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Music of the Uyghurs

Rachel Harris    Lecturer in Ethnomusicology, Music Dept. SOAS, London

Yasin Muhpul     Xinjiang Arts Research Unit

[Published 2002. Encyclopedia of the Turks, vol. 6. Istanbul: Yeni Turkiye, pp542-9.]

[Page 1]

Uyghur music embraces several distinct regional styles, product of the geography and complex history of the region, whose oasis kingdoms, separated by mountains and deserts, have been subject through the course of history to rule by many different outside forces. The musical traditions of the southern oasis towns of Khotan and Kashgar are more closely allied to the classical Central Asian traditions of Bukhara and Samarkand, while the music of the easternmost oasis town of Qumul has closer links to the music of Northwest China. Each of the region´s oasis towns have to this day maintained their own distinctive sound and repertoire, but they are linked by a common language and overarching culture, maintained by constant communication through trade and movement of peoples. Musically there is much to link these local traditions, in terms of instruments, genres, styles and contexts. The most prestigious and well-known genre of Uyghur music are the large-scale suites of sung, instrumental and dance music known as muqam. In addition to the muqam the Uyghurs maintain popular traditions of sung epic tales (dastan) and other forms of narrative song (qoshaq, leper, eytshish and maddhi name), suites of dance music (senem,) instrumental music, musical genres linked to the rituals of the Sufis, and a large repertoire of folk songs  which commonly dwell on the suffering of life on earth and the torments of frustrated love.

Contrary to the common perception of Islam in the West as hostile to music, amongst the Uyghurs many traditional musical contexts are linked to the religion, largely due to the influence of the Sufis who use music to express and promote their faith. Today these traditional genres compete with a lively pop music industry and the music of the professional, state-sponsored troupes.


Uyghur scholars trace the roots of their music back to the 11th century BC to the Di people who are referred to in the earliest of the Chinese dynastic annals, living to the north of China. The first Turkic (Kok Turk)) kingdom was established in the region now known as Xinjiang in 552AD, while the Uyghur Turks arrived somewhat later, moving westwards from Siberia in 840AD after the collapse of their kingdom on the Orghun river. They settled in the region north and south of the Heaven Mountains and intermingled with the local inhabitants. Hence the pre-9th century music of the region is equally regarded as the heritage of the contemporary Uyghurs. Chinese sources are rich in references to the early music of the region, which they term the ´Western Region´ (xiyu). Dynastic annals record that a musician from the oasis kingdom of Kusen (Qiuci), named Sujup, travelled to the court of the Chinese emperor Wudi in A.D. 567 in the entourage of a Turk princess, and introduced the theory of seven modes and five tones to China. The music of Kusen (present-day Kucha), Idiqut (present-day Turpan), Iwirghol (present-day Qumul), Udun (present-day Khotan) and Sule (present-day Kashgar) were all popular in China during the Tang and Song dynasties (7th-10th centuries). Musicians from these kingdoms performed in the imperial court and in China´s major cities, introducing new instruments and repertoires into central China. Their popularity can be seen from the frequent references in the Chinese poetry of that era. Scholars believe that the famed Tang Daqu suites of the imperial court, which were later adopted by the Japanese court, have their roots in the 5th century great suites (chong kuy) of the Western Region. The custom of keeping musicians of the Western Region in the Chinese court continued into the Qing dynasty (founded 16th century). Qing court records refer to eight court musicians of the Western Region who played pieces named senem, jula, and seliqe; names also found in the contemporary Uyghur repertoire.

The historical flow of music has largely moved from west to east. While Chinese histories record the influence of the Western Region on central China, Uyghur music has historically absorbed much influence from the regions of Central Asia to the west, arriving along the famed Silk Road. Islam and Islamic culture spread slowly through the region, reaching Kashgar as early as the 10th century, and taking hold in Qumul to the east only in the 16th century. Uyghurs regard the Qarakhan Khanate of Kashgar (founded in the 10th century) as a great age for the development of their music. This, Xinjiang´s first Islamic kingdom, introduced along with the religion, the culture and learning of the Persian and Arab world. During this period the ideas of the musical theorists Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina were introduced, along with instruments like the kettle drum and shawm bands (naghra-sunay) which are believed to have played the Qarakhan kings into battle.

The Chagatay era (14th-16th centuries) is also regarded as an important period for cultural and musical development in Central Asia as a whole, and many of the lyrics of the Twelve Muqam are accredited to the poet-musicians of this era. An important source on the music of this period is the History of Musicians (Tarikhi Musiqiyun), written by Mulla Ismatulla Mojizi in 1854-5.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 2]

Some of the principal Uyghur musical instruments



- a frame drum, of which two types are current. The smaller neghme depi, at around 25-30 cm in diameter, is a virtually indispensable instrument for the Twelve Muqam, playing a leading role in the instrumental sections (merghul).

