In the film The Silk Road of Pop a classically trained Uyghur tambur player tells viewers that Western music such as hip-hop and jazz does not carry the same feelings of love, tradition, and family as Uyghur traditional and folk music. He says he hopes that Uyghur musicians coming of age today do not forget their past. This tambur player, a member of studio musicians who often accompany the King of Uyghur pop Abdulla, is repeating a refrain heard frequently by performance artists trained under the Maoist regime.
During the Maoist years, ethnic theater, opera, music, and dance troupes were a major institution. Classically trained performers of state-approved culture were highly valued. Of course I’m not suggesting that Uyghur cultural performance was invented by the Chinese state, but its value was certainly enhanced and elevated by its role in the discourse of Chinese multiculturalism.
In the past few decades the role of ethnic culture has shifted. It is no longer as strongly sponsored by the state as an art that serves the good feelings of the state. Instead, it is pushed by commercial viability and mainstream relevance. The tambur player is thus both feeling his age and the way cultural values are shifting. The kids these days are following different models; they are interested in futures that are not tied to a “golden age” of the past.
The tambur player expresses feelings that are echoed in a 2008 etot, or comedy sketch, by the most famous comedian from the early 2000s, Adil Mijit. In the sketch above, Adil demonstrates how easy it is to make music videos and mimic hip-hop stylings to a group of baggy-pants-wearing teenagers.
“(Rap) is popular all around the world,” he tells them. “It represents a high-level performance art in (American) culture; something they are proud of. But why do you want to imitate other people and become their fans? Even if you wear jeans for 1,000 years you will not become an American… you are still Uyghur kids.” (Clapping.)
Continuing: “I can’t say that it’s wrong to be interested in other cultures, but we have our own folksongs, mukam, other musical works which have been passed on for generations. They have beautiful melodies which express beautiful things. That is why other people like it. Let’s learn the refined aspects of their arts, but let’s also modernize and develop our own arts. Only then can our art be found on the world stage and find its rightful place.”
Significantly chastised, a swaggering young man says, “Wow, the way you talk sounds like sugar. Why have we wasted our time on this?”
His message to the kids delivered, Adil then directs his attention to his own generation of Uyghur fathers and mothers. He replies: “We shouldn’t just blame you, it is also our job to remind you of these things.”
The sketch ends with the kids doing a traditional Uyghur dance: arms bent at the elbows, hands up-turned, double-X-Large white t-shirts and skate-shoes spinning on a stage that is once again claimed as Uyghur.
The message here is plain. But as the hip-hop crew featured in The Silk Road of Pop points out, they are interested not just in posturing and borrowing solipsistically. One of the main things they borrow from hip-hop is a particular attitude toward the world and their position in it. Rather than merely acting out in a form of youthful rebellion, they are addressing deep-seated problems they see in their lives. Their engagement with protest music from other places is not a dismissal of their traditions as much as a way of raising awareness of how difficult it is to keep their culture alive.
Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, which attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.