Singer-songwriter Mamer was born and raised in Qitai County in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Province. He became a cult figure in the Beijing underground music scene.
Mamer was one of ten children for whom singing and playing the two-string dombra lute was as much a part of life as sunrise. In Xinjiang you can find Turkic languages and ethnic minorities.
“The great old Kazak folk songs were born when people were shepherding,” says Mamer. “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.”
“I always stay awhile with the old people in the mountains, learning their songs and traditions. 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 debut album Eagle rejuvenated the ancient songs and instruments of his tradition. “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 predominant in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. For much of the year Mamer lives in this city. It was here that he once listened to Xinjiang folk music on Chinese Central Radio broadcasts: a variety of music played on flute, jew’s harp, kobyz violin, sherter bass, ghijek spike-fiddle and the dombra.
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.
Mamer was also influenced by western music. He fell in love with bands such as Yes, King Crimson, Television, Pink Floyd.
For a while, Mamer attended Urumqi’s music college, but he quit due to lack of guitar lessons. He did some work doing voiceovers at the local TV station. He dubbed the baddies in American films and Chinese soap operas. Mamer also spent time as lead guitarist in a 1980s 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, 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 performing Kazak-language songs that both respected and updated tradition. Mamer became a regular of the Beijing folk circuit, playing at iconic venues such as the River Bar in Sanlitun.
Record industry executives invited Mamer to record albums, perform on television, and tour China. But there conditions such as adding rhythms and singing in Chinese. Mamer rejected these proposals.
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.”
Mamer’s debut recording, Eagle, released by British world music label Real World, includes traditional Kazakh folk songs and Mamer’s own compositions. Guests on ‘Eagle’ include Bela Fleck, members of Hanggai and IZ, as well as the late French producer Hector Zazou.
As part of our interview focusing on the world music scene in East Asia, we interviewed Yang Guanglei, President and Artistic Director of World Music Shanghai. The Chinese music festival has a partnership with World Culture Open that led to a collaborating with Jeju World Music Oreum Festival in South Korea.
What is the World Music Shanghai festival?
World Music Shanghai’s beginnings stem from the 2008 “Songs for World Expo— Shanghai World Music Week”, which was sponsored by the Shanghai World Expo Bureau. After producing numerous world music performances for World Expos and for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, “Shanghai World Music Week” was officially brought into the National China Music Industry Park’s platform collaboration project in 2012 and we became “World Music Shanghai”, with our main purpose focused on promoting multiculturalism, on demonstrating to cities that life is better and more enriched with the preservation of diversity in our cultural and natural ecosystems, and on listening to different and harmonious voices of our world.
To date, World Music Shanghai has welcomed its 9th edition and has invited nearly 130 artists from more than 100 countries over all these years. We have become China’s largest, longest-running and most renowned world music themed music festival.
It looks like the World Music Shanghai festival takes place in various cities, in addition to Shanghai. Which are the other locations?
This year, due to our partnership with China Xintiandi, we brought the festival to Xintiandi’s urban venues not only in Shanghai, but also in other cities in China for the first time, which were Wuhan, Chongqing and Foshan. For the first time, from 24 September to 9 October this year, an unprecedented scale of a world music carnival was created across multiple cities simultaneously: 64 world music performances of different styles featuring artists and bands from 21 countries and regions were brought to audiences.
Our partnership with World Culture Open also led to World Music Shanghai pairing with Jeju World Music Oreum Festival in Jeju, South Korea, thus giving birth to an international initiative of bringing world music across Asia.
You must be approached by numerous booking agents and artists. How do you choose the artists? What elements do you take into account aside from music quality?
World Music Shanghai has always adhered to selecting musicians of excellent quality, for this is our core competency. In addition, we give consideration to the cultural values and stories behind the music, and we take into account whether Chinese audiences are familiar with the cultures represented by the musicians or find them fresh and new. We hope that through the dimension of music, music lovers in China can come to understand the multiculturalism of every nation, and understand and empathize with the love and pain of others through our common language of music. We believe that this is extremely valuable in a globalizing China. At the same time, we also wish to create an international exchange platform for native musicians in China, ultimately placing our own native musical culture in a global context.
Is the festival programming different in the various cities?
As Shanghai is our home ground, the programming for Shanghai venues is busier and artists will give Shanghai primary consideration when faced with scheduling issues. Regardless, we still did our best to arrange for international and heavyweight bands to perform in other cities beyond Shanghai, and also purposefully arranged for local bands that resonated greatly with the native cultures in those cities.
Are there are artists you tried to book for this year’s festival that you were not able to bring to China?
We really wanted to invite DakhaBrakha from Ukraine this year, but were not able to have them with us due to various reasons.
What concerts were the most popular this year?