The larger chong dap is used in other folk contexts, it may be used to accompany other instruments or may be played solo. The third and largest type, thought to have magic powers, is used in the healing rituals of the Uyghur ritualists (baxshi or pirxun).



- a long-necked plucked lute with two nylon (formerly silk) strings tuned a fifth or sometimes a fourth apart, with seventeen chromatic frets. The dutar is beautifully decorated, like all Uyghur lutes, with settings in horn or bone. It is used to accompany folk songs, and as a supporting instrument in the muqam.

A dutar can be found in almost every Uyghur home, and is the sole instrument which Uyghur women have traditionally played. It is played glissando, mainly on the upper string but with some heterophony from the thumb on the lower string.



- the longest of the Uyghur lutes at around 150cm, the tämbur has five metal strings tuned so-so-do-so-so. The melody is played on the double right-hand strings, using a metal pick (nekhele) on the index finger. The tembur is used as principal instrument in the Ili variant of the Twelve Muqam, to accompany folk songs, and to perform solo instrumental pieces.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 3]



- a long-necked bowed lute with one melodic and eight to twelve sympathetic metal strings. The satar plays an important role in the Twelve Muqam, usually played by the lead singer (muqamchi). Its sympathetic strings may be tuned in five different ways depending on the mode of the muqam being played.


- the shorter lute, plucked with a horn plectrum. Several different types are played by the Uyghurs. The Kashgar rawap, at around 90cm, has a small bowl-shaped body covered with skin and five metal strings, and is decorated with ornamental horns (munguz). The shorter herder´s rawap (qoychi rawap)found in the Khoten region, measures around 70cm and is strung with two paired or three sheep-gut strings. Both of these types are played by the narrative singers (dastanchi and qoshaqchi). The Dolan rawap, principal instrument in the Dolan Muqam, with one melodic and several sympathetic strings and pear-shaped body, ressembles the Afghan rubab more closely than the Kashgar rawap. The Qumul rawap, is similiar to the Dolan version, and used in folk songs and the Qumul Muqam. The Kashgar rawap has more recently become a professional virtuoso solo and orchestral instrument (tekemmul rawap) with six metal strings tuned do-do-so-re-la-mi. A bass rawap has been added to professional orchestras.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 4]



- a fiddle with a soundboard of wood or stretched skin. The largest of the Uyghur ghijek is found amongst the Dolan, with one horse-hair melodic string and several metal sympathetic strings. The Qumul ghijek  has two bowed strings tuned a fifth apart, and six to eight sympathetic strings. The earliest Chinese historical records relate that a bowed instrument strung with horse-hair was played in the Qumul region, but the contemporary instrument is probably a fairly recent hybrid between the Chinese erhu fiddle and the Uyghur ghijek, testament to the Chinese cultural influence in this easternmost point of Xinjiang. The ghijek now played by professional musicians was adapted in the 1950s, today its four metal strings are tuned like the violin but its playing technique is closer to the Iranian spike fiddle, held on the knee, the bow is held loosely in the hand, palm upwards, and the strings are pressed against the bow by pivoting the instrument. This ghijek is also found in soprano and tenor versions.



- now a prominent instrument in the professional troupes, the khushtar viol was developed in the 1960s, modelled in its shape on instruments depicted in Xinjiang´s early Buddhist cave murals. It is tuned and bowed like the professional ghijek, but its tone is lower and softer, since the whole instrument is made of wood. It is also found in soprano and tenor versions.



The large hammer dulcimer used by the professional troupes and found in the folk context, its metal strings are strung in sets of three across several raised bridges.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 5]

Naghra & Sunay               


- always played with the sunay, these are a pair of cast iron small kettle drums covered with cow or donkey skin laced over the body, played with a pair of sticks. The naghra-sunay group usually consists of one sunay player, with at least two and up to eleven sets of naghra which play complex rhythmic variations, with a large chong naghra maintaining the basic rhythmic cycle.


- a small double-reed shawm, its conical wooden body has seven front holes and one thumb hole. It has a metal bell and metal mouthpiece. It is played using circular breathing, and has a range of over two octaves.


