Eagle opens with a bait and switch. First there is a shrill crash of Chinese opera. This lasts for six seconds, long enough for us to take it in and prepare ourselves for more. Then the opera is interrupted by a newsreader’s voice, followed by the buzz of a dial swerving through different radio channels. Then there is something very different, the sound of folky plucked strings picking up their heels at a steady pace like good horses. We continue with the strings, men singing, guitar, dombra, a twang, a drone, boings from a mouth harp. The message the listener has been given runs like this: “This—this operatic crashing—is what you’ve been told traditional Chinese music sounds like. But it is not always like that. It can also sound like my dombra.”
The swerving radio device and the idea of switching from one style of music to another are hardly new. Madera Limpia played a similar game earlier this year on La Corona, letting the listener think that they were about to hear old Cuban music and then seguing into a crossover between a traditional style and hip-hop. In Eagle, though, I think the switch has a more serious purpose. Cuba’s indigenous African-European cross-pollinations are likely to sound familiar to English-speaking listeners in a way that Chinese music does not. The Chinese have been migrating around the globe in the millions, yet their impact on the popular music of English-speaking nations has been minimal. Music travelling from a Chinese musician like Mamer to an English-speaking audience comes up against problems that don’t affect—or, at least, not to the same degree—a traditional musician from Africa or Western Europe. The music often needs to be framed or introduced in some way before it can be grasped.
The simplest way to tackle the obstacle is by writing a set of album notes. “This music,” the writer might explain, “comes from the nomadic people of such-and-such a place. Instruments need to be small and light so that they can be easily carried.” Then the reader will know not to wonder why the musician is not playing a piano, or a balafon, or anything else that is large and bulky. Eagle comes with a very short Mamer biography that serves as a quick introduction to the music as well as the musician: “[He] grew up in the furthest flung corner of Chinese central Asia, near China’s border with Russia and Kazakhstan… he learnt the instruments and songs of the area from his father and grandfather… a collection of songs that deal with universal grassland themes: the nature of man, the delicate balance of nature, and the temptations of modernity.” But the album would work without it.
Musical cues have been integrated into the songs themselves. In “Proverbs” the thrumming notes of Mamer’s singing have been furnished with sound effects, shuffles, and softness, and, near the end, a recording of two old men talking. There’s intimacy, possibly nostalgia, in this conversation. You don’t need to understand the language to come to a conclusion about the song. Maybe it’s one of those songs about “the nature of man”—or maybe the two men, talking about their youth and comparing it to the world around them today, are thinking of “the temptations of modernity”. Whatever it is, you get an idea of the song that is unlike the one you’d get if you were listening to it in its unmodified form, sung by an everyday person in “the furthest flung corner of Chinese central Asia”.
Mamer demystifies the experience and keeps the beauty of the sound. And Central Asian music is beautiful, with a beauty that can seem unearthly, the singer aching and transported into song. He has the faintly gurgled purring tone that you tend to hear in male singers from this part of the world, as if the lyrics are being somehow chanted by a huge cat. His dombra is companionable and folkish, avoiding the hard downward strokes that have jarred their way out of some of the other dombra recordings I’ve listened to. The dombra is an instrument on a supremely human scale: the sound is light, a fine tenor, and each note carries upwards, as if the instrument is turning its eyes to the sky and looking thoughtful. Mamer plays mouth harp as well, along with a few other instruments.
Ilchi, whose work should be familiar to anyone who picked up last year’s Introducing Hanggai, provides throat-singing. Both Eagle and the Hanggai album are being presented to us under the auspices of a new sub-genre called Chinese alt-country. Its appearance in the repertoire of British record labels seems to be the work of Robin Haller and Matteo Scumaci, two Britons working in Beijing, where these musicians are based. So far “Chinese alt-country” means Central Asian music clarified with modern touches. This is the same path that the Tuvan Albert Kuvezin pioneered with Yat-Kha, and that other bands with much less Western exposure have worked on in turn. The label seems likely to be misunderstood—surely at least one person is going to put on this album expecting to hear a Chinese singer making music in the American country style—but if it helps to coax people in, then I’m all for it.