The most popular concerts seemed to be by Tuvan ensemble Alash who brought us an astounding throat-singing performance, as well as by China’s very own Prince of Kun Qu Opera Zhang Jun who brought us “kun plug” – a perfect blend of traditional KunQu and modern music.
What would you like music fans to come away with from World Music Shanghai festival?
We hope to let more and more people understand and experience the world through music. Living with an increasingly restless city rhythm, we need pure music to nourish our hearts. World music is a record of thousands of years of musical notes that mark the unique beauty in the depths of every human soul; that mark the beautiful landscapes of the countries and cultures featured at our festival.
What motivates you and your team to do this festival?
We are passionate about world music, and hope that more and more people will come to understand world music and feel the strength and happiness it brings, ultimately leaving their familiar spaces to explore our large world through the door of world music, understand the cultures of others, and know that we are never alone.
Do the artists who perform at Shanghai also participate in workshops and other events for the community?
Yes they do. World Music Shanghai is also unique in the sense that in addition to on-stage world music performances, we also bring interactive experiential activities that are open to the public.
During the festival, artists also participate in a series of free world music workshops that are held in a variety of urban spaces including an office building, a museum, public cultural spaces, and cafes. Through activities such as intimate music-listening gatherings and educational, family-oriented world music workshops, audience members were able to immerse themselves in world music experiences from all over the globe in between performances. The distance between performers and audience was closed, and all participants were able to experience the joy of world music together as one.
Did you notice a change in the audiences’ interest in world music?
Over the years, the audience’s attitude towards world music has been gradually evolving from one of cultural curiosity, to one of appreciation with expertise and selectivity. This is both a challenge and an inspiration for us.
Are there any artists that you enjoyed working with the most?
We have deep respect for all the artists we have worked with, and remember them all fondly. The artists leaving at the end of every festival season is the most painful time of the festival for us. They are so lovable, modest, pure and noble in character, and are the driving force behind our perseverance for so many years.
How has the festival evolved throughout the years?
We are working hard to grow the festival continuously, not just in terms of scale, but also in terms of quality. By quality, we don’t just mean artist selection, but also in injecting more vigor than before into pre-festival promotion, into the aesthetics of the live festival settings, and into our festival acoustics. In addition, we have also evolved from broadcasting large-scale music festivals live once or twice a year, to also broadcasting small-scale workshops that are free and open to public throughout the year, thus allowing us to make world music more popular and accessible by frequently bringing small-scale live experiences to a wider audience.
Where do you see your festival in 5 years?
We can only say that our team will continue to work hard at bringing our world music festival to more cities and more countries, and with rich and varied high quality content, build Asia’s best and most human-centered world music themed music festival.
In addition to the festival, your organization also runs a word music label. Tell us a little about the releases and artists featured.
Our world music label has just started, and I feel that we have two releases worth mentioning.
The first is the album “Kalavinka” which has beautiful origins stemming from the prayers of Tibetan lama Gong-qiao Tsering Rinpoche from the Golog prefecture, Qinghai province, spreading thousands of years of Tibetan culture to the world through the form of contemporary world music. With the large support of Bruce Jiao, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Banma Creative Media, we collected Tibetan folk songs, documented large volumes of original material, and worked closely with renowned Chinese musicians Wu Jie and Peng Cheng (music arrangement), Li Dai Guo and Wu Huan Qing and Shen Er Ning (performance recording) etc. After two years, we finally completed our production of “Kalavinka”. This album incorporates a variety of Tibetan musical elements, including Tibetan folk songs, monks’ chants, Tibetan musical instruments, and other natural sounds – even Tibetan yak bells. All these elements formed the source of creative inspiration, which were integrated with electronic music, resulting in ten works of world music. Much of the music on this album was also chosen as the background music for China Central Television’s 2015 documentary “Roof of The World” which featured the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau.
The second album “Tides” is the first album in the “Sounds of Shanghai” album series, a series that we wish to create. We selected 9 most representative songs from Shanghai’s local Chongming Island folksongs – both traditional and contemporary – and collected and documented these folk songs live, before working with renowned music producers Peng Cheng, Wan Li and Wu Jie on music arrangement and production, ultimately reviving Chongming folksongs through a musical style that the modern audience can embrace.
How is the music scene in your city?
The Shanghai music scene is quite diverse. Western classical music concerts are held every week in major theaters, which do not lack in featuring world famous troupes and performers; almost every night in every “live house”, rock and jazz bands from all over the world take turns to perform; traditional theatres and Pingtan (a musical/oral performance art form) houses are also still active in maintaining traditional and innovative performances.
In addition, various types of music festivals are becoming more and more concentrated.
If anyone visited Shanghai for the first time, what stores, music venues and sightseeing places would you recommend?
