28 Oct 2023

Review: Ulaan by Enji

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 28 October 2023

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Photo: Bandcamp

Enkhjargal Erkhembayar, known professionally as Enji, was born into a lineage of long-singers. The vocalist hails from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a country known for a guttural style of performance called throat singing. Long-singing involves drawing notes out for extended periods of time, and is performed at ceremonies like weddings, or the birth of a child.  

Enji followed a different path to her parents though, becoming immersed in Munich’s jazz scene, and developing a style that sits somewhere between these two worlds.

Enji learned the art of long singing in her adolescence, and went on to study musical education, then jazz at Ulaanbaatar's Goethe Institute, before gaining a master’s degree at Munich University of Music and Theatre, specialising in jazz singing. 

On Ulaan, her fourth album, the elements of her heritage that present themselves are always intriguing. What she’s doing on ‘Temeen Deerees Naran Oirhon’ isn’t long singing - that would involve not pausing for breath - but it does seem informed by it.

The way Enji’s band makes room for her voice is a big part of the magic here. The clarinet from Brazilian player Joana Queiroz is intermittently cushioning on that track, while ‘Duulnaa’ foregrounds Paul Brändle’s guitar, before drums enter from another Brazilian band member, Mariá Portugal, her playing also showing a regional flavour.

This cocktail of Mongolian, Brazilian and German players is inherently interesting, with Enji moving from ethereal high notes to mournful wailing over that song’s duration. Other songs like ‘Encanto’ adopt bossa nova rhythms for the singer to vamp over. 

Enji is a singular figure, born in a yurt to two working class parents who loved to sing, and now appearing on the influential Colours web show, performing while dressed in a white dress made of balls of wool.

The music on Ulaan is placid and always shifting, and if you’re a jazz fan it would make for pleasant listening even without the singer’s unique performance style. But it’s that which makes it something really special.