Reveals ever more of its layered charms with each listen.
Jon Lusk 2009-05-15
'Chinagrass' is the name this intriguing musician from Xinjiang province in Northwest China gives his highly original and accessible music. Mamer grew up 'on horseback', absorbing the Kazakh folk music of the grasslands. Having virtually founded China's equivalent of an alt. country scene with his band IZ, he has adapted traditional songs for this atmospheric solo debut, which has a vivid sense of place.
The production team of Robin Haller and Matteo Scumaci were also behind the recent accomplished debut by Mongolian/Chinese band Hanggai. This time
they've woven their programming, percussion, bass and guitars into Mamer's music in a way that sounds more organic.
Mamer's bass voice is often multi-tracked and at times is deep enough to suggest the kargyraa 'throat-singing' style popularised by Albert Kuvezin of Tuvan band Yat-Kha, and he does rope in Ilchi of Hanggai for a bit of 'proper' throat singing on Proverbs.
Mamer plunks and strums on a variety of guitars, bazouki, Jew's harp and the two-stringed dombra lute, occasionally joined by other traditional instruments such as the sinuous-sounding ghijek fiddle on Man and the startlingly breathy, end-blown flute (sybyzghy) on, err, Flute Song.
There are also a couple of engaging instrumentals, which depart more from traditional formats. Celebration features Bela Fleck duelling on his banjo with Mamer, and Where Are You Going? is a mesmerising strum.
Rhythm isn't something commonly associated with music from this part of the world, and the percussion throughout is subtly atmospheric; only on the late
Hector Zazou's remix of Mountain do digital beats really come to the fore.
The absence of any lyric translations in the sleeve notes is a little vexing, but also underlines how brilliantly evocative these songs are. For instance, what's Mamer singing about on the lovely, yearning Ilgai? The press release says it concerns annual nomadic migrations, and other pieces suggest the gait of a horse or at least have that 'going somewhere' vibe common to a lot central Asian music.
That's a small quibble. This is a lovely, deceptively simple album, which reveals ever more of its layered charms with each listen.