Kazakh music is traditionally about open skies and stretching grasslands, about the rhythm of life where life is pared down to its basics. An ethnic Kazakh band in Beijing grew up with that music in China's far west, and is now adding its own urban twist.
In Kazakh, "IZ" means footprint, and the name of the band's new CD, Kolengke, means shadow.
The band's title track has a dark, insistent rhythm with a discordant, metallic undertow. The singer, Mamer, comes in with his gravelly bass, singing, "Passing through life, his hair becomes white. Time passes on, through many lifetimes, on and on over an endless journey, through the bottomless abyss."
Even a song called "Cradle" sounds a little sinister, with the same dark rhythm juxtaposed against the traditional Kazakh lyrics: "Sleep, sleep my little one, lying in the clean white cradle. I will slaughter a plump sheep for you. Eat well and grow strong."
The band's drummer, Zhang Dong, who's the only ethnic Chinese in this otherwise Kazakh group, said Cradle is supposed to be a lullaby. "But this is our lullaby for the modern world, heavy and industrial."
It's all a sharp contrast from what Mamer was doing before, when he put out the album "Eagle" under Peter Gabriel's "Real World Records."
It was more true to traditional Kazakh music. Mamer himself grew up in an ethnic Kazakh family with 10 kids, and learned to play traditional instruments like the mouth harp, and a two-stringed lute called the dombra. He worked for a local television station in Xinjiang, doing voiceovers, before he decided he could make better use of his distinctive voice, performing. He moved to Beijing a decade ago and formed the band IZ — but he said only some of their original audience back home in Xinjiang fully appreciates the creative path IZ has traveled.
"The folk music was what we did in the past. We adopted traditional ethnic songs. Then we picked up more international influences — from Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and German and Czech bands," Mamer said. "Now, we have a sound that's more like the sound of the city."
But when IZ recently went back to Xinjiang to perform, drummer Zhang Dong said the audience didn't totally accept it. Call it their Bob-Dylan-goes-electric moment, though no one booed. Mamer shrugs, behind his dark glasses, saying, this is to be expected.
"There are all kinds of music. Someone likes this, someone doesn't like that. That's the way it is. People in Xinjiang may not be exposed to music like what we're playing now."
They're hoping for a more receptive audience in Europe, where they'll be touring over the rest of the summer. The urban alienation overlay on ancient Kazakh rhythms, may just do the trick.