Uyghur Musicians

                                  Shih-Yin Wang

In what follows I take my conversations with two Uy...
Traditionally, music making has been so widespread that learning would take
place at home—a reasonable explanation for the...
father tried to learn at the same time. The reason he now offers for his parents’ support
is that, with society upside dow...
mouthpiece for the ‘traditionalized’ music s/he has been taught at school. As Kamil put
it, it is “two different worlds”.
similar to one another. Yet this “mannerist” style (in the sense of Katz 1970), or
“clumsy hybrid”, as Gulendem put it, is...
but through the tasks of “ordering” (or ‘fixing’ or ‘canonising’), preservation and
publicizing, the state assumes an esse...
New contexts

Kamil and Gulendem left China in 1988, first on a visit to Turkey. Then, in 1989, after
an incident there th...
innovation as practised by internally-oriented groups is, in a sense, more “authentic”
than the self-conscious traditional...
Rice, Timothy (1997) “Toward a Meditation of Fieldwork and Field Experience in
    Ethnomusicology.” In Gregory F. Barz an...
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  1. 1. Uyghur Musicians Shih-Yin Wang In what follows I take my conversations with two Uyghur musicians living in Holland, Gulendem and Kamil Abbas, as a point of departure, and try to expand on some of the issues that their particular life stories and points of view raise in regard to the musical tradition they now represent abroad. In the same vein as Rice’s account of the Varimezovs, although at a much more modest level, an understanding of their interaction “with the world into which they were thrown”, and the way this has shaped (and continues to shape) their music, can give us a better understanding of “how music, history, and social, economic, and ideological forces unite in everyday experience” (after Rice 1994:8). I start with their entry into the tradition, and considerations about the change in the status of musicians in Xinjiang. Their work in state-sponsored troupes leads to the issue of politics and music, aspects that have been closely linked in China during the last 50 years. Thirdly, their exile and work abroad bears on the issue of outside exposure and authenticity. Becoming a Uyghur Musician The way Gulendem and Kamil became musicians is atypical in more than one respect, as compared to how this would happen traditionally, and taking into account their backgrounds. In both cases the exceptionality is linked to the upheavals brought about by the Cultural Revolution, and precisely this makes them early representatives of the kind of change in status that has got under way not only in Xinjiang, but also in other parts of China.
  2. 2. Traditionally, music making has been so widespread that learning would take place at home—a reasonable explanation for the stereotypical statement about Uyghur people’s “excellence at singing and dancing”. Apart from amateurs performing at social gatherings, an exclusively male semi-professional caste of ‘folk artist’ existed that usually undertook another job; Mackerras (1985a: 48) points out how the most famous of them, Turdi Axun, was always on the move and earnt a modest living. Apprenticeship with a master was usually a family matter, and he would take under his guidance only his own sons or nephews (Trebinjac 2000: 174). Gulendem, although born in southern Xinjiang, moved at a very early age to Beijing with her parents, Uyghur cadres of the Communist Party. She remembers listening to traditional Uyghur music at home from recordings, both LPs and, later, home-made by her father with a tape recorder bought for recording. He would seize on the opportunity provided by visits to the capital by performing artists, and also arrange for private lessons for Gulendem on these occasions. At school, she had been selected to take part in a propaganda group because of her beautiful voice, and there she later took to the repertory, in Mandarin Chinese, that became the hallmark of the Cultural Revolution era –the Eight Model Works. Starting in 1971, since she happened to attend a ‘Model High School’ and be the only representative of the Uyghur minority, she performed for foreign and illustrious guests. This provided opportunities to sing her own repertoire of folksongs. Encouraged and supported by the administrative staff, she soon joined the Oriental Ensemble and went on to perform on a semi-professional basis. At that time, she was trained in singing by a teacher who forced on her western style ‘bel canto’ techniques —completely opposite to the ‘natural’ singing of famous people like Pasha Isha. As she found it difficult to adjust to these restrictions, she searched on her own for a less constrained style. Some years later she met another teacher at Beijing’s Conservatory who, having trained singers from Xinjiang before, led Gulendem to find her ‘true’ natural voice and add technique only as a supplement. A clearer answer to the question of how Gulendem was not only allowed, but even encouraged, to embark on a professional musical career, emerges from Kamil’s own account. His background may also be considered as middle class, his father being a publisher. When the Cultural Revolution was at its peak, schools were closed and he persuaded his father to let him learn dutar, rawap and violin, but from a teacher as neither of Kamil’s parents had a strong musical background. This explains why his
