China (Peoples Republic)
Eagles soar in the slipstreams over Xinjiang province, a windblown place way out in western China. A place where forests of stone jut from land carved by restless tectonic plates, and where glacial waters flow into melon fields then disappear into deserts. A place where nomads herd sheep across grasslands and spirits dwell in rocks and trees, taking the shapes of birds and animals. A place where everything - eagles, horses, wind, spirits - is represented in music.
The singer/songwriter Mamer was raised in Xinjiang, one of ten children for whom singing and playing the two-string dombra lute was as much a part of life as sunrise. Out here - in this land of Turkic tongues and ethnic minorities - traditional music flows from yurts and across the sparsely inhabited steppes. And Mamer's voice, a low, resonant, magical thing, still joins it.
"The great old Kazak folk songs were born when people were shepherding," says the boyish singer-songwriter. "Living in cities we are often too busy to allow this sort of tranquillity to enter our lives. I have to return to the grasslands once or twice a year. That is where I get my inspiration, my creativity."
He pauses, smiles. "I always stay awhile with the old people in the mountains, learning their songs and traditions," he continues in his native Kazakh. "Without this a whole way of life will be lost to the young generation. I want to breathe new life into the poems and songs I grew up with."
Mamer's stunning debut album Eagle does precisely that, revitalising the ancient songs and instruments of his heritage with an alt-country aesthetic that's part Townes Van Zandt, part Huun Huur Tu. This is Chinagrass: simple, honest, direct music with one foot in the past and another in the future. Folk (not folkloric) music with punk's do-it-yourself ethos. Folk (not folkloric) music with a kick and a twist.
"I play a lot of the music on acoustic guitars but I use open tunings," says Mamer. "So although the sound is louder and more resonant the guitar becomes like a dombra - a grassland instrument - to me."
Grassland instruments are prevalent in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi. For much of the year Mamer lives in this city of faith and mosques, knives and scarves, golden teeth and cologne. It was here that he once listened to Xinjiang folk music on Chinese Central Radio broadcasts: music variously played, as his is, on flute, jew's harp, kobyz violin, sherter bass, ghijek spike-fiddle, and the ubiquitous dombra - decorated with eagle owl feathers out of respect to the Koran, and by way of shamanic protection.
Mamer tells stories about the birth of the dombra. Stories of love: a cedar tree comes alive in the hands of a craftsman so that he may woo his sweetheart. Stories of the natural world: a lonely young shepherd fashions a dombra from the dried, wind-whistling carcass of a sheep. Stories of reality: the traditional instrument of nomadic Central Asia, the dombra is found all over Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well with Kazakhs living in China.
Mamer tells, too, of the first Western music he fell for: Yes, King Crimson, Television, Pink Floyd. Of his formal music education at Urumqi's music college, which - without guitar lessons - he swiftly quit. Of his job doing voiceovers at the local TV station ("I used to dub the baddies in American films and Chinese soap operas") and time spent as lead guitarist in an Eighties covers band: "We'd play songs by Michael Jackson, The Police and Metallica. Our singer didn't speak English but he sang all the lyrics. We made a good living."
In 2002 Mamer moved to his second home in China's musical centre, Beijing. to a bungalow with a small courtyard from where he could see the sky. He put together IZ - a band whose name translates as 'footprints left by tradition' - and began delivering Kazak-language songs that both respected and updated tradition. Mamer became a fixture of the Beijing folk circuit, a star of venues including the legendary River Bar in Sanlitun. He also single-handedly kick-started China's alt-country scene.
Executives took notice: Mamer was invited to record albums, perform on television, tour the country. But because each golden carrot involved a compromise - relinquishing control, or adding beats and singing in Chinese - Mamer resisted. In the process he has evolved into a cult figure, an underground hero playing, as he still plays, the hole-in the-wall venues of Beijing's leftfield music scene.
Two years ago Mamer met Englishman Robin Haller, a producer and musician who was presenting a folk music show on Chinese radio. "I was really struck," says Haller. "Mamer's musical ideas were the most original I'd come across. It was all string instruments and this great austere sound; he kept things as close as he could to tradition."