Eagle

Mamer, 2009

Eagle was recorded in Urumqi and Beijing with Robin Haller and Matteo Scumaci as producers, and a line-up of musicians including IZ's Meyrambek on kobyz and Haller himself on sherter. This is a seminal album, touched with the renegade spirit of everyone from the Flying Burrito Brothers to the Velvet Underground and Nick Cave. Here are traditional Kazak folk songs and Mamer's own compositions, and guests including Grammy winner Bela Fleck (on a Chinagrass duelling-banjos-style duet) and the late, great French producer Hector Zazou.

Eagle's eponymous opener starts with a recording of short-wave radio from Urumqi: a random clash of influences that introduce us, metaphorically, to Mamer. Ambient sounds - a trotting horse, a call to prayer from an Urumqi mosque - place the listener in Xianjiang; drones, loops and feedback effects maintain the natural, magical feel that prevails there. Mamer's voice soars and soothes: the aural equivalent, if you like, of watching a great bird fly.

"To all the people of the grasslands eagles are a symbol of the power of nature," says Mamer. "My people sometimes think of ourselves as eagles. We say we have two wings: one is a horse and the other is a dombra. With one we fly through space and the other we fly through time."

Iligai, a Kazakh migration song, evokes the beauty of the landscape with a recurring dombra and flute riff (the flute being the instrument that calms flocks) and layered guitar and percussion parts. The lyrics of the mantra-like Proverbs stem from an epic poem: 'What is wrong in the world?' intones Mamer over throat singing by Hanggai frontman Ilchi, and before an ambient jam with the Dolan tribe of southern Xinjiang.

The banjo duel on Celebration evolved out of a jam between Mamer and Bela Fleck, with whom Mamer had performed on his (Fleck's) 2006 tour of China. Man is a simple folk song, the sort a grandparent might sing to a grandchild at night, with Mamer playing dombra, banjo and electric guitar and the famed Ughar musician Adil on ghijek. Kargashai - with its dubby jew's harp, electric guitar loops and shamanic kobyz drones - gathers the album's styles; Flute Song is an instrumental composition for the end-blown flute, sybyzghy, which Mamer learned from an old man in the mountains.

Mountain Wind, a haunting folk song telling of longing for home, features Meyrambek on kobyz and Scumaci on theremin; Ilchi sings backing vocals and plays hand percussion ("Wouldn't sound out of place on David Sylvian's Secrets of the Beehive,' says Scumaci). Blackbird is Mamer at his most rootsy and folksy and, with its wide array of string instruments, is also the album's most countryfied song. Where Are You Going? is Chinagrass doing ambient and subtle: a lo-fi moment in a hi-fi album.

Finally, there is Hector Zazou's mix of Mountain Wind. Having originally intended to produce Eagle, Zazou fell ill during his collaboration with Mamer and was unable to continue working. His legacy is here, however. As are his words: "Mamer's music is based on his acceptance of what has been done before and his reaction, here and now, to this tradition," Zazou said. "Mamer is a very special artist trying to do something very subtle, and this is a beautiful record."

Eagle, then: a trip through space and time.

