Mamer’s story is an attractive one. He was born in Xinjiang, in the Northwestern province of China that borders Kazakhstan and Russia. Raised on horseback in a family of 10 children, Mamer learned traditional Kazakh grasslands songs from his father and learned to play the dombura. As a grown man, he traveled some 2,000 miles across the country to Beijing, where he is credited for starting an underground alt-country scene with his band IZ, combining his grasslands roots with American folk. Then, British producer and musician Robin Haller “discovered” him, offered him a record contract, and together they released Eagle, a carefully engineered album produced by Haller and Matteo Scumaci – the same team that introduced Mongolian grassland troupe Hanggai to the world last year with Introducing Hanggai.
No longer with IZ, Eagle is Mamer’s first solo album, and he incorporates a range of instruments in his version of country – from the dombura to the electric guitar to the Jew’s harp. It’s an intriguing blend, mostly because Chinese alt-country isn’t something that makes it to the U.S. all that often. And on top of that, Mamer shares songs from the western and innermost region of China, culturally closer in many ways to Central Asian and Turkic groups than the Han majority culture most commonly associated with China.
The combination of the traditional songs’ timeless appeal and Mamer’s soft, soothing voice is unpretentious and very pretty. But on repeated listens, Eagle can feel tacky. The reverb and effects on the Jew’s harp get to be too much, and while I wasn’t sure about the Ishek sisters’ sugary supporting female vocals on the first track, their reappearance on later in the album confirmed my suspicions. The grassland girly innocence was more than I could comfortably take. The stereotypically “epic” acoustic rock of “Proverbs” is salvaged by some textured and melodic throat singing.
The album’s message generally seems to be “look at how modern and transnational we can make traditional music, while still retaining the purity and simple sweetness of the nomadic grassland spirit.” Unfortunately, this multiculturalist hype backfires, ultimately upstaging what could have been a more complex, yet honest musical experience.