Tuesday, May 19, 2009
HANGGAI/MAMER – Union Chapel, Saturday 16th May 2009
An absorbing evening of Chinese music with central Asian folk origins in London’s delightful Union Chapel to close The Barbican’s intriguing Beyond The Wall programme of new Chinese music. Headliners of an evening billed as ‘Voices from the Grasslands’ were Beijing-based ensemble Hanggai, who perform traditional Inner Mongolian music that is as evocative of its provenance as, say, the camel-gait drive of desert blues Tuareg bands. In Hanggai’s case, it’s in the form of verdant ballads and galloping up-tempo songs that propel towards the audience in waves of internal rhythm and overlapping overtone singing. The band released an intriguing album under the World Music Network Introducing imprint last year, allying their rustic sound with modern instrumentation and production effects. But for this performance we got the six-piece alone, and stripped of its studio sheen the music was far more earthily engaging and energetic. All-seated, dressed in traditional garb, with the imposing but gentle-natured Ilchi sat centre-stage – his side-shaved hairstyle perhaps a remnant of his punk days – they drive out rolling country songs for a Central Asian hoe down performed on morin khuur (a box horse-hair fiddle sawed away at with energy by rasping overtone throat singer Hugejiltu), tobshuur (a strummed two-string lute), acoustic guitar and drums. At one point the ever-playful Ilchi performed a slightly gauche Mongolian dance, but he can be serious too, when performing the ballads that punctuate proceedings. Hugejiltu’s morin khuur is beautifully expressive and mournful on these, the sharp, plangent notes making full use of this snug venue’s natural acoustics. Earlier, Mamer – an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang in the west of China - warmed the audience with his reflective rural balladry. He once had a brief flirtation with world music fame with his group IZ when he drew the attention of DJ Andy Kershaw, and his new solo CD, the accomplished Eagle, continues their folk feel, featuring acoustic guitar and dombra, a traditional Kazakh lute with two strings that possesses a pleasing earthy whine when strummed. His Union Chapel performance featured just one song featuring dombra alone – or rather, Mamer in a duet with colleague Ibrahim on a wonderful bucolic folksy romp that was all too brief in its thrilling cross-play. The rest of the time Mamer – seated, taciturn, almost hiding his boyish visage under a beige cap – was backed by electric guitar, bass and drums, with many of the songs starting with taped atmospheric backing and building on wailing guitar, bass and kit drum over his deep, undulating voice, jangling guitar and jaw’s harp, the highlight of which was Blackbird, one of those songs with a the kind of nagging melody that the audience takes with it into the post-gig night.