There is a saying that the horse and the song are the two wings of the Kazak people. With horses the Kazaks fly across the prairies and mountains, and with songs they fly through time.
Listening to the songs of 34-year-old Kazak musician Mamer in a small courtyard in northern Beijing, one starts to get a feeling of the rich content of Kazak music, which has been passed on orally for centuries.
Even if you don't understand the Kazak language, you can hear clearly the rhythmic patterns of galloping horses when Mamer plays the dombra (a long-necked, two-stringed plucked instrument).
There are about 16 million Kazak people in the world today, and Mamer is one of the 1.25 million of them that live in China.
From Qitai County in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Mamer is the fourth of 10 children in his family. Like every Kazak child, he grew up on horseback. In the strong musical tradition of the Kazaks, Mamer naturally learned to sing folk songs and play the dombra from his father and relatives. Music is always an important part in the family gatherings of Kazak people.
Mamer also learned new songs by listening to the radio. When there was a good song on the radio, he always tried to memorize the lyrics and brought them to life on his dombra.
For the most part, Mamer has taught himself how to play music. He studied at Xinjiang Arts College, but dropped out within a year, for he found that he could not get what he wanted there.
Traditional Kazak folk songs have the most important influence on his music. That is why he named his group "IZ," the Kazak word for "footprint," since he wants to follow the footprints of past folk musicians and create music that will be passed to future generations.
Rooted deeply in traditional Kazak folk music, Mamer has also moved outward to incorporate Western folk and rock into his music. On top of being an excellent dombra player, he is a virtuoso on guitar as well. He uses the Western instrument to develop his own style.
As in playing the dombra, Mamer does not use a pick when he plays the guitar, preferring the touch of his fingers. He has adapted many of the playing techniques for the dombra for the guitar, and he has come up with three or four alternative ways of tuning the guitar.
In one of the methods, the six strings of the guitar are tuned almost like three groups of the dombra strings in different octaves. Using this tuning, Mamer can play dombra music on the guitar, yet with a richer sound.
"It is not a guitar but a Kazak instrument for me," said Mamer. "In this tuning I use open strings a lot, which makes the sound carry."
Mamer has also used the guitar to imitate the guqin, the seven stringed zither of the Han people. Playing slides and overtones on the pentatonic scale of the Han people, he can create a classical Chinese atmosphere with the guitar.
Mamer is at his most creative when improvising on the dombra and guitar. Fast plucking and strumming, dazzling ornaments and complicated rhythmic variations all happen at once, creating new phrases all the time but never going too far and losing the style.
Besides dombra and guitar, Mamer also plays a number of other instruments like the kobez (a two-stringed bowed instrument), the xerter (a three-stringed plucked instrument), the shan-kobez (similar to a Jew's harp) and the dabel (hand drum).
In 1998, Mamer formed a band called "Junggar" in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Using the dombra, electric guitar, bass and synthesizer, the band developed an artistic rock style with tunes that usually last for seven or eight minutes.
After a year or so, Mamer decided that he wanted a more Kazak style. He turned to works of musicians from Kazakhstan, like Nurkeysa Tilendey, A Kejibay and Seken Turesbek.
Through their music, Mamer came to understand more about how to build one's musical language on the basis of tradition.
He gave up the synthesizer and electric guitar and used mostly the dombra and acoustic guitar, whose natural sounds are closer to Kazak tradition.
Mamer's thought-provoking lyrics also have ties to Kazak poetry. In "Brother," the lyrics run: "Use your wisdom to conquer your temper. / Don't act foolishly or you will lose your life... / The world is unfamiliar and full of purposes. / You will never find your way back / Once you have walked in the wrong direction."
In "The Man and the Animal," they go: "The hunter dressed his son in furs. / But to his greatest sadness, / He killed his son by mistake."
The song was inspired by a story that Mamer heard when he was a child. To him, this story has very deep meaning and is still relevant today.
"Man wants too many things in this world," said Mamer. "Many people die because of their desires."
This song starts with Mamer playing a shan-kobez. One of the oldest musical instruments in the world, it is also known as the kouxian in Chinese, Jew's harp in English, vargan in Russian and various other names in different cultures.
Consisting of a flexible metal tongue attached to a frame, the instrument is placed in the performer's mouth and the tongue is plucked with the finger to produce a note.
The simple but ancient sound gives the song a timeless atmosphere. In singing the song, Mamer also treats the listeners to his rich and profound voice, which helps take his music beyond entertainment and into the realms of philosophy.
In 2002 Mamer moved to Beijing, where he formed his new group "IZ," with kobez player Meyrambek, guitarist Zhu Xiaolong, bassist Wu Junde and percussionist Guo Long. The guitarist and bassist also play the dombra. A song called "Three Sentences" is a dombra trio. About half of IZ's repertoire is Mamer's compositions, while the other half is traditional Kazak folk songs.
"The great old Kazak folk songs were born when people were shepherding," said Mamer. "Living in cities, we are now often too busy to allow tranquility to enter into our lives."
That's why he chooses to live in a bungalow with a small courtyard in a northern suburb of Beijing, for he feels uneasy among high buildings.
Making a living by playing in Beijing's bars, Mamer always retreats to his home soon after performing. Unlike most of the other Kazak musicians playing in big cities, Mamer does not sing songs in Chinese but insists on singing in the Kazak language.
"I like Kazak songs," said Mamer. "If you sing them in Chinese, the music is changed."
Not many people have seen Mamer perform, but those who have, most recently those who saw IZ live at the Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art on April 24, cannot forget him.
Mamer has not yet released a commercial album, only a demo CD of a performance at the now defunct River Bar in Beijing.
To him, the pressing matter at the moment is not to publicize himself, but to find some old Kazak musicians to teach him more about traditional Kazak music, on the basis of which he can create new Kazak music.
The lyrics of "The Man and the Animal" perhaps best embody Mamer's values: "Never do nothing but shaking people's hands and exchanging pleasantries. / Never do nothing but showing off in the street. / You come from the yurt. / That is your roots."