Other percussion instruments include the sapaye - paired sticks pierced with metal rings, the most common folk percussion instrument, especially used by beggars and ashiq; the tash - two stones struck together in each hand, and the qoshuq - two wooden spoons struck together back-to-back.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 6]



A smaller dulcimer, plucked with a bone pick held in the left hand, while the right hand presses on the string with a bronze key (gustap) to produce quarter tones and ornaments. The qalon is found more commonly in southern Xinjiang, especially amongst the Dolan. It plays a supporting role in the Dolan Muqam.



- a short double-reed vertical reed pipe with seven finger holes, tuned by a cross-piece of reed fixed near the mouth end of the instrument. The balaman is now found only in the Khoten region, where it is used as a lead instrument in the local variant of the Twelve Muqam.



- found in the folk and professional contexts, traditionally the Uyghur näy was a long horizontal flute made of walnut wood, with a soft tone. In recent years professional Uyghur musicians have adopted the Chinese bamboo horizontal flute.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 7]

The Uyghur Muqam

The Uyghur Muqam are large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes and instrumental sections. Some of the lyrics of the Muqam are drawn from the great Central Asian Chagatay poets, Nawayi, Shah Meshrep, Fuzuli, Mulla Belil and Zelil. Some are drawn from folk poetry, especially the popular tale of the lovers Gherip and Senem. Much of the poetry is linked to the imagery and ideals of the Sufis. The Muqam are typically performed by a small ensemble of singers, led by the lead singer muqamchi, accompanied by plucked or bowed lutes and dap frame drum, but they may also be played in instrumental form by kettle drum and shawm (naghra-sunay) bands. Playing the Muqam is not reserved to an exclusive group of professional musicians; historically it was performed in folk contexts  as well as in the courts of local kings. Men and women, beggars and respected religious men may practice this tradition, and the muqam are often referred to in terms of a spiritual, even physical need. Listening to the Muqam can still serve a religious and meditative function, especially in the context of Xinjiang´s great religious festivals. Contemporary scholars refer to four distinct regional genres: the Twelve Muqam of the Kashgar-Yarkand region, the Turpan Muqam, the Qumul Muqam, and the Dolan Muqam.

The Twelve Muqam each consist of a suite of fixed melodic sequences and order. The names of the muqam are drawn from Arabic and Persian: Rak, Chebbayat, Sigah, Chahargah, Panjigah, Ozhal , Ejem, Ushshaq, Bayat, Nawa, Mushawrak, Iraq.

Each of the Twelve Muqam is structured as follows:

Chong neghma (great music) -begins with the muqaddime (introduction) which is sung solo in free meter. A suite of named pieces in varying set rhythms follows. Most of the sung pieces are followed by an instrumental ornamented version, marghul.

Dastan (narrative songs) -each muqam contains several dastan in different rhythms. Again each dastan is followed by an instrumental marghul. The lyrics are drawn from sections of folk narrative songs and relate the stories of famous lovers. These are the most accesible and widespread sections of the Twelve Muqam.

Meshrep (gathering) -several faster sung pieces in 2/4 or sometimes 7/8 rhythms, consisting of folk love poetry. This section of the muqam is for dancing. Usually the lyrics of the first meshrep are attributed to a famous poet.

The Turpan Muqam , of which nine have been creditably collected, each consist of a suite in six named sections:

Ghezel -in free rhythm, sung solo

Bashchekit - in 3/4 rhythm, a slow sung piece

Yalangchekit - in 5/4 or 13/8 rhythm, a slow sung piece

Jula - in 4/4, a moderate dance piece

Senem - in 4/4, an accelerating dance piece including the local dance piece, Nazarkum.

Seliqe - in 4/4, a moderate dance piece

Each of the Turpan Muqam generally corresponds to one mode, and each is about thirty minutes in length. Although no information on its historical transmission is currently available, musically there is much to link the Turpan Muqam to the chong neghme of the Twelve Muqam. While the section names differ, there is correspondence in overall structure, rhythmic cycles and melodic material. The preferred instrument for the Turpan Muqam is the satar bowed lute, plus tembur, dutar, chang and dap frame drum accompanying voices. The Turpan Muqam are also played in an instrumental version on the naghra-sunay combination. Skilled drummers add breath-taking variations to the basic rhythms, transforming the Yalangchekit section, for example, from its basic 5/4-beat into a 17-beat aqsaq limping rhythmic pattern.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 8]

The Qumul Muqam

Although it is common practice now to refer to the Qumul Muqam, the use of term muqam here is recent. The Qumul Muqam take the form of suites of local folk songs, varying in length between eight and twenty-two songs, with an unmetered muqeddime at their head. Nineteen suites have been collected and published as the Qumul Muqam. The Qumul Muqam have a strong pentatonic basis; rhythms include 2/4, 4/4, 5/8, and 7/8. The main instrument for the Qumul Muqam is the Qumul ghijek accompanied by the Qumul rawap, chang and dap.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 9]

