y favorite Chinese musical artist has long been Mamer, an ethnic Kazakh singer-songwriter from Xinjiang. I was a fan on the strength of his debut album Eagle, released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label.
Mamer’s debut album had the swirling sound and polished production the label was famous for – sounding both contemporary and authentic at the same time, at least to my ears.
I had a chance to meet Mamer at the very first Hanggai Folk Festival, held at a sheep farm outside Beijing in 2011. He was shy and sweet, but also cynical and depressive.
At that time, Chinese ethnic folk bands were starting to become internationally renowned, winning spots in festivals around the world. They mostly trafficked in images of open grasslands or wild mountains, slotting nicely into Western preconceptions about what world music should be.
Mamer went in another direction. The next time I saw him, he played an uncompromising set of dense electric postrock on an electric bass to the backdrop of stark black and white photos showing scenes of industrial decay.
His new music was about as far away from Eagle as you could get.
In time, I formed a band playing American folk music, and had the privilege of performing at a subsequent Hanggai folk festival myself. We played traditional American mountain folk tunes, and became obsessed with finding traditional Chinese folk music that we could perform in our style, to bring our music closer to our Chinese audiences.
In my imagination, I wanted to be something like a modern-day John Lomax, who was an American musicologist, collecting folk music and serving as a mirror to Chinese audiences, playing back their traditional music so they could see its value.
The problem with this plan was that we were seven decades too late. China indeed had its own folklorists, such as Wang Luobin, who took folk melodies and added Chinese lyrics to them. The beloved Red songs of the 1960s were in fact mostly folk tunes with new patriotic lyrics.
These songs were so successful and popular that the earlier versions were eclipsed.
China’s new generation of folk bands weren’t particularly interested in singing their parents favorite folk tunes, so they turned to folk traditions for inspiration, and composed their own words and music.
For example, the band Shanren (Mountain Men) from Yunnan Province has a popular song called “Thirty Years” which uses traditional melodic elements, but adds humorous new words about the difficulties of finding a good job.
Our band ended up covering a mix of songs from these new bands like Shanren and Hanggai and the patriotic folk music of the older generation. The main point, after all, was to get people singing along.
We became popular enough that we were invited to play in festivals around China. To my eternal delight, Hanggai invited us to play in their world music festival, twice. And eventually, we performed in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
In Xinjiang, we were received like old friends, with incredible warmth and hospitality and many late nights of drinking and music making. We were taught many songs. But upon investigation, many seem to be old Russian radio hits from the 1970s and 80s.
Before coming to Xinjiang, we reached out to Mamer to see if he would meet up with us, but he remained very standoffish.
I heard that he actually hated his Eagle record, feeling it was overproduced and not his authentic voice.
One night we played a concert in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, and we pulled out all of our Chinese “folk” songs, including Wang Luobin’s “The Girl from Dabancheng.” The crowd went crazy.
The thing about Wang Luobin that we did not really understand at that time is the controversy surrounding him.
He took melodies from Xinjiang, added his own words about ethnic minority life, and tried to copyright them as his own works. The distaste that some Chinese ethnic musicians have for him only became clear to me a few years later when someone refused to play one of his songs with us, and explained why.
I wish I had known the night of the concert in Urumqi, because Mamer came to the venue to check us out. And he stayed in the same hotel with us, partying all night with his musician friends. But he opted not to meet us. I can only presume it was because we played appropriated music like “The Girl from Dabancheng.”
China is a very big country with a very complex culture, so it is not surprising that my bandmates and I would make a few gaffes. Anyways, I still think Eagle was Mamer’s best recording.