This week, I spoke with Dimitar Gugov from the group Violons Barbares in France before their travels to Australia for their concerts at WOMADelaide. You can see them tonight in Adelaide. Tickets here.
How did you all meet?
You know that’s a question that I get asked every time! I think that it must puzzle a lot of people because I get asked at least 5 times after each concert! I have told the story many times. Sometimes we tell quite crazy stories. So would you like the real story or another?
As you like…
Non, I will tell you how it actually happened. I was already living in Strasbourg in France. I was, together with Fabien Guyot, the percussionist, already in another group called Le Grand Ensemble de La Méditerranée. One day I was invited to go to Germany for a project called La Route de Soie (The Silk Road). In this musical project, there were a dozen musicians: there was a Chinese, a Mongolian, an Indian, a Turk a Bulgarian and a German. In short, the silk route goes from China to Europe and there are 12 countries, which were represented by the music. So I was representing Bulgarian music. Another musician Enkhargal Dandarvaanchig from Mongolia was representing Mongolia. We met there. It was on stage that I first saw him perform as I didn’t know him before that. That was in 2006.
One day when we were backstage and I heard the Morin Khoor, his instrument, I said to myself “ha, that sounds like my instrument but deeper“. I said to myself that these two instruments would sound really good together. I thought it would be good to form a group together but I had no idea what. I spoke to the percussionist, so to Fabien Guyot and I said to him “I want to create a group with this Mongolian musician. Would you like to join us? Listen to his music.” He said “Yes, it’s very good. It would be good to do rock.” I said “of course, yes! Let’s do rock!” So that’s how it happened. No one had done it before but everyone wanted to do it.
Does Dandar also live in France?
No, he lives in Germany. I live in Strasbourg, which is near the border and he lives in Karlsruhe which is an hour’s drive away so it’s really not far.
So apart from being rock, how would you describe your music?
It’s an acoustic sound first and foremost. Nothing is electrified. There are two traditional instruments. The violins are sorts of violins but they are not violins. I play a sort of Bulgarian violon which has three melodic and 11 sympathetic chords which are resonance chords. Then there is the Mongolian Morin Khoor which has two chords inherited from the cello. There are voices. The main voice is that of the Mongolian singer. He has a very powerful voice.
Does he sing in Mongolian?
He sings in Mongolian. He sings in Bulgarian. There were also Kazakh songs on our first album.
Just for a change!
In fact, we didn’t have any particular desire to explore the music of Kazakhstan but it was a traditional chant that we liked a lot so we decided to sing it without looking into it any further. There was also a Georgian song on our first album.
What can the audience expect from your concerts at WOMADelaide?
We are going to play from our new album, which hasn’t yet been released: “Wolf’s Cry“, the third album. It will be released on 27 April. It’s a new album with a new sound but which still remains acoustic. It’s an evolution. We play with less and less traditional pieces and with more and more compositions. We will play that. We are very happy. It’s the first time we will have been so far from France.
So it’s your first time in Australia?
Yes, it’s our first time in Australia. We have already been to Canada, Brazil, Russia and Malaysia. But that will be the furthest concert of them all.
So you sing in Mongolian and Bulgarian, but in which language do you work together?
Our communal language is German. Our Mongolian singer lives in Germany and he doesn’t speak French. He speaks German well and he also speaks a little English. The common language is quite funny because normally we speak a lot of German, a little English and sometimes, when he and I don’t understand each other, we speak to each other in Russian! We have three common languages.
Three common languages yet none of them are the ones in which you sing! It is a truly multicultural band!
Yes, that’s right. That’s what we wanted to do from the beginning.
Are you going to be doing other concerts in Australia or just at WOMADelaide?
We are doing to start in Adelaide. Then we will go to Port Fairy, for a second festival. The last place is New Zealand and it will be for WOMAD over there. So we are going to be doing 3 festivals.
We will play at the end of this week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) and then we will go to New Zealand. I think we are doing 6 concerts all up.
Given that I speak neither Mongolian, Bulgarian nor Kazak, could you please tell me what your songs are about?
Ahhhh… The songs are often, quite often, songs about love.
So you are all romantics?
I don’t know if we are romantic. There are love songs, there is also a drinking song and a dance song. In the old repertoire, it wasn’t on purpose, but one day we realised that almost all of our songs that we were singing were love songs. The way in which we perform these songs that keep coming back over and over and over. By the third time the audience start to laugh. They really that it is a love song with a very rock energy. Sometimes the audience must wonder if we are talking nonsense on stage but it is true that these are love songs with a different, surprising musical energy. We don’t often play romantic songs. They are all quite different songs but the theme in the text is often the same.
And on the next album, are the songs all about love too?
No, not uniquely. We wanted to change things a bit. You can’t do the same thing all the time. There is a drinking song which speaks of a Balkan alcoholic drink which is made from pears. It’s a drinking and dancing song. There is a song about spring, which is a punk song. There’s a song which speaks about our mark on the Earth. What will we leave for future generations? It’s a world-wide question which is quite painful as we ask if there will be anything good left for our children’s children. That’s the song “Wolf’s Cry“. There is the song “Balkan Triste” which is a dance song. It’s also a love song. There is a song for children going to sleep, a lullaby. It’s a traditional Mongolian song. We are very much in the softness with this song and it is quite a change, to balance out the energy. Even we need that!
Are you all about the same age?
Fabien and I are about 6 months apart in age. Our Mongolian singer is older – by 8 years I think, and he is like our big brother. But sometimes we realise he is a lot younger than us!
Anything else that you’d like to tell us?
For us it’s a new audience to discover. Each time that we play in a new country, we ask ourselves “how will people react to our sort of music?” because in fact we create music that we like and we don’t think any more about it. We don’t have a Manager who studies the music market to tell us tha we should play more of this or that style. It’s an album which we make, right down to the photos on the cover. Ever since the beginning, we have controlled the music from the beginning to end. From the composition to the final CD. It’s only us playing with what we do.
Also, going to a country so faraway, you ask yourself “what do people listen to there? Do they buy CDs? How do they listen to music – on their iPod, on their computer, on the radio? Do they look for new music themselves?” It will be interesting to see how our music is viewed from afar.
Also, going so far, we will meet different people. They might be just like in Europe. I have always asked myself “how are Australians, a country which is still under the Crown of the Queen of England?“, to see if the Queen is still on your money. I am also very curious to see the countryside of Australia. The only thing I know is that we are going to do a trip to see some kangaroos.
You can see Violons Barbares during their Australian and New Zealand tour in the places listed below:
11 and 12 March– Port Fairy Folk Festival
16 to 18 March- WOMAD NZ