Fri, 19 October 18
Released 27 April 2009
Eagles soar in the slipstreams of Xinjiang province, a windblown place way out in western China. A place where forests of stone jut from land carved by restless tectonic plates; 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, take the shape 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 thirty-something. “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 a while 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, well, 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, say, 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.”
Eagle was recorded in Urumqi and Beijing with 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.
Released 12 August 1996
Released 21 May 1990
Fri, 19 October 18
Featuring scenes from the recording sessions with the Metropole Orkest and Jules Buckley
Wed, 19 September 18
A look back on The Wood Room session with producer Phil Ramone and mix engineer Richard Blair.
Sat, 22 September 18
A closer look at the phenomenon that is The Gloaming's annual sold-out residency at the NCH, Dublin.
Wed, 22 August 18