  3. 3. father tried to learn at the same time. The reason he now offers for his parents’ support is that, with society upside down at the time, professional music supported by the state looked like a safe haven in the face of things to come. Kamil, however, was too fond of the violin and Western music, and that led him to a re-education farm of the kind operating at the time for intellectuals. Still, he was allowed to take his violin there and learn in his spare time, and he later applied for a post at a newly created troupe with western and Uyghur instrumental sections. He was unjustly charged with “smelling of onion”—playing the strings in the Uyghur sliding way—by the leader, from the western section, a Han domain, but the all too evident racial slur backfired, and Kamil worked with the troupe for eight years. The passage of Kamil and Gulendem from “outside the tradition” to living in it, on the one hand reminds us of the experiential option argued for by Rice (1997), an option that blurs the clear-cut distinction between outsiders and insiders, particularly in the case of Gulendem’s search for “her own voice” through a neo-traditional listening- and-repeating method. On the other hand, it makes an interesting contrast to the ambiguities of professionalization of musical life that has taken place in Xinjiang, defying the clear borderline that seems to separate professionals and amateurs elsewhere in current Chinese music. For musicians under 40 years of age, schools in Xinjiang have offered the possibility of pursuing a career, at the end of secondary school and for four years, that leads a man (or a woman, as women are no longer excluded from public performance), to enrol in one of the song and dance troupes sponsored by the government at various levels; or s/he can try to gain admission to the selective Arts School in the provincial capital and there receive further training. Sabine Trebinjac (2000: 176) states that, at present, the young generation receives both a traditional training at home, in the old ways and of the old repertoire, and a formal training at school that teaches what she calls the ‘traditionalized’ repertory through a western pedagogical approach. Trebinjac contends (and Harris 2002: 268 confirms) that, although at face value this shift in educational methodology would seem to pose a risk to the tradition, much as foreign observers see it, the truth is that young musicians are most skillful at following a dual life and dual language: outside the workplace, they play the pieces in the way they have learnt them at home, betrayed only by the occasional display of technical prowess, yet the same musician, in an official context, will keep that knowledge hidden and act as the
  4. 4. mouthpiece for the ‘traditionalized’ music s/he has been taught at school. As Kamil put it, it is “two different worlds”. In the troupes During her professional career in China, Gulendem has worked in three different song- and-dance troupes, all of them based in Beijing, and so has performed Uyghur songs and dances to an audience composed mainly of Han Chinese. Ethnic minority music has been actively promoted by the state in this way, as a statement about the multi-cultural nation being built on a happy coming together of China’s nationalities. The stage becomes a harmless showground where Han dominance can be downplayed, and momentary prominence be granted to those same groups whose self-determination is denied in other fronts. Accusations of cultural appropriation surfaced more audibly not long ago, in relation to the CD Sister Drum, but as Janet Upton (2002:108) points out, “ever since the 1930s, Chinese musicians have been utilizing Tibetan themes, including Tibetan folk tunes, as they seek to construct a new national music that embraces all of the modern nation-state’s ethnic diversity”. In a sense, this can be seen as an early, and very wicked, tack on the “increasingly important part played by indigenous peoples in constructions of national identities” (Castles 1998:17). Trebinjac (2000) has studied in detail, in relation to a musical tradition so different from the Han as the Uyghur, the process of rewriting through which “new national music” is born. A large-scale bureaucratic machine is in charge of manufacturing a truly national musical heritage, not least through ethnomusicological collection. The result is an encyclopaedic Anthology, ordered by province and genre, that is still in the process of publication, and that so far has made available around 10% of the data gathered. Musical research and compilation is aimed, in the minds of those ultimately in charge, at the practical purpose of modernizing folksong, and leaves out a good deal of material for a variety of reasons—from self-censorship to inadequate equipment. The final product, respecting regional musical specificities that don’t push too far Han tolerance towards the exotic, are handed over to song-and-dance troupes for dissemination. And in this way the musics of China’s 56 national minorities is tirelessly broadcasted by radio stations all around the country, all ending up sounding strangely
