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.”

"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

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.”

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.

in 2007 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.”

Further reading

Jasdeep Singh Degun makes history at Royal Philharmonic Society Awards

The Leeds-based musician was the first sitar player to receive the 'Best Instrumentalist' award.

The Blind Boys of Alabama to receive Liftetime Acheivement Award from Americana Music Association

The cermony takes place on 18 September at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.

Real World Sessions: Owen Spafford & Louis Campbell, 5 December 2023

New folk duo Owen Spafford & Louis Campbell visited the studio to record a new EP for Real World X.

Track of the day: ‘Too Many Have Gone’ by The Breath

The Breath reveal their first new music since the release of their third album, Land of My Other. A...