The Dolan Uyghurs

-who live in the region between Aqsu and Kashgar have their own distinctive muqam tradition. The Dolan Muqam takes the form of a five-part suite:

Muqeddime - a brief unmetered solo sung section

Chekitme - in 6/4 rhythm. This signals the start of the dancing

Senem - in 4/4 rhythm (like the opening rhythm of the senem dance suites)

Seliqes - in 4/4. The dancers begin to move in a large circle

Serilma - in 4/4 or 5/8. The dancers whirl, and some enter a trance-like state

Some of the names of the Dolan Muqam are the same as the Twelve Muqam, but musically they are distinct at six to nine minutes in length; nine suites have been identified. Folk musicians tend to refer to their suites as bayawan (desert), suggesting that the use of the term muqam in this context is also a rather recent phenomenon. The instruments and texts used by the Dolan are unique. The Dolan Muqam are accompanied by drummers, a Dolan rawap, Dolan ghijek, and the qalon dulcimer.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 10]

Folk song

The Uyghurs classify songs according to their place of origin, and each region has its own distinctive sound. Some towns, for example Atush in the south, have their own well-known and distinctive repertoire. Modally the songs of southern Xinjiang are usually heptatonic while the songs of Ili, Turpan and Qumul are more commonly pentatonic or hexatonic. Many folk songs have recurrent raised or lowered intervals. Duple rhythms are common, but 5/8, 7/8 and even 9/8 rhythms also appear. Primarily accompanied by the dutar and/or a frame drum, one interesting feature of Uyghur folk song is that the accented drum beat does not fall at the beginning or end of the melodic phrase. The singing style is highly ornamented and uses a wide range, especially in the songs of Ili whose attractive swoops and leaps in the melodic line have lead some to term them ´wolf songs´. The Qumul style is considered softer, while the Kashgar style is more vigorous. Songs are usually short, lasting a few minutes, and are commonly strung together into suites (yurushi), like the street song suite  (kocha nakhshisi yurushi) of Ili.

The vast majority of song lyrics dwell on tragic love , others take religious or local historical themes, and others are comical.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 11]

Dance Music

Uyghurs use the term senem (from the Arab: carved image) to refer suites of between six and thirteen songs played usually for dancing. All the major oasis towns each have their own distinctive senem, as does the Ili valley and the Dolan people. Each senem employs the distinctive vocal style and a fixed suite of songs of its own region, but the senem across the region are all related rhythmically, beginning with the same moderate four-beat dance rhythm and move gradually towards a faster four-beat. Each region uses its own preferred instrumental combination to accompanying singers, and the senem may also be played in a purely instrumental version by the naghra-sunay bands.

Other forms of dance music are specifically dedicated to dancing. The 'Bowl dance'  where dancers balance several bowls on their heads is particularly well-known . During the festival of Qurban, naghra-sunay bands may play on the roofs of the main mosques, most famously in Kashgar, and large crowds gather to dance the local styles of shadiyana and sama throughout the night. Many styles of Uyghur dancing involve a theatrical element, like the leper, comic skits with sung lyrics and spoken parts, or the popular dance Nazirkom  of Turpan. Some Uyghur dances are thought to be of totemic origin and may formerly have served a ritual function although they are now performed for entertainment, like the swan dance (ghaz ussul) or horse dance (at ussul) in which the dancer dresses in pantomime animal costume.

Narrative songs (Al neghme)

There are five named genres of narrative songs, performed by one or several singers accompanying themselves on plucked lutes or percussion. Some dastan are to do with famous lovers, like the tale of Gherip and Senem (which has also been made into a popular Uyghur opera and film)or Horliqa and Hemrajan, others tell of mythical and historical heroes and heroines of the Uyghurs like Emir Guroghli, Abdurakhman Khan, and Nuzugum. Some of these tales have a long and complex provenance, taken from the oral tradition and reworked by the Central Asian poets and returned to the folk context. Others are based on more recent historical events. The dastan employ a comparatively wide pitch range, and are related to the folk song repertoire. They are found in 3/4, 4/4, 5/8 or 7/8 rhythms. Qoshaq are short rhymed poems, on moral or comical themes, employing a narrower pitch range. The leper skits are also counted as a genre of narrative song. The eytshish are sung in duets and mix sections of speech and song. They are usually comical and may be theatrical in performance, often involving cross-dressing. The meddhi neghme are stories relating to the Islamic tradition or on moral themes, with short sung refrains and longer spoken sections, usually performed without musical instruments.