  5. 5. similar to one another. Yet this “mannerist” style (in the sense of Katz 1970), or “clumsy hybrid”, as Gulendem put it, is not limited to national minorities’ music. In reference to Shanghai’s Jiangnan sizhu amateur specialists criticizing professional performers’ and composers’ attempts to play or write in the style of their music without having developed a sense of how to apply its special characteristics, Witzleben (1995:132) elaborates on the situation in conservatories: students are taught annotated or arranged versions of a few pieces in each important style, and in these “the liberal application of a few characteristic ornaments is assumed to be sufficient to bring out the correct regional ‘flavor.’” But this leads to the other side of the coin. Kamil’s work unit was of a different kind: the Uyghur Opera Troupe, based in Urumchi, is one among a number of local equivalents to the national, multi-ethnic troupes, whose task is to introduce musical developments at the local level. Their composition, as natives to the region, results in a greater adhesion to the tradition. On the other hand, novelties and modernity are not rejected, as long as, given ethnic animosity, not too many Han elements are introduced (Trebinjac 2000: 143-4). Trebinjac (2000: 172) gives a tentative figure of 100 groups, from regional to provincial to local, that exist, and includes a description of one such performance. Kamil’s troupe can be seen to stand towards the “refined” end of a continuum, as its work was based on adaptations of opera scripts combining western and classical Uyghur music. In fact, their first production was a version of one of the Eight Model Operas, The Red Lantern Tale, and this won enthusiastic applause from Madame Mao, Jiang Qing. It took them to Beijing for performances and the shooting of a film based on it. After the Cultural Revolution was over, Gherip and Sanam, their first production truly based on a Uyghur epic, and drawing much more on classical music from the muqam tradition, also met with great acclaim. The ways that western, equated with scientific, treatment of traditional musics, with a long tradition of official sanction in China, has affected and changed tradition, is still a topic of debate. Trebinjac points out that in China the making of a national music rests on a concept that she calls “state traditionalism”: the creation of a national tradition by treating scientifically a vulgar folklore, whose possibilities are thus “revealed”. The need for such a treatment indirectly legitimates national authority, as it is this that provides the means necessary to the end and raises the category of the music. In the case of the classical muqam tradition, there has not been any attempt at writing new material;
  6. 6. but through the tasks of “ordering” (or ‘fixing’ or ‘canonising’), preservation and publicizing, the state assumes an essential role as it takes care of it subjects’ cultural assets (Trebinjac 2000: 323-39). Certainly, this role may be challenged, as Trebinjac notes with regard to the Uyghur musicians she spoke to: they were ready to criticize the work of Han musicians on the grounds that they were Han, thus unable to truly understand their music. But on the other hand, they did not question the concept of rewriting as such: a music played by peasants, and thus “primitive”, does indeed need the intervention by intellectuals to attain true artistic expression. The songs she found in the local Kashgar anthology, compiled by Uyghur musicians, have been “corrected”, suppressing non-chromatic notes and intervals other than the tone and semi-tone, and also suppressing sexual expressions, as if to prove that Kashgarians are a civilized people (2000: 337). And the recordings of Uyghur amateur musicians produced by Trebinjac, when played back in China, met with disbelief, as to the existence of an interested audience in France, a civilized country, or were simply just disapproved of because of their roughness. Rees (1998:152) describes a related episode with regard to Naxi classical music, “improved” by a composer of the local song-and-dance troupe; again, the elderly amateurs felt it was lacking in flavor. Rees summarized the opposite views on traditional music, of the kind sponsored by Chinese conservatories, held by Chinese professional musicians and Western audiences, and discussed in Asian Music in 1981. The right to change is defended by the former, and a justification made on the basis of historical borrowing of foreign elements. Witzleben (1995:135-39), in discussing the indirect influence that Western music has had on Jiangnan sizhu, through its impact on the Chinese professional music world, concedes that recent trends are based on principles that have existed in Chinese culture for centuries. However, he still finds the foreignness of their application “disturbingly obvious to people who value traditions that are indigenous to China or whose foreign origins have been obscured by centuries of Sinicization” (1995: 21). And Jones (1995:140), who thinks that the Asian Music debate needs to be continued because at the time few “of us laowai had heard the folk music of the majority of China’s peasant population”, and thus “the conservatory style got off lightly”, addresses the problem from the insider/outsider dichotomy: the change should not be forced by outsiders, nor should folk musicians be misled to believe that their music is “less scientific”.
