Published: 14:38, April 12, 2024
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Jazz singer set to invoke the sound of the steppes
By Chen Nan
Munich-based Mongolian singer Enji, who creates music that blends jazz and folk with traditional Mongolian influences, will make her debut in China with shows in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou in Jiangsu province, from April 18 to 21, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Growing up in a small yurt in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, Enkhjargal Erkham, known as Enji, was surrounded by songs that her parents used to sing with friends at their home. At school, her music teacher always brought her accordion with her and let the students sing traditional songs for the entire lesson. Enji loved it and always sat in the front row.

"Those songs stayed with me, because they always touched me," says Enji, who is now a jazz singer based in Munich.

Enji will make her debut tour of China by visiting Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou in Jiangsu province from April 18-21, featuring songs from her albums performed entirely in Mongolian. Her songs blend jazz and folk with traditional Mongolian influences, such as urtiin duu, or "long song", a traditional style of singing where syllables are extended into meditational vibrato notes.

"Each song has its own story, stories that range from the tiny moments of life to the deep personal core feelings, which I believe somehow could be relatable to everyone and hope could resonate as well," she says.

"I never had enough of a chance to travel to China or get to know it. Nevertheless, I'm a big fan of Chinese food, as well as its beautiful melodic language," Enji says. "I also know some amazing young Chinese jazz musicians from my studies in Munich, such unique individuals and warm human beings. So they've already given me a great impression of the country. I really hope that I have a chance to experience some traditional music or dance or any kind of cultural heritage."

Enji's third album, Ulaan, which was released in 2023, was chosen as among the Best Jazz Albums of 2023 by the New York Times, the best album of 2023 by The Washington Post, and one of the 10 best global albums of 2023 by The Guardian. It's a record of personal connection and the singer titled it after her nickname.

"I have known myself as Ulaan since I was born. With that album, I wanted to reexamine and cherish my first desires, wishes, that have not been shaped by input from the outside, which are pure and true," Enji says.

"She is not the typical Mongolian jazz singer you might expect to hear and her elegant twist on Mongolian music really intrigued me when I first listened to her songs," says Liu Zhao, Enji's China tour promoter, and founder-owner of Beijing-headquartered company, Stallion Era Cultural Communication. "I hope audiences in China will feel the same way."

During her tour, Enji will perform with her band, including Paul Brandle, guitarist and co-composer on her two albums and bassist Martin Zenker, who first introduced her to jazz.

Enji's tour is part of the upcoming Stallion World Music Festival launched by Liu's company, which is also bringing a band called Namgar, led by vocalist Namgar Ayushievna Lhasaranova, who will perform in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, on April 18 and in Beijing on April 19.

"Their music takes us to wild nature and a different lifestyle. It will be a new experience for concertgoers in China," says Liu.

The band performed in Beijing seven years ago and as the lead singer recalls, the show was sold out.

"Performing in new countries is a joyful anticipation of meeting a new, interesting culture. After all, we are all people who keep in our souls the special traditions and culture of our country. And therefore, the audience is distinguished by its energy," says Lhasaranova, who was born and raised in a Buryat family near the border between Russia, Mongolia, and China. Now, she lives in Mongolia and Buryatia, Russia.

During their upcoming shows, the band will consist of Evgeny Zolotarev, the bassist, who also plays a Buryat-Mongolian instrument called the chanza (a three-stringed plucked lute), and Alexey Baev, the drummer, Timur Zolotarev, the guitarist and backing vocalist, and Lhasaranova, who sings and also plays the Buryat-Mongolian instrument called the yataga (a plucked string instrument from the zither family). They will perform songs from their albums, Nayan Navaa, and Nomad.

"I hope our shows will take listeners to the endless expanses of the steppe, where the blue sky merges with the earth, to hear the songs of our ancestors and convey the spirit of our people," says Lhasaranova.

The world music festival will also host Chinese singer-songwriter Li Xingyu's concert on April 20, in which he will perform the music he was inspired to write after his trip to the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in 2018, where he worked with 10 folk musicians on new songs.