This is a mix of Uyghur electronic pop music from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, known by the Uyghur people as East Turkestan, or Uyghurstan. A part of the greater Turkic cultural cosmos of Inner Asia, Uyghur music is famed for its traditional 'on ikki muqam' ('12 muqam') classical style, for its vast repertoire of folk ballads and for its gallery of complex musical instruments. Lesser known is Uyghur contemporary pop music; a globalised folk genre blending traditional songs with electronic instrumentation which blossomed at the end of the 20th century following the introduction to the region of keyboards, synthesizers and personal computers. This music is the local Xinjiang variant of the kind of electronic pop music which, in the contemporary era, has emerged everywhere in both the Global North and South. Drum machines and synths are sequenced together with accompaniment from the traditional rawap and dutar instruments, with references throughout to Western pop and electronic dance music; pounding four-on-the-floor and Reggaeton rhythms, nods to rave and house music culture, yet connected deeply with Uyghur cultural expression. It isn’t ‘Folk Music’ as we assume to understand this term relating to acoustic and traditional recital, but it is still 'folk music', in the truest sense, all the same.
This music blasts from the markets, clubs and tea houses of Xinjiang, from wedding processions and outdoor parties, and (most prolifically) from the trucks, minivans and private cars which crisscross the vast Taklamakan Desert at night. The tracks in this mix were collected in Mp3 format from several SD cards on a trip to the region in 2015, hitchhiking across the Taklamakan with truck drivers and itinerant workers, 2,000 kilometres from Kashgar to Dunhuang. The songs and short sketches of radio play are all in the Uyghur language and were locally produced, we can assume, some time between the 1980s and early 2010s, in small recording studios and by local musicians in the oasis towns and villages that dot the desertous Xinjiang landscape; Kashgar, Aksu, Hotan and perhaps further afield in Urumqi. Originally distributed by tape and CD, this music is now circulated on SD cards and USB sticks collated together by shopkeepers in the towns and on the highways, sold to working people and subsequently played day and night on ubiquitous SD card-friendly automotive stereos. There are some popular names of Uyghur pop in the mix; Atux Ogli, Iskender Semet, Axik Hasriti, however most of the tracks are unidentified, the files on the SD cards being mostly labelled with arbitrary letters or numbers with no indication of the artist or title.
On visiting in 2015, the atmosphere in Xinjiang was palpably grim. Akin to the feeling of the towns and cities of Turkish Kurdistan, or Indian-controlled Kashmir, the cold gravity of 21st-century colonial occupation could be felt everywhere. Uyghur people have had their rights and livelihoods continuously eroded by Chinese governmental oppression since the early-mid 20th century, and particularly so since 2009, following a series of riots and violent incidents. Two years following my visit, in 2017, reports emerged of the detention of Uyghurs in state-sponsored ‘re-education’ camps, the active suppression of religious practices, various programs of political indoctrination, reports of severe ill-treatment, and testimonials of alleged human rights abuses including forced sterilization and contraception. Chinese government statistics show that from 2015 to 2018, birth rates in Hotan and Kashgar, where this music was collected, plunged by more than 60%, making Chinese policy towards the Uyghur people technically genocidal. Birth rates have continued to plummet throughout Xinjiang, as reports continue to emerge of the concentration camp facilities in which up to a million Uyghur people are said to be detained. These reports have included notice of the forced disappearance, for extended periods of time, of several popular musicians, including Abdurehim Heyit, Sanubar Tursun, Parida Mamut, Rashida Dawut, and Ablajan Awut Ayup. Heyit was arrested in 2017 and sentenced to 8 years in prison for writing a song which all but hinted at the historic Uyghur political struggle. He was released in 2019 after mounting international pressure - before ultimately, and suddenly, disappearing again. The fate of our Uyghur friends is an ongoing tragedy which, whilst isolated in a forgotten, landlocked part of distant Asia, is central to the story of how power works in our contemporary world.
The themes of the songs in this mix cover the usual gamut of folk and pop music; love, loss, interpersonal turmoil, marriage, death, religion, a longing for the past or future, personal sentiments and self reflection. They are mostly renditions of traditional songs but electrified and amplified; a kaleidoscopic supernova of energy and imagination, exploding out into the desert skies. The music is dynamic and globalized, the sound of a people on the move and of a nation hurtling towards an uncertain future; caught between power, oppression, tragedy and potential.
Robert McDougall is an anthropologist, moving-image artist, electroacoustic musician and ethnomusicologist from Naarm (Port Phillip Bay/Melbourne), Australia. Recent work includes films on post-conflict trauma in the Caucasus region and an ongoing doctoral research project on monasticism in the West Himalayas and the perspectival worlds of South Asian traditional knowledge practice.
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