Reviews

  • Best of what's next: Mamer When singer/songwriter Mamer plucks the strings of the eons-old, long-necked lute known as the dombra, the world stirs. ...his debut solo album Eagle (released last year on Peter Gabriel's Real World Records) leaves impressions strong enough to transport to you the Chinese grasslands he grew up in-even if you don't understand Kazakh, the language in which he sings. "I believe that wherever I am, as long as I can adjust myself, I am able to make music," Mamer recently told Paste through a translator....Mamer has long breathed new life into folk songs, making them digestible for Western audiences while capturing the rich essence of his homeland. "Our music is in band form," he says, "and more suitable for contemporary ears." On Eagle, his first album without IZ, Mamer gets help from a few modern influences in updating the ancient music of his homeland, including a duet with Grammy-winning banjo player Béla Fleck and a Hector Zazou Remix of "Mountain Wind," a somber, rhythmic song about returning home to nature. While many of the tracks bleed into each other, "Kargashai" is a pleasant surprise, introducing instruments like the jaw harp and electric guitar until Mamer's bottomless voice sings in Kazakh: "Let's get to know each other, darling, and have tea with milk and sugar to taste the sweet things of life." Currently on in the U.K, Mamer's personal tastes are quite different from the kind of art he makes: King Crimson, John Zorn and Plastic People of the Universe are just some of the musicians who inspire him spiritually, he says. As for the modern artists his own music has influenced, he knows it's been a mixed bag: "Some groups got disbanded because the members learned dombra from me and didn't want to continue with electric guitar and their rock music," he says. "You can say I contributed to hybridization of music in China." Paste Magazine.com (USA)
  • Stunningly original and downright interesting Xinjiang native, Mamer's Real World debut is so stunningly original and downright interesting. Intrumentals are solid, but its Mamer's voice that brings you into a strange space of 1960's psychedelica mixed with 60's folk mixed with very up-to-date production, which levels out the bass nicely and makes the mouth harp twang and shine. The sturdy drumbeat of "Karagashai" and the proverbial hook of "Proverbs" make them two of the most addictive songs here....Hector Zazou mix of "Mountain Wind"...is a fitting closer to this seminally weird and deliciously intricate album. SingOut! (US)
  • Points to the future of China's cultural awakening (This album) is proudly rooted in the folk tradition of borderlands, not introspectively but expansively, in a sophisticated way that points to the future of China's cultural awakening on the world stage....an important album from China's emerging folk scene. It is also a deeply satisfying piece of music, rooted in a sense of place from the first sounds of folk opera and Turkic radio that introduce the album to Mamer's deep bass vocals and the loping pluck of the dombra. Steppe (UK)
  • You'll Find Yourself Humming It For Days After Hearing It Mamer possesses a deep, even bass voice - often double-tracked - that rides tunes that owe more to bucolic Kazakhstan modes than that of high and plaintive Chinese folk. Highlights include 'Celebration', a dombra/banjo duet (or is that duel?) with Bela Fleck, and 'Proverbs', which is maybe a tad heavy on the programmed effects but rescued by a sonorous display of throat-singing by Hanggai's Ilchi. Best of all are the intertwining guitar and dombra and squawking jaw's harp on the title track, and 'Blackbird, a haunting sing-song Kazakh-folk sing-along with a nagging melody that feels like it's been around forever. You'll find yourself humming it for days after hearing it. FLY (US)
  • Very cool Mamer's sound is truly unique, and incorporates elements of American country music, traditional Chinese melodies, throat singing, Kazakh folk songs, and less-identifiable tidbits as well. Very cool. CD Hotlist (US)
  • Mamer Live at WOMAD ...Mamer, who strummed and hummed his alluringly rootless ballads like a Mongolian Ry Cooder... The National (Canada)
  • A Beautiful, Haunting Collection Of Music The music on Eagle is subtle, ambient and often melancholy. It's fairly simple melodies are imbued with surprising depth..."Proverbs" could be a Beatles tune sung in the Kazakh language. Mamer quickens the tempo on "Man" without losing his poetic sound. Then comes "Kargashai" with it's jew's harp and electric guitar, followed by "Flute Song," an instrumental based on a traditional tune Mamer learned from an old man in the mountains...In his efforts to save the traditional songs of a vanishing culture, he has created a beautiful, haunting collection of music. Worldly Matters (USA)
  • A Consistently Compelling Release The clip-clop, horseback-paced tempos plus the vernacular string instruments are joined by judicious dabs of throat-singing in a release that dreamily evokes wide-open spaces, sweeping grasslands and burbling water. An echo of generic Russian folk music points to a possible shared connection, probably once carried along the old Silk Road...the late Hector Zazou remixes the austere "Mountain Wind". His version emphasizes the basso profondo kargyraa-style throat singing that accompanies Mamer on the original and adds chugging massed strings at the end to powerful effect, creating a nice coda to a consistently compelling release. The Beat (USA)