Formerly after Friday prayers people gathered in teahouses to listen to the story-tellers, but the tradition is now increasingly rare, a phenomenon of modernisation, in particular the impact of television and cassettes. But storytellers can still be found today on the streets of the bazaars, and especially in the poorer south, and they are common sight at the shrine festivals.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 12]

Instrumental music

The Uyghurs play many forms of instrumental music in diverse styles, many derived from vocal genres and developed for the professional repertoire. Popular pieces include ejem performed on the tembur and dutar and tashwayperformed on the rawap. Many musical genres are also played in instrumental form by the naghra-sunay bands.

Ritual contexts

Amongst the Uyghurs, as in many cultures, the boundaries of the sacred and the secular are blurred, and many forms of secular music are performed in ritual contexts. Some musical forms, however, are unique to the ritual context. Uyghur ritual healers, still found in the countryside, are known as baqshi or pirghun. Their ritual chants of expulsion often employ local folk song melodies, and sometimes their lyrics are on the same themes of love as the folk songs. They are usually accompanied by several drummers (dapendi). Their rituals are strongly shamanic in form, with the use of the rhythms of the frame drum to drive out the possessing spirit, and the trance-like dance of the pirghun.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 13]

Ritual contexts

The Uyghur Sufi lodges maintain a unique musical tradition in their large-scale zikr rituals . The practice of zikr, found amongst Sufis across Central Asia, Iran, and Turkey, refers to the recitation of the names of Allah and Islamic saints. Amongst the Uyghurs this ritual is popularly termed helqe (sohbet): ´circling (and talking)´, while zikiri (zikr) refers specifically to the ritual chants. The ritual song hokmet is sung in a free metered falsetto, with a plangent melody. As the names and deeds of the saints, in this tradition the founder of the lodge and the subsequent generations of his disciples, are recited, the men attending the ritual weep. As the singer moves into the metered section, at first the men kneel and rock back and forth energetically, then they begin to move in a large circle, moving their arms to the beat and chanting. Each chant has a specific rhythm, and up to seventeen may be performed in the course of a ritual, lasting up to seven hours. In the Khoten region, up to the 1970s, Sufi rituals were accompanied by musical instruments, including bowed and plucked lutes and percussion. This practice has now virtually died out, although some groups still use sapaye percussion sticks to accompany their chants.

Women Sufi  ritualists, known as buwi, are numerous across the region. Their rituals are similiar in form to those of the men, although the melodies of their ritual songs (munajat) differ from the hokmet of the men. The buwi also sing at shrine (mazar) festivals, they may serve as mourners at funerals, and they conduct healing and exorcism rituals (khetme) in peoples homes. Their plangent monajat songs, usually sung unaccompanied, are considered to be very moving.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 14]

Ritual contexts

Amongst the Uyghurs religious mendicants can still be found, called ashiq or qelender .These wandering beggars are said to have consecrated their life to music-making for God, and Uyghurs are very charitable towards them. Today they most commonly use percussion instruments, dap, sapaye or tash, but at shrine festivals they may also play plucked or bowed lutes. Many of their songs, also called hokmet, are closely related to the meshrep sections of the Twelve Muqam.


The Uyghurs hold meshrep or gatherings regularly at festival times, and for many kinds of toy - weddings, circumcisions, for girls coming of age, for the harvest, etc.

Meshrep  are common around the region, and take different forms depending on local custom , and may include any number of people.

Music of the Uyghurs          [Page 15]


The Dolan Meshrep are commonly held on a much larger scale, attended by hundreds of people, and often last the whole night. Such occasions are incomplete without music. Alongside performance of muqam and dancing, comical skits and epic songs, a religious leader may be invited to discourse on moral and religious questions, and meshrep have traditionally served the social function of a public court, with wrongdoers brought before the meshrep organiser (yigit beshi) to be criticised and punished. At weddings, the more solemn rituals of the morning held in the groom's home are often followed by singing from the muqam. When the groom goes to fetch the bride, the procession is led by a naghra-sunay band, these days often played from the back of a truck. In the afternoon, a banquet is held and a band is employed to sing a range of music from folk songs and senem to pop music, for dancing. The festivals of Qurban, Rozi and Nawruz are also important occasions for musical activity, and the great shrine festivals held at the tombs of Islamic saints are the venues for all kinds of music: muqam, story-telling, Sufi ritual music, and dancing.


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Production Sunset.
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