By Kyle Mullin
It’s the sound of cityscapes and countryside colliding, grinding, sparking anew.
Xinjiang troubadour Mamer started his career plucking out nimble traditional notes on a goose necked, two stringed dombra. It`s a lilting but minimalist instrument used by countless acoustic acts hailing from that far western, Kazakh speaking, remotely autonomous Chinese region.
But Mamer (who will perform at the Yuyintang Bar on July 21) has moved on, in more ways than one. He`s now ditched the dombra for a bass with a hopscotch array of wires and effects pedals. On “Shadow,” from his latest album Kolengke, those rusty electronic effects bear down on a few initial, aged, acoustic notes. He’s making music out of motoring over nature.
Zhang Dong, Mamer’s percussionist in the band IZ (Kazak for ‘footprint,’), crouches behind his kit. But there’s no regular cymbals or hollowed drums in sight. Rather than sitting down to practice, it seems that he’s taking cover behind rubble- a battered metal parking sign, a stout cylinder with spokes that was no doubt designed for some strange engine. Strangest of all is his cymbal replacement- a wide, caged, dented iron fan that hisses with vibration after every jab from his drum stick. When he hits the rest of his makeshift drum kit, it sounds like a slithering snake made of steel, or the clinking march of a chain gang laboring to fulfill some massive, oppressive design.
“We need that sound, it’s strong,” Zhang later explains, in an exclusive with Shanghaiist, about his uniquely clattering percussion. “It’s better than any snare.”
The frontman doesn’t affirm or deny that. Instead, he keeps on practicing. Mamer’s standing in a tiny studio with Zhang and fellow bassist Nurtai. The trio’s leader is clad entirely in black- dark slacks, plain black shirt, backwards cap that should’ve been worn by a house painter. He’s also sporting stormcloud sunglasses in the brightly lit, soundproof room.
As they play, I’m amazed at how much their live rendition of “Shadow,” sounds exactly like the album version — wavering electro reverb, clattering beats and all. There’s no CASIO, no backing recording- just the foot pedals, scrap metal drum kit, and trio of players.
When Mamer finally sits down for the interview and removes his shades, his eyes seem heavy, weary, like little dewy olives, nowhere near as harsh as the voice he uses to rasp those Kazakh lyrics. That singing also has an added huskiness that his slight, boyish frame lacks. His left hand fingernails are trimmed tight for the fretboard, but on the right they’re left unkept, like gentle little talons. He sits listening to the interview questions, his head tilted back- not so much sticking up his nose as cocking both ears to hear every word.
Zhang, meanwhile, answers a question about where he found such unconventional drums:
“It was Mamer`s idea to collect these different metal parts,” Zhang says, his shaved skull gleaming with sweat, the muscles he’s toned from hammering those post apocalyptic looking drums hidden under a loose fitting t-shirt labelled “7 Deadly Sins,” and coated with cartoon devils leering lustfully and glutinously gobbling up junk food. “We wanted iron and steel for the drums, so that the sound would be very special and unique. So we tried to find different parts left over from different factories- not in just one day, it took several trips. Mamer was the one that first tried testing the big fan, he thought it sounded special and looked very good, so we kept it and went from there.”
It may have been Mamer’s idea, but he’s not breathing a word about it. At least at first.
After chatting with his drummer in Kazakh for a few moments, the pair can’t help but laugh at my next question: “How important is it for you to sing in your native Kazakh, keeping your homeland`s aged song styles alive?”
“The reason for that is very simple, it’s because I only know my own language,” he mutters with a sly grin, before Zhang translates. “In my own language I can express everything, but Chinese is still strange for me. Also, it`s like going to a good restaurant– you want to get the true local flavor.”
Mamer`s Mandarin is still very much a work in progress (even after moving from Xinjiang to Beijing years ago). Zhang reinterprets almost every interview question for him, to which Mamer either answers in broken Chinese, or gets Zhang to help translate from Kazakh.
