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"Press Release"

Mamer is one of China’s most original and influential young artists and the father of Chinagrass, simple, honest, direct music with one foot in the past and another in the future. A cult figure of Beijing’s underground music scene, Mamer was born and raised in Qitai County in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Province. He grew up on horseback, steeped in the strong musical tradition of Kazakh nomadic culture.

Mamer’s debut album ‘Eagle’ features songs of the grasslands that are deeply rooted in traditional Kazakh folk song and dombra music. The music combines these traditional elements with Western folk, rock and virtuosic performances on guitar, dombra and other traditional instruments. Haunting, lyrical, ambient and subtle, ‘Eagle’ is a modern soundtrack to the open grasslands, breathing life into the ancient songs and instruments of this magical landscape.

This is a seminal album, lyrical troubadour folk infused with an sensibility touched with the renegade spirit of everyone from Woody Guthrie to the Velvet Underground and Nick Cave. Guests including Grammy winner Bela Fleck, members of Hanggai and IZ, as well as the late, great French producer Hector Zazou.

Xinjiang is a contested and beautiful place. Wild and ravenous and far from any ocean, this is a land of deserts and dryness. Despite being part of China, Xinjiang feels like another country. It is the host to many ethnic minorities and the heart of Muslim culture in China. This is where Mamer, the fourth of 10 children, grew up to a soundtrack of Chinese folk music on the radio and the traditional Kazakh music of the grasslands. His love of King Crimson, Television, The Doors, Yes and Pink Floyd lead to a short, unfulfilling year at music school (“too much theory and not even a guitar teacher”). Dropping out of music college, Mamer’s deep bass voice got him work as a Kazakh voiceover artist (“I used to dub the baddies in American films and Chinese soap operas.”) and later became the lead guitarist in an 80s covers band: “We’d play songs by Michael Jackson, The Police and Metallica. Our singer couldn’t speak a word of English but he sang all the lyrics perfectly! We made a good living.”

Never far from Mamer was his dombra, the traditional lute of nomadic Central Asia, found all over Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and also played by Kazakhs living in China. It is played by either strumming the two strings together or plucking each string individually. In the folklore of the grasslands, the slender dombra was nature’s gift to man and is the ultimate symbol of nomadic life. Feathers from eagle owls are hung from the instrument’s long neck, considered important good luck charms to Muslims of the grasslands who believe the intricate patterning on the feathers resembles the letters from the Koran. As well as being an excellent dombra player, Mamer is also a guitar virtuoso. “I play a lot on acoustic guitars but I use open tunings,” says Mamer. “This way I can make a bigger and more resonant sound, but still sound like a dombra.” Mamer also plays the sherter (a three-stringed plucked instrument), the Jew’s harp and the dabel (hand drum) on the album.

‘Eagle’ confirms Mamer as the essential Chinagrass artist. Chinagrass is simple, honest, direct music with one foot in the past and another in the future; it is to China what is to America. The genre’s leading proponents aren’t straight folk musicians, they ’re punk rockers who are taking the renegade spirit of punk back to its roots. ‘Eagle’ revitalises the ancient songs and instruments of Mamer’s heritage with an aesthetic that’s part Townes Van Zandt, part Huun Huur Tu. It features a line-up of musicians including Meyrambek from Mamer’s band IZ on kobyz (a two-stringed bowed instrument used in all shamanic ritual) and Ilchi of Hanggai on backing vocals (including throat singing on ‘Proverbs’), as well a grassland dueling-banjos style duet with multiple Grammy award winner Bela Fleck (‘Celebration’), and a bonus mix of the haunting ‘Mountain Wind’ by the late, great French producer, and Mamer admirer, Hector Zazou (Zazou had planned to produce the whole album but fell ill during the recording).

Recorded in Beijing and Urumqi, the seminal debut album was produced by Robin Haller and Matteo Scumaci, the team behind Mongolian band Hanggai’s recent critically acclaimed debut. “I was presenting a music show on Chinese radio in 2007 when I first heard Mamer’s music - I was knocked out by it,” says English producer and musician Haller. “Mamer’s musical ideas were the most original I’d come across in years of listening to Chinese music. He had this big, austere sound - his band used layers upon layers of string instruments and musically he always kept things as close as he could to the traditional songs he grew up with the music didn’t sound like a copy of western artists I know - it sounded totally original.”

Mamer’s low, resonant voice adds a magical element to the often mournful, yet heartbreakingly beautiful music, traditional Kazakh folk songs and Mamer’s own compositions. ‘Iligai’, for instance, is a song about the annual nomadic migration; ‘Man’ is a simple folk song featuring the famed Ughar musician Adil on ghijek; ‘Kargashai’ features a dubby Jew’s harp, electric guitar loops and shamanic kobyz drones; ‘Flute Song’ is an instrumental composition for the sybyzghy (end-blown flute) which Mamer learned from an old man in the mountains; ‘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 at its most ambient and subtle: a lo-fi moment in a hi-fi album.

These days Mamer spends a lot of time in Beijing with his band IZ who are credited with single-handedly kickstarting China’s scene and turning Mamer into a cult figure and underground hero of Beijing’s underground music scene. Yet his inspiration and creativity still comes from the grasslands where he returns at least once or twice a year. “The great folk songs of old were born when people were taking care of the flocks in the grasslands. When you’re there you’re immersed in nature, in the sounds, the smell and the rhythm of the land,” Mamer explains. “When you live in a big city, there’s never time or opportunity to let this tranquility into our lives.” He continues “I can visit the old people up in the mountains, live with them for a while and learn their songs and way of life. Without learning this, a whole way of life will die out and be lost to future generations. I suppose what I have done with ‘Eagle’ and also with IZ is to try and tap into that feeling and use the songs and poems I grew up with and update them, breathe new life into them - and I hope by doing this they can live on.”
- Ilka Media


RW165 "Eagle" by Mamer




A cult figure, an underground hero playing venues of Beijing’s leftfield music scene.

Revitalising the ancient songs and instruments of his heritage in windblown western China, with an alt-country aesthetic.

This is Chinagrass: simple, honest, direct music with one foot in the past and another in the future.

‘Eagle’ is haunting, lyrical, ambient and subtle – a modern soundtrack to the wild open Kazak grasslands. The music is beautifully textured and the vocals deeply emotional.


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 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 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, 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