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Music of the Uyghurs      [ PART I ]

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.

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