It wasn`t easy for him to move to Beijing with such limited language skills. But he stresses his adaptability. He adds that an even bigger challenge is sound adjustments at Beijing`s wildly different venues, the acoustics of which vary so readily that they can leave his complex network of feedback pedals useless.
But it was the eclecticism of those venues that brought Mamer and IZ to Beijing in the first place.
“We`ve only ever had one performance in Xinjiang,” Mamer says through Zhang. “The audience there is very small, because the culture and the atmosphere there are totally different. It`s more remote, they need time to adjust and adapt to it (indie rock). They also like traditional music. Beijing audiences are more open, more active.”
That said, he still misses the limited but lean rhythms of his homeland.
“I still love my hometown’s sound and music,” Mamer adds. “It is our background, but now that we live in the city we wanted to add a city sound or a mixture of both. Our original sound is very beautiful, very bound in tradition. But now urbanization has progressed so much, so we wanted to add this city sound, just to record this era, this time.”
That could explain why the trio ditched the traditional dombra entirely (despite the fact that Mamer could easily finger those two string frets) after a bandmate that played it for them departed. But Mamer refuses to answer questions about that split, along with any other queries about his father, or his work as a voice over artist at his hometown`s TV station.
To say that Mamer is reserved would be an understatement– a fact that would doubtfully change, regardless of his language fluency. He’s as mysterious as his music. And just like those wholly unique notes, his tradition-to-urban transition is obvious both onstage and in his outlook. When asked further about preserving the unique Kazakh song styles he was raised on, Mamer simply replies: “Actually, we don`t not want to have too much complication in our songs. We just want to follow our hearts. If we like it, we do it.”
But what of the menacing industrial sounds on Kolengke, lumbering like a tractor on an untrimmed pasture? What about the press release for his acoustic, heaving dombra leaning 2009 debut Eagle, where he is quoted as saying, “The great old Kazakh folk songs were born when people were shepherding. Living in cities, we are often too busy to allow this sort of tranquility 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.”
What about the edgy comments made by his friend, and fellow rustic troubadour, Ilchi of Mongolian folk troupe Hanggai? That latter band has shared the staged with Mamer on many occasions, also singing in an aged fringe tongue (for them, every lyric is shouted in Mongolian and ancient ragged throat singing harmonies).
During an interview with NPR in the U.S., Ilchi said, “Most of our people have moved away from the old way of life. After moving to the cities, many of us have gradually been subjected to a very strong cultural invasion by an oppressive culture. So this traditional music has completely lost its space.”
The Hanggai frontman has also said in subsequent interviews that playing traditional songs can help preserve China`s dying, rural culture. But while Mamer can`t help but admire his comrade, he now finds it even more difficult to agree with such sentiments. When first asked about Ilchi`s comments, Mamer firmly says in Chinese “hao peng you” or “good friend” (in that phrase at least, he is proudly fluent).
“We have a very good relationship, but a very different attitude, a different way to
express things in our songs,” Mamer adds, with the help of Zhang, about his bond with Ilchi. “Hanggai has its own features, its own traditional Mongolian dress and passionate gestures during performances. I`m happy to see them develop so quickly, because they`ve tried so hard to get that special sound.”
“But we are only musicians,” Mamer adds. “If we try to preserve a culture we’ll find that we’re too weak, that we’re not enough. Even if the sound of a culture gets involved, we can’t stop progress or urbanization. For Hanggai to share those ideas with its audience, that`s good. But in the big picture it`s still very hard to protect and keep tradition, we only have weak power.”
That cynicism may be justified, and it`s more than evident in the brooding tones of IZ`s latest album. If those songs become a rousing soundtrack for activists and traditionalists, so be it. But Mamer says he won`t offer a heavy handed message to that portion of their audience, or any other.
Zhang agrees, adding “We don’t want to intentionally have a big mission, to save all traditional things. We just want to be ourselves, to play different songs and follow our hearts.”
Mamer and IZ
Sat., July 21 8:30pm at the Yuyintang Bar, Changning Dist.
Tickets are RMB80 at the door, RMB60 in advance.
For more information call 021-52378662 or visit
地址：上海 长宁区 凯旋路851号 育音堂