When it comes to new music, most times I have to go looking for the good stuff. But sometimes the good stuff comes looking for me.
Lunching with my wife at Hobart’s MONA on the last day of a holiday in early January, I was transfixed by the music wafting like a perfumed breeze up from the stage in the greenspace below.
I made a mental note to discover who made such lovely sounds and which instruments gave it its unique musical tang. But not long after returning to Sydney, John Robinson – oud master – sent me out the album of his new project, Horse & Wood. It was he and his musical partner, Bukhchuluun Gangburged, who had made the music that I had heard and loved at MONA.
Robinson I knew from various performances in diverse settings – even including jazz collaborations – and have long been aware of his mastery and great soulful flair on al’ Oud (‘the wood’ in Arabic). Gangburged’s instrument is the Morin Khuur, the Mongolian horse-head fiddle, and so the name of their collaboration, and of their debut album is, fittingly and simply, Horse & Wood.
Horse & Wood is the new fruit of Robinson and Gangburged’s coming together at the 2011 Woodford Folk Festival. Working from a traditional folk base, the two spin their music out in many directions – after all, these instruments were not born to play together so you have Mongolian/Turkish fusions, Mongolian/bluegrass mash-ups and even a Mongolian/Hot Club meld of the Gitane-smoky gypsy jazz standard “Dark Eyes”.
It all works beautifully because at its heart is folk music: that music that is without vanity, that music which tells tales of the everyday, tales of the unchangeables such as birth, weather, pain, wild wedding parties and graves on windswept bare grassy hills.
Gangburged’s fiddle adds a beautiful, mellow colour to the music but his singing is what astounds. As well as a naturally warm voice, he also uses the technique of Mongolian Khoomei or throat singing. My soft pink Western ears initially found its guttural texture rough and often harsh but on the next listening I could hear the veins of wood, the rough skin of stone, the weathered leather of saddles in its grain. And when he switches to harmonic singing – a dark-toned whistle that is as unearthly as it is transporting – I hear wind through pine needles, shaking off snow.
Whenever I hear music that has deep, deep roots in folk music, there is a small moment when its depth and lack of vain pride makes most other musics – jazz, classical, the more puffed-up forms of rock and roll – seem absurdly pompous and cloying, overworked with messy filigree.
Of course that moment passes, but I am left with a small barb, a little ache for that sweet simplicity. Horse & Wood, the duo and the album, soothes my ache just that little bit. It is already a favourite.
Horse & Wood’s debut album is available from their website.