’s the same tuning, it’s pentatonic, so it’s very pleasing.

We then asked Epi more about the roots of his Mongolian music and how he came to learn it.

We have many, many traditional songs from Mongolia from different regions and I play music from every one of those regions. I play a very special old Mongolian music known as Urtyn duu or ‘long song’ – free feeling from earth to sky! It’s a big thing. At the same time I also play ‘short song’, which is very expressive, very fast and with a lot of energy. Before I went to school, Because Mongolian people are singing a lot, all the time singing, singing, singing, automatically I got the Mongolian music in my heart. When I was twelve years old I went to the best music school in Mongolia for seven years of study. I learned Mongolian traditional music and Mongolian classical music at the same time – these two things. It was the best music school in Mongolia [The Mongolian State University of Culture and Arts in Ulaanbaatar]. But I already knew a big repertoire before I went to school, yes, like everything it was normal, like Irish whisky…

Joking again, Epi begins to stray from the point when Fabien asks him, “Epi, tell us! Where did you learn moonwalking?” This gives Epi the excuse to get up and start dancing. Once more Dimitar brought us back to earth, keeping the interview on track going by explaining about his own musical education.

When I was young in Bulgaria I had no musicians in my family. My father dances very well, but he’s not a musician. Only dancing, not singing, it’s a catastrophe when he sings! But he loved dancing, and very often he put on the radio or television with traditional music. He was very happy to see and hear it. So at the time I heard many, many things, but not see people playing in the family. So I started to play my instrument when I was ten years old in the music school, and there you go! After that I went to the music academy in Plovdiv. Plovdiv is the second biggest city in Bulgaria. When I was twenty-two I worked for one year in Sofia in the Filip Kutev Ensemble – that’s the big state ensemble of music and dance. And from this ensemble came the singer who worked with Goran Bregović [the renowned Balkan musician who amongst other things wrote film scores for Emir Kusturica’s films such as ‘Black Cat, White Cat]. We stayed in the same flat in Sofia. That was fun [laughs]. And when I was twenty-three I left Bulgaria for a new life in France, and there I met Fabien in Strasbourg.

We were interested to know how Epi finds musical life in Europe without the traditional music of his homeland surrounding him. He told us:

Now I play with a lot with world musicians from all around the world – Africans and Germans, Swedish, whatever. This is because for many years I worked with my friend Rüdiger Oppermann, the biggest world music-maker from Germany. Working with these people was for me a big surprise, learning, feeling other cultures and learning many different things. That’s why now I’m not a beginner [at collaborating], but at the same time it’s a very nice feeling. [Dimitar interjcts – “everybody wants to play with him!”] For my own traditional music there is solo repertoire, band and orchestral music, but since I got to Europe I’ve played in many different environments – an orchestra for example and a jazz big-band from Germany. I loved playing in that! It was a great experience for me. Fantastic energy and I improvised. Great, I liked it! So you see I’ve played in lots of different directions with many musicians.

Finally, as this was the first time the group has played in the UK we asked the group about their recordings, as I’m sure many people would love to hear more of Violons Barbares. Fabien told us:

We have two discs. The first one ‘Violons Barbares’ was out in 2010 and the second one ‘Saulem Ai’ was out in 2014…

…they graciously handed over a copy of each – and most excellent they are too! We very much hope to hear more of Violons Barbares’ ‘wild’ music in the UK soon – definitely one of our highlights of WOMAD 2015!

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