Singing is a spatial practice. Soundwaves extend across space. Voices travel from recording booths to headphones or fill tiny basement jazz clubs. The rooms that singer Enkhjargal Erkhembayar, known as Enji, creates and fills with the sounds of her new album Ulaan, are tender ones. Between minimalistic jazz and traditional Mongolian folk, the artist uses vocals intentionally, shifting pace where she sees fit, and like, this skillfully communicates the emotions of the songs sung in Mongolian even to listeners who do not speak the language. I caught up with Enji to find out more about her musical style and the stories behind Ulaan.
At the time of our conversation, Enji is visiting Mongolia and connects to the Zoom call from the studio of a friend in the capital city – the city that is also the title of the album. She is wearing a band shirt from her previous vocal collective, Enji’s Sisters, with whom she performed jazz songs from the 20s and 30s. The shirt reads in cursive lettering: if you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. The artist gets up to show me the print and, with a smile on her face, says: “It means a lot to me”. The shirt is a connector to home for the artist who has been living in and recording from the South German city of Munich for the past years.
The Red Hero
Ulaanbaatar is the third record Enji released and the second album of original songs. She previously published Mongolian Song, an album of reinterpretations of traditional Mongolian Folk, and her debut on Squama Recordings, Ursgal. “Ulaan means ‘red’, and Ulaanbaatar means ‘red hero’,” Enji explains. “Ulaan [red] is actually my nickname in the family. When I was a baby, I was shouting and crying a lot and turned red like a tomato. At first, my family didn’t find the right name for me and just called me Ulaan for two months. Until today, they don’t call me Enji but Ulaan.”
It is a record of personal connection, as hinted by the intertwined connection the artist has to the title. Part her name, part the city that she spent a lot of time in, Ulaan is a musical exploration of “personal stories and unbearable distances”. Musically, the artist merges jazz with thousand-year-old folk traditions and continues to nurture the connection to her roots through music and lyrics in Mongolian.
“Red is a part of me. No matter where I am and no matter what kind of road I am going to take. I have to take care of Ulaan, my very first personality and look for that red light and the original energy. In the spoken part of the lyrics, I am also saying: I am red like a flaming fire, and I have a body but my mind is formless and I can fly anywhere.”
Freedom in Music
Sung entirely in Mongolian, Enji’s native tongue, I cannot grasp the poetry of the lyrics to its full extent. I can only rely on the intonation and mood of the song to feel the stories that Enji is telling. Still, the songs carry so much emotion that, even though, I do not understand what is being sung, I can let myself go and search for the feelings they evoke within me without having a preconceived idea of the topic. Enji nods along as I describe my experience of listening to Ulaanbaatar and Ursgal to her. “Language isn’t the limit”, she comments. “Sometimes it is the other way around and not understanding specific words or meaning in the lyrics, allows you to have the freedom to receive the music in your own way.”
On the record, the instruments are in dialog with the vocals and the intonation of the letters itself has a free jazz vibe to it as Enji uses her voice to make a broad range of sounds from playfully abstract and elongated, to gently spoken words, and jazzy scats. Ulaan for example, is a loose jam accompanied by melodic scat singing. The vibrato-laden technique and the stretched syllables of Urtiin Duu (the traditional Long Song) can be found in songs like Teemen Deerees Naran Oirhon. There is an intentional minimalism to the music that makes it airy and light. Enji has immaculate vocal technique, but on songs like Libelle the artist allows herself the freedom to experiment and break the boundaries of Western standard singing. Accompanied only by the drums, I can hear the joy and amazement in making sounds as the artist explores her voice as a tool.
Working with a group of German and Mongolian instrumentalists, not everyone understands the lyrics that Enji brings to the sessions. To open up the sessions to the players who do not speak Mongolian, the artist explains that in the studio she usually shares what the songs are about.“I have deep trust in the artists I am playing with. The process can be very personal and intense. But I think, ever since I have started writing original music, I am becoming more open and trusting in the music.”
Zuud, for example, is a song about a dream that the artist had. The song starts with words spoken by the artist accompanied by minimal sounds resembling winds, flapping wings, and echoes of strings. As the opener to the record, the song functions as a soft introduction to the journey to come. “In that song, I am telling the story of a dream. In that dream, I was losing my mother”, Enji says. “It was so clear that I could remember every word, every image, and even the smell. It was painful and intense. When I woke up, I cried out. Then, I felt gratitude and joy that it was actually just a dream.”
The intimacy that the album excuses would not have been possible to create without a trusting relationship between the musicians. Enji describes the process of opening up more and more over the course of the years that she has been playing with her band. Only with that base, it was possible to record the album within a short period of time. Over the course of five days, the musicians Paul Brändle, Munguntvoch Tsolmonbayar, Mariá Portugal, and Juana Queiroz embarked on a journey of self-discovery with Enji as bandleader and storyteller.
The dynamic interplay between the instruments has an organic flow to it. Guiding the arrangements with confidence, Enji uses her broad musical background to create an emotion-driven album that steps out of the structures of Western music conservatory education.
“One thing I learned over the years is that you have your voice, and you just have to bring that out. And I don’t want to be limited to any kind of style. Of course, each genre has its own language and vocabulary but when you sing, you bring out what you have inside. That kind of singing has always been in me.”
Music has been part of Enji’s family lineage for a long time. Growing up in a yurt to working-class parents, Enji tells me that communal singing played a central role in her upbringing. Through her father’s side of the family, the artist listened to a lot of music and actually began to teach as a music teacher herself with no intention of performing herself. Singing is present in all moments of life, from celebration to sadness, Enji says about her community. While she explains that they also like to sing pop songs together, they are also continuing the tradition of Long Song (Urtiin Duu) in her family. In the Mongolian folk tradition, vocalists extend single words and syllables in vibrato-laden lines that can stretch to minutes.
“In Long Song, you don’t have bars or strict tempo. You are stretching words. It is more a picturing of the melody and the song. You have your own energy and your own tempo, and you can sing in a completely free way. The techniques and sounds are related to nature. You can, for example, hear sounds like water, animals, or mountains reflected in the music.”
Homing this characteristic of Long Song singing is the song Libelle. Like the folk tradition, the music replicates the sounds of nature and the surroundings. Named after the German word for dragonfly, it is a joyous exploration of the versatility of the voice. In the soundscapes that Enji draws with her vocals entire worlds of forests, mountains, and waterfalls can be conjured.
Now, that Enji lives in Munich and moves in the stressful world of the music industry, releasing and touring her music, there is a renewed appreciation for the unwinding character that singing together can have. A smile takes over her entire face, as she tells me about singing together with her family again during the visit at home: “When we all sing together, there is something special about it. You are not on stage, and you do not have to feel that pressure. Singing is like sharing and you feel that energy from everybody.” The song Duulnaa is about communal singing and the power that lies in knowing that your voice cannot be taken away from you. It is a fitting track for an album that merges various traditions and expresses creative identity to its fullness. Ulaan is a confident record by an artist that knows: “No matter what happens, I will sing”.
Ulaan is out now via Squama Recordings.