The Making of a Musical Canon in Chinese Central Asia:

The Uyghur Twelve Muqam

The Uyghur Twelve Muqam

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Throughout the course of the 20th century, as newly formed nations have sought ways to assert and formalise their national identity, they have typically acquired a range of identifiable national assets. Thus we find in this period new musical canons springing up across the world. These canons, however, cannot be dismissed as arbitrary collections of works imposed on the public by the authorities. They acquire deep resonance and meaning, both as national symbols and as musical repertoires imbued with aesthetic value. This book traces the formation of one such musical canon: the Twelve Muqam (on ikki muqam), a set of musical suites which has come to mean a great deal to one little-known Chinese Central Asian nation.

The Uyghurs The Uyghurs might be introduced as one of China’s less well-known though more numerous minority nationalities (compared to, say, the Tibetans or the Mongols), or alternately as the only one of the major Central Asian nationalities (alongside the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Turkmen) who do not possess their own independent nation state. Culturally we might best regard the Uyghurs as a Central Asian people, although their homeland now lies within the borders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in the large desert and mountain region in China’s far northwest, currently known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

There are also sizeable populations of Uyghurs living in the neighbouring Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Uyghurs follow Sunni Islam, and popular practice is strongly influenced by Sufi traditions especially shrine (mazar) pilgrimage. Their language belongs to the Turkic language family, as do the other Central Asian languages with the exception of Tajik, and is very closely related to Uzbek. Their music also displays much continuity with the folk and classical traditions of Uzbekistan and northern Tajikistan, where musicians use the same longnecked lutes and frame drums, and gather their music into large-scale suites, or cycles, called maqām. The term comes from the Arabic maqām but in contemporary Central Asia the concept of maqām, or muqam in the Uyghur pronunciation, is regarded less as a modal basis for improvisation and more as a fixed suite consisting of sung poetry and stories, dance tunes and instrumental sections. Probably the best known of these Central Asian maqām traditions are the six large-scale suites commonly known as the Tajik-Uzbek Shash Maqām. Rivalling this tradition in terms of size and complexity are the Twelve Muqam (on ikki muqam), the prestigious set of musical suites which have come to be emblematic of the Uyghur nation.

As in the better-known situation in Tibet, the relationship between Uyghur minority nationality and the Chinese state during the nearly 60 years of rule by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been marked by tension and sometimes violence. Throughout this period, the Twelve Muqam have been deployed as political emblems and tools by the state and by Uyghur nationalists. The Chinese state has invested large sums of money in a succession of projects to preserve and develop the Twelve Muqam, and it uses these projects to showcase the positive aspects of its minority policies on the national and international stage. These policies, and specifically the canonisation of the Twelve Muqam, inevitably meet with a mixed reception amongst Uyghurs, but, positive or negative, their assessments agree on the directly political nature of the canonisation project. To illustrate with two anecdotes: in 2006 I met one loyal old Uyghur cultural cadre based in a small town in southern Xinjiang, who was in ecstasies over the latest release of a full set of VCD (video compact disc) recordings of the Twelve Muqam. ‘Timur Dawamat [the then regional chairman of Xinjiang] did a great job with those VCDs,’ he told me, ‘better than liberating our region twice over!’ (Mulla Tokhti, interview, Qaratal, July 2006). During this same period a joke was circulating on the internet sites maintained by Uyghur exiles (which are blocked by China): A Uyghur meets a Chechen. ‘We have Twelve Muqam’, says the Uyghur proudly. ‘Twelve Muqam?’ retorts the Chechen, ‘huh, you’d be better off with twelve kalashnikovs!’