MONGOLIA: Baigalaas Irsen Ohin - Tigerfish
As many of us look for the perfect soundtrack for the sunshine, the lesser-known sound of Mongolia could be the magic answer
When one thinks of Swiss music, they don’t just think of yodelling, when one thinks of Spanish music, they don’t just think of flamenco and when one thinks of Indian music they don’t just think of ragas. And yet, when one thinks of the music of Mongolia, one cannot help but be immediately drawn to the nation’s curious throat-singing custom. Perhaps this is Western ignorance, but the association with the tradition is so synonymous with the nation that in most people’s mind’s eye when picturing nomads travelling by horseback across the rugged grasslands of the steppe, passing freshwater basins along the way where they can quench their thirst, that this image is almost inextricably accompanied by the soundtrack of this curious sound. It is not often that a musical tradition can reign such dominance over a perception of an entire nation’s musical output.
“Their ability to encapsulate the hopeful feel of spring, as summer approaches on the horizon, is one that they seemed to have carefully crafted...”
Like contrarians vehemently holding onto folk traditions in other nations where the westernisation and homogenisation of pop music has taken control, Tigerfish have a certain allure for going against the grain in the opposite direction by abandoning the music that dominates the country’s collective psyche. A five-piece ukulele collective, the sound of Tigerfish’s music presented with it an idyllic image in my head when I first heard it. The music on Baigalaas Irsen Ohin has almost a neo-hippie feel to it. It generates a picture in my head contrasting with that of herding, wrestling and yurts, rather of a girl with flowers in her hair basking in the sunshine of an Ulaanbaatar park, promoting a message of love, peace and an openness to endless possibility.
The album achieves this loose and whimsical feel by bringing a simplistic energy with some fairly complicated and diverse musical frills. My favourite song, Chi, for example, moves away from the focal-point of the classic ukulele bringing in what sounds like a perfect imitation of a Spanish guitar, showing depth and complexity, but maintain a plinky-plonky light-heartedness elsewhere on the album, such as on Tsenher Zalaa. The quintet dip their toes into various genres with the inclusion of other instruments, like trumpets, to create a jazzy feel on Namuun Oroi. Whilst the penultimate track, Ohidiin Bujig is an incredibly smooth blues number.
Even though the group show great musical talent on the album, for me the standout facet of the record is the vocalist’s voice. With such a velvety sounding set of pipes, the singer is the star the show with her Stevie Nicks-esque charming voice. At times her voice alone brings an almost country music feel, a style that is rare to be successfully mimicked by those outside the USA without it sounding somewhat laughable.
This group of renegades, bringing an array of genres to a traditional musical landscape, go one step further to cause surprise. Despite my perception of what the group look like, that could not be further from reality. A collective of four burly men often seen donning rather formal attire, accompany our female singer, in what seems to be a very well-oiled machine, rather than a spontaneous jam session-vibe. Their ability to encapsulate the hopeful feel of spring, as summer approaches on the horizon, is one that they seemed to have carefully crafted which I have to say I am impressed by. Not making assumptions about the age of the group’s members but it is fair to say I expected them to appear much younger, and this almost makes me love them even more. They manage to capture the spirit of optimistic youthfulness whilst bringing musical mastery and experience with them, as they go against the status quo of the nation’s music traditions opting to pluck the strings of a ukulele in place of the classic Mongolian morin khuur with both style and panache.