April 02, 2007

Music Of The Uighurs

Meet Abdurehim Heyit. He hails from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of northwestern China; is the undisputed king of a Central Asian two-stringed mega-lute called the dutar; and really should be headlining world music festivals around the globe in that dapper powder-blue suit of his.

Sadly though, his music – and that of his people, the Uighurs – has largely been overshadowed by more attention-grabbing output from the region; like the work of the Tuvan throat-singers and Uzbek songstress Yulduz Usmanova.

Being overlooked by the rest of the world, however, is something that the Uighurs have had to endure for much of their recent history. A Turkic people whose land has long been the object of Chinese expansionism, the Uighurs enjoyed brief periods of independence in the 1930s and 40s before becoming subjects of modern China in 1949. Ever since then, they have been an occupied people and there has been simmering resentment of their Beijing overlords, which finally lead to protests in the 1980s, an attempted uprising in 1990, and a violent crackdown of separatists followed by a bus bombing in the regional capital of Urumqi in 1997.

As a result of this, the Chinese authorities have kept a tight rein on any dissent. As a case in point, a prominent Uighur businesswoman, Rebiya Kadeer, who tried to send newspaper clippings about the situation in Xinjiang to her expatriate husband in the US in 1999, was imprisoned by Chinese authorities for “leaking state secrets”. She remained in custody until 2005 when she was handed over to the United States. She has since become the face of Uighur resistance to Chinese rule and in 2006 was even nominated for the Nobel Peace prize.

All of this did make it into the Western media (along with reports on the standard modern colonial practice of ethnic swamping by China) but it remained a scarcely glanced at geopolitical backgrounder; with the real public outrage at Chinese suppression of ethnic self-determination reserved for Tibet.

But maybe if the music gets out there in a big way and the world turns its gaze to their corner of the world, then more of the Uighur story and their demands for self-determination will be heard... Or maybe it will become just another source of alluring ethnic sounds…

If you want to hear more music from the region, Fausto Caceres has compiled both a collection of cheesy local pop (which includes a track from Heyit), and a collage of field recordings of folk music that is due to be released on Sublime Frequencies sometime soon.

If you want more info on the Uighur independence movement, this Wikipedia entry is an excellent source of links.

Posted by Warren at April 2, 2007 11:44 PM | World