The Bund is a must for all first-time visitors to Shanghai, where one can see how the architecture reflects the historical changes between the old Shanghai and the new Shanghai. In terms of music venues, I recommend catching a music concert at the Shanghai Concert Hall, and then an authentic Pingtan performance by the Shanghai Pingtan troupe.
Can you give us an advance of what to expect for the 2017 Festival?
For our 2017 season, we will continue to have the Silk Road as our main theme, and will have subthemed stages and special performances. Beyond the stage, we will also be increasing the frequency of our workshops. Please stay tuned!
How do you see the future of world music in East Asia?
I think the developmental momentum of world music in East Asia will keep getting better. East Asia has a lot of ancient civilizations and rich folk music resources, and as globalization continues, East Asia will also look forward to their own folk music with the world music scene. In addition, music lovers here are having a growing appetite for musical styles beyond Western classical music and pop music, and they wish to understand more diverse musical cultures. I think this is the reason why we spare no effort in spreading the culture of world music.
Two world music festivals, featuring over 80 international performances are taking place in China and South Korea. Chevrolet 2016 World Music Shanghai Festival started on September 24 and will run until October 9 in Shanghai, Foshan, Wuhan, and Chongqing.
The Jeju World Music Oreum Festival will take place October 7-10 in Jeju Island, South Korea.
The festivals are a partnership between World Culture Open and World Music Shanghai. The concerts are free and open to the public as part of the joint initiative.
“We are happy to partner with World Music Shanghai – pioneering advocates of world music in China – to transcend borders with world music throughout East Asia,” said Kseniya Tsoy, Director of Network Relations at World Culture Open. “We hope the festivals will allow more and more people to connect with themselves and with one another, as music truly is humanity’s common language, connecting us beyond borders and spoken languages. Aesthetically beautiful and socially interactive, music is one of the most engaging and accessible ways to connect to our shared humanity, and such an amazing way to learn about new cultures.”
Some of the performers at the Jeju World Music Oreum Festival include MoT (South Korea), Arifa (Netherlands), Trio Kazanchis (Switzerland), Shanren (China), Dagadana (Poland), Lass (Poland), Teleferik (France), Adam Sullivan & The Trees (USA) and Ooberfuse (UK).
Headline photo: Tuvan ensemble Alash, one of the performers at Chevrolet 2016 World Music Shanghai Festival
Wu Man is an internationally renowned pipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso. Born in Hangzhou (China), Wu Man studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing where she became the first recipient of a master’s degree in pipa. She currently lives in Boston (United States of America) where she was chosen as a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Wu Man was selected by Yo-Yo Ma as the winner of the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize in music and communication. She is also the first artist from China to have performed at the White House with Yo-Yo Ma with whom she now performs as part of the Silk Road Ensemble. Wu Man has collaborated with distinguished musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, David Zinman, Yuri Bashmet, and Cho-liang Lin.
In the orchestral world she has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and many others. Her touring has taken her to the major music halls of the world including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
San Chuan (“Three Rivers”) is a trio of three young and energetic women, Wang Yao, Sang Ka and Liu Yu, who play the Chinese zither called zheng. Founded in autumn 2008 and based in the Chinese capital Beijing, the trio is presenting captivating compositions of contemporary Chinese music.
The three musicians, Xia Jing, Wen Ting and Sang Ka are all trained on the zheng since their early childhood. The ensemble performed at World Music Expo WOMEX 2009 in Copenhagen and Europalia-China in Brussels (the biggest Chinese arts festival ever held outside of China).
The zheng, a Chinese zither with 21 strings, is one of the most popular instruments in China. Its tuning is essentially pentatonic. Bending notes by pressing the open end of strings is one of the main sound features of this great instrument. The rather unusual combination of three zheng shows a stunning result, as they unfold an exceptional, almost orchestral soundscape.
Guilian Liu was born in Shanghai and is one of the world’s premiere pipa (lute) masters. Liu graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing and was the first prize-winner of the Chinese National Instrumental Music Competition in 1989.
She has won first prizes in competitions held across China. She used to be the Principal of the plucked instruments section of the Chinese Orchestra of the Central Conservatory of Music, Director of the Shanghai Pipa Society, and a member of the Chinese Musicians’ Association and Chinese National Orchestral Society.
As a Canadian citizen, Guilian Liu is now the art director of the “Pearl Music Studio”. Her students have won prizes in different competitions in the Greater Vancouver area.
Liu has performed in Europe, Asia and North America. Her superb expressiveness and impeccable techniques were praised by renowned conductors Herbert von Karajan and Seiji Ozawa. She was featured performing in the Oscar winning documentary From Mao to Mozart – Isaac Stern in China (1979).
Guilian Liu is one of the members of Vancouver-based ensemble Red Chamber.