  • This Grasshopper Has Learnt Well From His Masters ...Simplicity (acoustic guitar, jaw harp and a traditional lute dominate the arrangements) means he is closer in tone to old-style country - unpretentious, open and no-nonsense - than anything else. Celebration, a Duelling Banjos stand-off with Béla Fleck is excellent; the divine Ishek Sisters make Proverbs the stand-out. Though Mamer cites a love of English prog rock, you suspect he keeps a stash of Merle Haggard and Townes Van Zandt LP's hidden under his bed. This grasshopper has learnt well from his masters. Mojo (UK)
  • Terrific ....there are echoes of renegade, occidental neo-country, from Woody Guthrie onwards in these songs...'Eagle' is terrific, and questions every assumption about "country" and geography in popular music. Uncut (UK)
  • Irresistible ...Mamer, has been christened the Lou Reed of the grasslands. A cult figure on Beijing's music scene, he's blended Western rock and electronica with the music he grew up with: throat-singing, the Jew's harp and flute, plus gently trotting vocal lines by men who grew up in the saddle. Irresistible. The Independent (UK)
  • A Record Worthy Of Welcoming Into The Home Each Day Despite using a whole host of odd and perplexing instruments, such as the traditional two-stringed dobra, a Jew's harp, sherter bass and kobyz violin, Eagle sounds undeniably familiar, a record worthy of welcoming into the home each day, like an old friend you miss every moment they are away. The Line Of Best Fit (UK)
  • A Vivid Sense Of Place This is a lovely and deceptively simple album that reveals ever more of its layered charms with each listen... fRoots (UK)
  • Dreamtime China may not seem an obvious homeland for Bluegrass, but the plains of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region were grassy enough to inspire Mamer... Financial Times (UK)
  • Music For A Road Movie This is music for a road movie evoking endless space and roaming horses... London Evening Standard (UK)
  • Warmth and Intimacy ...creates a pleasing sense of warmth and intimacy... Daily Telegraph (UK)
  • Original and Haunting The mood is sensual and contemplative, with Mamer's low voice framed in a cleverly produced kaleidoscope of guitars, hand drums, jaw harp, flute and the odd electronic bleep. Banjo wizard Béla Fleck also shows up to trade licks on 'Celebration'. A lovely, original and haunting creation. The Observer (UK)
  • Should Lift This Singer/Songwriter Into Global Fame ...Performing traditional folk and original songs in his native tongue while accompanying himself on two-string lute, guitar, and jaw-harp, Mamer's mesmerizing voice suggests tenderly felt, nomadic yearning Christian Science Monitor (US)
  • Think Leonard Cohen transplanted to China's outback This is Chinagrass, an Alt Country/Tuvan-Kazakh hybrid that Mamer has pioneered, which is at once stunningly familiar and enticingly strange - think Leonard Cohen transplanted to China's outback. Rhapsody (USA)
  • Monumentally Satisfying Eagle is a monumentally satisfying take on the modern grassland sound. Mamer and company haven't just repackaged a folk tradition but recaptured, renewed and reinvented it for a whole new audience. World Music Central (USA)
  • One of the most enjoyable albums I've listened to recently One of my new favorite musicians... I can't recommend this album enough... original, and overall, just one of the most enjoyable albums I've listened to recently. Indiemuse.com
  • Stunning "A stunning album ... really atmospheric." Tom Robinson BBC 6 Music (UK )
  • Band of the Day The young Mamer is iconic in China's folk scene, and his respect for the old and embrace of the new make the songs on his debut solo recording, Eagle, a treat for those who listen. Mamer's work invades all manner of spaces and moods. At times it's subtle and intricated, like Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno ambiently tinkering in some rural market. At other times, it's a full on jam - as when he and Bela Fleck duel banjos on Celebration. Blackbird, which is the album's strongest case for a Mamer residency at The Grand Ole Opry. National Post (Canada)
  • Album Review Mamer has been a pervasive figure in Chinagrass music: a blend of traditional Kazakh folk music and Chinese bluegrass...The throaty vocals of Mamer float gently alongside folksy instrumentation. In fact, the whole musical package is aptly named Eagle, because, it soars high like an eagle. Everyone who listens to Mamer will find themselves floating with excitement. It's that good. Inside World Music
  • Hearing Is Believing ....hearing is believing, especially with music as emotionally stirring and simultaneously earthy and exotic as the 10 songs on "Eagle," Mamer's debut album...the music has an open-ended ambient feel that suggests what Daniel Lanois might have sounded like had he grown up as a horse-riding musician in a remote Chinese province. The San Diego Union Tribune (USA)