Tag Archives: Chinagrass

Artist profiles: Mamer


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 – Eagle


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.



Eagle (Realworld, 2009)


Artist Profiles: Hanggai



Hanggai, composed of young musicians from Beijing and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, is at the forefront of a modern Mongolian folk revival in the heart of Beijing. The musicians are pioneers of “Chinagrass” – contemporary Chinese folk music (often performed by or influenced by Chinese minorities) that reclaims roots music from the grasslands.

Mixing khoomei (throat singing – a fascinating vocal technique in which a single musician produces two notes simultaneously), morin khuur (horsehair fiddle) and tobshuur (2-stringed lute) with rock instruments, the group draws on a repertoire that all but disappeared during China’s recent turbulent past.

Hanggai’s performances of traditional songs from the grasslands are attracting an ever-increasing following in China. The group’s leader, Ilchi, fronted a punk rock band until he experienced a conversion after hearing traditional overtone singing. He traveled to his father’s homeland of Inner Mongolia and started to learn the technique – rediscovering the music and repertoire of songs that had faded but not disappeared. There he met Hugejiltu and Bagen, both music students, who joined the group.

Hugejiltu plays lead fiddle and Bagen sings deep bass using a overtone singing technique whereby he produces a note one octave below the note he is singing.

Many of their songs are adaptations of traditional songs from the grasslands, sung in Mongolian; many use khoomei, a throat-singing technique that has been handed down over hundreds of years.

At the core of the music are two traditional instruments – the morin khuur (horsehair fiddle) and the tobshuur (strummed 2-stringed lute). Some of Hanggai’s arrangements sound traditional and others are more complex.




One of their songs, Five Heroes (which tells of vigilantes stealing from the rich and giving to the poor), includes jangly electric guitar, conjuring up cowboy movies and creating a connection between East and West. Another song, Lullaby (Borulai), is a stunning mix of vocal harmonies, providing a familiar feel of a gentle lullaby with a strong atmosphere of the grasslands.

The group takes its name from an ancient Mongolian word that describes an idealized grassland landscape of mountains, trees, rivers and blue skies. Its CD, Introducing Hanggai, is on the World Music Network label.

Hanggai has performed throughout Europe and the United States.




Introducing Hanggai (World Music Network/Introducing, 2008)

He Who Travels Far (Four Quarters, 2011)

Baifang (Harlem Records, 2014)