Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

The Value of Missing Tunes: Scholarship on Uyghur Minority Music in Northwest China

Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

The Value of Missing Tunes: Scholarship on Uyghur Minority Music in Northwest China

Article excerpt

Introduction

In mid-July 1951, the 70-year-old legendary Uyghur master musician Turdi Akhun arrived, for the first time, in Dihua--better known today as Urumchi--the provincial capital of the newly established Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on the northwestern fringe of China, some 1,800 kilometers away from his hometown Yengisa. A "medium-sized elderly man, wearing a badam cap (a type of Uyghur cap), with long beard, bushy eyebrows, and a pair of small yet deep and shining eyes," (2) Turdi Akhun brought with him a Uyghur musical instrument called satar, a long-neck Central Asian bowed lute characterized by its rich sympathetic timbre. His eldest son, Usul Akhun, who often accompanies his father on the dap, the Central Asian framed drum, also came with him on this trip. Turdi Akhun's eagerly anticipated trip to Urumchi came as an outcome of an initiative by Seyfeddin Aziz (1915-2003), then the vice-president of the Autonomous Region, who had just launched a large-scale research project to "collect and rescue" the allegedly vanishing Uyghur classical tradition of Twelve Muqam, a set of twelve multi-sectional vocal, instrumental, and danced musical suites, closely related to the Burkharan Emirs' court tradition of shashmaqam in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and considered to be the most refined and cultivated examples of Uyghur traditional culture. (3) Among the very few surviving muqam musicians--the official story goes--Turdi Akhun remained the only one who can still perform the complete set of the twelve muqam suites from memory. He was thus invited, along with a few other musicians, to the provincial capital to perform muqam music for sessions of studio recording, as well as musical and textual transcription. The study was conducted by a newly formed "working group" for muqam research, led by Wan Tongshu, a renowned Chinese musicologist of the Han majority, who had recently been sent from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing to oversee the project. (4)

The initial encounter in 1951 between Turdi Akhun and Chinese musicologists, in some sense, inaugurated decades of modern Chinese scholarship on minority music, and the often vexing minority politics involved. In many important ways, attempts to "collect and rescue" minority music, as innocent and benevolent as they may sound, have often been implicated in China's quasi-colonial encounter with its minority citizens in the modern era, both before and after the Communist takeover in 1949. In this article, I ask the question of how the production of musical knowledge has been inextricably bound to the intertwined problems of power relations and minority politics in modern China. I choose to focus on the Chinese music scholarship on the rich classical musical traditions of the Uyghur, a group of Turkic-speaking Muslims who are one of the fifty-five officially recognized minority nationalities in the People's Republic. With a population of well over eight million, the Uyghur reside in the northwestern outpost of the People's Republic, where continuing controversies and conflicts over religious freedom and politico-cultural autonomy have lately attracted much international attention. This article attempts to examine the enterprise of minority music scholarship against the backdrop of nation-building and minority politics in the Chinese northwest. It reflects on the notorious ways in which musical research has been strategically deployed in service of socialist ideals and political goals in this uniquely controversial borderland.

Turdi Akhun's initial visit to Urumchi brought about not only hours of muqam music, recorded on magnetic wire, but also unprecedented attention by the Chinese state to the classical tradition of an otherwise "uncivilized and barbaric" ethnic minority. With generous state support, the Working Group invited Turdi Akhun on a second trip to Urumchi over the years 1954 and 1955 for more recording--this time with a cassette recorder--and interview sessions, so as to supplement the "missing tunes and uncertain parts," and to transcribe the lyrics. …

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