Music serves as a cultural lifeline, enriching communities and providing a powerful means of expression, unity and resilience. Within the intricate fabric of human experience, music holds a unique position, transcending language and societal barriers to connect people on a profound emotional level. It acts as a repository of collective memories, reflecting the joys, struggles and triumphs of a community, while also preserving its unique cultural identity. Through communal gatherings, ceremonies and shared rituals, music fosters a sense of belonging and togetherness, creating a harmonious space for individuals to celebrate their heritage and navigate the complexities of contemporary life. A nation’s music embodies its essence, with each musical instrument and element serving as a vessel for this cultural identity.
On my recent trip to Xinjiang, I was immediately captivated by colorful costumes, carpets and flower hats. The inviting smell of fresh grapes and charred lamb still lingers in my memory. But being a music aficionada, my senses quickly alerted me to the resounding presence of several instruments that were absolute novelty to my western ears. As I wandered through the bustling bazaar of the Old City of Kashgar, and the tranquil alleys of Yining, the enchanting echoes of the dap’s melodic strains, gracefully intertwining with the rhythm of everyday life, caught my attention.
The dap is a framed drum, that features a goatskin head and incorporated ring jingles. It’s distinct, twangy timbre seems to evoke the very essence of the Uyghur culture, serving as a poignant reminder of the region’s rich musical heritage and the enduring spirit of its people. From lively street performances to intimate cultural gatherings, I witnessed the ubiquity of the dap fostering a sense of communal identity and preserving the timeless traditions of Xinjiang’s vibrant musical scene.
The rich cultural tapestry of the Uyghur community finds vibrant expression through the integral presence of music and dance in their everyday life. From joyous celebrations to solemn ceremonies, the rhythmic melodies and intricate steps of Uyghur music and dance form an indispensable part of their cultural festivities. Rooted in a tradition of melodious originality, Uyghur traditional songs resonate with a unique charm, captivating through their emotive storytelling and engaging musical arrangements.
1. Brief historical context
The roots of Uyghur music can be traced back to ancient times, with historical evidence dating back to the 11th century BC, linking it to the Di people of the region. The arrival of the Uyghur Turks in the 9th century AD in the East Turkestan region marked a significant period for the development of their musical heritage.
Rooted in the ancient history of the region, Uyghur music has evolved into a cultural treasure that reflects the complex heritage of the Uyghur people, absorbing influences from various regional oasis kingdoms as well as cultures along the Silk Road. This musical heritage is a testament to the geographical and historical complexities of the area, where multiple outside forces have left their mark.
The musical traditions exhibit connections to the classical Central Asian traditions of Bukhara and Samarkand and, conversely, links to the musical styles of northwest China. Despite regional distinctions, Uyghur music has a common language and cultural unity, fostered through centuries of inter-regional communication and trade.
2. Musical genres and themes
At the core of Uyghur musical expression is the Muqam: artistic practices that combine poetry, storytelling, dances, tunes and instrumental performances. It is a unique creation of Uyghur folklore and is considered a major force in the development of Uyghur music. In 2005, UNESCO recognized the Xinjiang Uygur Muqam Arts of China as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.
There are four main regional styles of Muqam, namely the Twelve Muqam, Dolan Muqam, Turpan Muqam and Hami Muqam. The Twelve Muqam, the most prominent among them, consists of more than 300 pieces and runs over 20 hours. It is structured in sections, including Muqäddimä (introduction), Chong näghmä (great music), Dastan (narrative songs) and Mäshräp (gathering), each contributing to the overall narrative and emotional richness of the performance. These compositions often draw inspiration from both Central Asian Chagatai poets and popular folklore.
In addition to the Muqam, Uyghur music encompasses other forms, such as the sung epic tales (dastan), narrative songs (qoshaq, läpär, äytshish and mäddhi namä), dance music suites (sänäm), instrumental pieces and genres associated with Sufi ceremonies.