  7. 7. New contexts Kamil and Gulendem left China in 1988, first on a visit to Turkey. Then, in 1989, after an incident there that the increasingly tense political situation in China may have made undesirable, they took advantage of the opportunity to go to Holland to perform and eventually settled there. The incident revolved around music and identity; in fact, according to Harris (2000: 18-9), the “Uyghur music industry is actively contributing to the solidification of a pan-Uyghur identity...and nationalism is clearly a driving force among many recording musicians...highly politicized statements being made through popular song and disseminated on cassette”. Kamil contends that even performance of the muqam is nowadays discouraged by government on the grounds that it contributes to Uyghur self-assertion. Exile has reinforced in Kamil and Gulendem their Uyghurness, restricted during their long-term residence in Beijing—Kamil also moved to Beijing after marriage, in 1981, and had to work mainly as a translator. Thus, the name of their ensemble remembers the protest incident in 1997 that ended with brutal repression by the government. And their identity as Chinese has naturally dropped in the course of adjusting to a new living situation, since it has proved enough of an effort to raise their children as Uyghur as well as Dutch. The change in context has also affected their music, which as Stokes (1994: 97) points out is not “simply a ‘thing’ slotted into a static social and cultural matrix existing outside and beyond the performance”. So, as he asks (1994: 105): “What happens when the musical expectations of the host society problematise for the visitors some hitherto ‘invisible’ aspect of the visitors’ musical habitus?” Kamil has renounced playing Uyghur music with a violin, despite its long- standing popularity among the Uyghur themselves back in Xinjiang, and his firm belief that it is playing style that makes music properly Uyghur, rather than the different sonority of the ghijak. For her part, Gulendem says people have approached her, praising the more unrefined delivery that singers coming from other parts of Central Asia employ; this has prompted her to look for a compromise with the similarly “powerful” style, if somewhat lacking in technique, of classical Uyghur singers. Rees (1998) describes the paradoxical effects that the quest of the “existential” tourist for authenticity is having on Naxi classical music, where moderate musical
  8. 8. innovation as practised by internally-oriented groups is, in a sense, more “authentic” than the self-conscious traditionalism performed by the externally-oriented group. She indicates some negative effects of that traditionalism on the repertory and style. On the other hand, Jones (1995: 141) comments on the acclaim received by a group of Daoist folk musicians performing in England, in stark contrast to the little respect they enjoy at home: “They were relieved and amazed that their music was ‘all right’, not too long, primitive, or out of tune, and all the rest of the insecurities which official culture has given them.” Trebinjac (2000: 382) concludes her account of the encroachment on traditional music by official “state traditionalism” asserting that, after one century, it is still well and alive. But not in Holland. References Castles, John (1998) “Tjungaringanyi: Aboriginal Rock (1971-91).” In Philip Hayward (ed.) Sound Alliances: Indigenous Peoples, Cultural Politics and Popular Music in the Pacific, 11-25. New York: Cassell. Harris, Rachel (2002) “Cassettes, Bazaars and Saving the Nation: the Uyghur Music Industry in Xingjiang, China.” In Timothy Craig & Richard King (eds.) Global Goes Local: Popular Culture in Asia, 265- 83. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. Jones, Stephen (1995) “Daoism and Instrumental Music of Jiangsu.” Chime 8: 117- 46. Katz, Ruth (1970) “Mannerism and Culture Change: An Ethnomusicological Example.” Current Anthropology 101: 58-77. Light, Nathan (1998) Slippery Paths: The Performance and Canonization of Turkic Literature and Uyghur Muqam Song in Islam and Modernity. Ph.D dissertation, Indiana University. Mackerras, Colin (1985a) “Traditional Uygur Performing Arts.” Asian Music 16: 29- 58. Mackerras, Colin (1985b) “Uygur Performing Arts in Contemporary China.” China Quartely 11.4/5: 465- 75. Rees, Helen (1998) “‘Authenticity’ and the Foreign Audience for Traditional Music in Southwest China.” Journal of Musicological Research 17: 135- 61.
  9. 9. Rice, Timothy (1997) “Toward a Meditation of Fieldwork and Field Experience in Ethnomusicology.” In Gregory F. Barz and Timothy J. Cooley, (eds.) Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, 101- 20. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. Stokes, Martin (1994) “Place, Exchange and Meaning: Black Sea Musicians in the West of Ireland” in Martin Stokes (ed.) Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place, 97-115. Oxford: Berg. Trebinjac, Sabine (2000) Le pouvoir en chantant I. L’art de fabriquer une musique chinoise. Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie. Upton, Janet I. (2002) “The Politics and Poetics of Sister Drum: ‘Tibetan’ Music in the Global Marketplace.” In Timothy J. Craig & Richard King (eds.) Global Goes Local: Popular Culture in Asia, 99-119. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. Witzleben, J. Lawrence (1995) Silk and Bamboo Music in Shanghai. Ohio: Kent State University Press.