Gong Linna was born 1975 in Guiyang, Guizhou province (located in the Southwest of China). She first appeared on stage at the age of five. Since her early childhood she knew that she wanted to become a professional singer.
At 16 she began her studies at the Chinese Conservatory of Music where she held her first and highly acclaimed concert as soloist in 1999. Since that she has been a soloist with the Zhongyang Minzu Yuetuan, China’s most renowned traditional music orchestra. In addition to many other awards, she won the Chinese National Singing Competition in 2000 as best female singer, including the Special Audience Award, gaining the audience votes of over a million Chinese television viewers.
In 2001 Linna’s first solo-album “Kongque fei lai” was published, presenting recordings from the previous 5 years. One year later she met composer and producer Lao Luo, who had already established himself as one of the masterminds of New Chinese Art Music, and collaborating with him she started a new artistic life.
Experiments with world music fusion and avant-garde music as well as ethnomusicological field work marked the next years. In 2003 Linna contributed to the album of Wu Xing, published on CRC. On this album Linna gave her debut as songwriter with beautiful lyrics.
Her next album “Zou Shengming de Lu”, published 2005 by KUKU-Music, finally set a landmark in Chinese Art Music. Since 2006 Gong Linna is performing with a chamber music ensemble formed by some of China’s best instrumentalists and has been performing on many international festivals and prestigious concert halls.
Besides her work on new creations with her unique mix of traditional singing techniques and modern sounds, Gong Linna devoted lot of her time to do research on Chinese classical music and folk songs.
Linna managed to convince not only scholars but also people from diverse regions she was singing folk songs from. Her album “Zou Xikou” (in Europe published as “Chinese Folk Songs”) is a milestone and has sustainable influenced the Chinese singing (-teaching) scene. Following this her project with performance and recordings of qin-songs formed the next shock-wave in the Chinese art-music and singing scene.
Still and quite in contrast to her impact on Chinese culture Gong Linna continues to be a “secret star”. The Chinese music scene does not give her much chances for performance, as ambitious art-music does yet hardly have a stage in China.
One of Gong Linna’s projects is the recording of art-songs written by Song dynasty poet-composer Jiang Kui and by 20th century composer Luo Zhongrong.
Kongque fei lai (2001)
Wu Xing (2003)
Zou Shengming de Lu (Walking the path of life) (Kuku Music kuku-51, 2005)
Jing Ye Si (Kuku Music kuku-61, 2006) Zou Xikou – Chinese Folk Songs (ARC Music EUCD 2129, 2008)
Geling Jiang is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, who started her professional training at age of 10. After graduated from Wu Han musical Conservatory, she became a member of the Chime Bell Ensemble of Hubei province for 20 years, with which she recorded numerous radio broadcasts, TV programs, and films; and performed tours to the United States, Japan and Singapore. Trained initially as a sanxian (three-string fretless lute) player, she also regularly plays the zheng, pipa and ruan.
Geling Jiang has performed with various Chinese music ensembles in the Vancouver area, including Red Chamber, the Inter-Cultural Orchestra and Orchid Ensemble.
Gathering is the latest album by Red Chamber, one of the finest string music ensembles in North America. Red Chamber is an all-female group specialized in Chinese musical instruments.
The four musicians in Red Chamber are highly eclectic, open to wide-range of musical influences. I’ve seen them live and their repertoire ranges from traditional and classical Chinese music to bluegrass, jazz and esoteric contemporary western classical music. On Gathering they deliver an outstanding set of original pieces and traditional compositions presented with exciting new arrangements.
The musical influences on Gathering cross various boundaries. The opening piece sounds like a sort of Greek klezmer mix, while other times the ensemble digs deep into their Chinese roots as well as African and Celtic music.
Highlights include ‘Dao Chuilian’, a splendid Chinese-flavored piece. Another high point is ‘Madly Riding’, a modern acoustic worldbeat composition where the four instrumentalists demonstrate their admirable skills accompanied by percussion and other instruments. There is also the exquisite ‘A Dream of Africa’ where the ensemble emulates at times the sound of a kora. The spirited final piece, ‘Dance of the Yao People’ also stands out, featuring spectacular solos.
The lineup on Gathering features Mei Han on zheng, liuqin; Guilian Liu on pipa; Zhimin Yu on zhongruan, daruan; and Geling Jiang on sanxian, zhongruan. Guests include Gord Grdina on oud; Liam MacDonald on jembe, riq, dumbek, daf, bass drum, rattles, qaraqib (also known as karkabas); Sunny Matharu on tabla; Randy Raine-Reusch on gongs, bells, shakers, saz; Michael Viens on 6-string and 12-string guitars, bodhran.
Red Chamber is an outstanding Chinese string music ensemble featuring four extremely talented musicians that certainly deserve more international attention.