The interplay of nomadic heritage and settled urban life laid the foundation for the distinctive musical themes that continue to define the Uyghur tradition. The melodies, characterized by their evocative and emotive qualities, also encapsulate the profound connection to the expansive landscapes of the Xinjiang region. Furthermore, a significant part of the Uyghur musical repertoire consists of folk songs, often centered on themes of earthly suffering and unrequited love.
3. Cultural significance and heritage
For the Uyghurs, music transcends mere entertainment, it serves as a vessel for storytelling, communal bonding and the preservation of their ancestral heritage. From celebratory wedding processions to solemn spiritual ceremonies, the reverberations of their musical expressions foster a sense of unity and pride, nurturing a collective consciousness that transcends geopolitical boundaries and adversities.
The Uyghurs, renowned for their exceptional craftsmanship, have a wide variety of musical instruments, including stringed, wind and percussion instruments. Skilled artisans have mastered the art of creating intricate and melodious instruments.
In Shufu county there is a village that, for over 150 years, has been dedicated to the preservation of traditional musical instruments and the craftmanship that their manufacturing demands. Tuwankewukushake village, approximately 15 km from Kashgar, is home to the Ethnic Musical Instrument Village of Xinjiang. I was lucky enough to pay it a visit and witness the work that goes into the making of some of these instruments.
With just over 1,000 residents, most of the households in the village boast their own workshop, actively fostering a musical instrument-making community. “Around 570 of us are dedicated to crafting these instruments, either within the village workshops or the comfort of our homes”, Mr. Abdula, a local man with his own workshop, told me.
I entered the Uyghur’s man workshop to find the walls covered in all sorts of beautifully crafted instruments of various sizes, some so big, one person is not enough to play it, others so small they serve only as souvenirs for tourists.
From the long-necked dutar to the resonant five-metal strings tämbür, each instrument is carefully constructed using high-quality materials, such as wood, metal and strings, with meticulous attention paid to every detail, including the decorations that adorn the instruments, varying from snakeskin to cow bone.
The craftsmanship of the Uyghurs is evident not only in the exquisite design and construction of their instruments but also in the fine-tuning process, ensuring that each instrument produces the desired tones and timbres unique to the Uyghur musical tradition.
Abdula, who’s been in the business for about 50 years, since he was a kid, emphasized the pivotal role of material selection, particularly the significance of quality, aged wood, usually from mulberry and apricot trees. “The older the tree, the richer the resonance of the instrument and the longer it endures”, he explained.
His hands moved with practiced precision, fashioning the robust mulberry wood into the intricate frame of a dutar. “The dutar is one of the easiest to play and serves as an ideal starting point for many aspiring musicians”, he shared. It was the first instrument he introduced to his eldest son.
Alongside him in the workshop, many other men worked in between smiles, carving and gluing wood, cutting little pieces of bone and plastic to adorn the final products. As chips of wood fell delicately to the ground, the symphony of craftsmanship continued, each artisan contributing their mastery to preserve the musical heritage of their community.
A repository of generational knowledge, Abdula’s family, like many others in the village, plays a central role in upholding the village’s esteemed legacy, contributing to the production of approximately 150 musical instruments, from 27 distinct categories.
Backed by financial aid from various government tiers, the workshops of the village are guardians of the intangible cultural heritage of traditional Uyghur musical instrument production. An annual incentive ranging between 10,000 to 40,000 yuan is provided to the inheritors of this intangible heritage, as well coverage of their bills, such as water and electricity. Most of the inheritors of such skills belong to a long line of traditional instrument makers. The schooling system in the village also allows students to witness the crafting techniques of traditional musical instrument production, along with the mastery required to play these instruments.
After visiting the workshop, we were treated to a heartfelt performance by the local artisans. They presented each instrument individually, showcasing the distinct sound and craftsmanship of the dutar, satar, rawap and many others, in full traditional clothing. Later, they came together in a synchronized harmony of instrumental and singing, accompanied by lively traditional dances.
The melodious interplay between the daf and the ghijak conjured an atmosphere that transported me to the bustling bazaars and lively gatherings where these sounds have long thrived, and which I had the pleasure to witness throughout the previous week. The performance radiated a deep sense of cultural pride and unity, emphasizing the significance of the Uyghur musical heritage to their community.