Dispatches From Xinjiang: Möminjan, Turkish Pop, And Islamic Devotion

Music envelops the tight confines of nightclubs in Xinjiang’s urban centers, where the pageantry of movement brings friends and strangers to life. Uyghurs can dance. And since his very first cassette tape released in 1999, the singer Möminjan has been popular with Xinjiang’s youth precisely because his songs are eminently danceable.

Not only is his voice remarkably similar to his uncle Abdulla’s, but Möminjan is a suave performer. He’s likeable. In his early days, when he was studying archeology at Xinjiang University, his fellow classmates even elected him president of his institute’s student club.

Möminjan’s path as a musician has diverged from other performers in interesting ways. Unlike other young singers who made it big, he has not tried to cross over to a popular Chinese audience. He doesn’t even sing Chinese translations of traditional or “red” folk songs. Instead, beginning in 2003, he began to sing in the Uzbek and Turkish style. Möminjan’s goal in doing this was to both broaden the repertoire of music available to Uyghur musicians and to deepen the skill with which Uyghur music is composed. An added benefit of this pan-Turkic approach was Möminjan’s ability to transcend national and ethnic boundaries, bringing Uyghur musicality to a much wider audience.

Over time, his efforts have been reciprocated. Along with the numerous stamps of state approval (see official dinner at the 0:38 mark below) and many corporate sponsorships, in 2013 he brought İsmaİl YK, one of Turkey’s platinum-selling music icons, to Ürümchi. In the video above we see Möminjan meeting İsmaİl at the Ürümchi airport and kissing him on both cheeks (3:40) in the cosmopolitan manner fitting a German-born Turkish rock star.

As İsmaİl speaks with him and a Uyghur reporter, it is clear that Turkish and Uyghur are mutually intelligible languages and cultures. And as footage from the concert makes plain, Uyghur fans know his songs word for word (see the Uyghur kid who crashes the stage at the 2:30 mark below). While some fans came to see Ablajan and Mominjan open the Turkish pop extravaganza, many of the thousands of Uyghurs who packed out Hong Shan Stadium (home to the CBA team Xinjiang Guanghui Flying Tigers) clearly saw İsmaİl as one of them.

Because he has cultivated close relations with pop stars and music fans in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, Mominjan has received some criticism from established artists. But the vast majority of Uyghurs are very supportive of his international tours and see him as a cultural ambassador – a role that none of the state-sponsored singers have the privilege of possessing.

It is perhaps for this reason, as well as the exposure to other moral economies, other ways of being Muslim while abroad, that Mominjan has become more and more cognizant of his Uyghur heritage. Perhaps this is why recently his songwriting has taken a strongly moral turn. In a song released nearly at the same time as İsmaİl’s arrival from Istanbul, Mominjan calls on young Uyghurs to reimagine their worlds and their roles in it. (Follow this link for audio of the song.)

I repented for my sins

To whom am I an evil person?
To whom do I owe a debt?

I am a lost servant (of God).
I repented for my sins.

You said “Life is short,
let’s live and play.”

You blamed the world for it,
repent for your sins
repent to your Lord.

You did not walk the path of truth,
you did not keep your word.

You knew no truth,
you disdained others,

repent for your sins
repent to your Lord.

You believed in your youth,
you followed Satan.

You believed in your youth,
you followed the evil.

You blamed this age,
and beautiful women for everything.

Repent for your sins
repent to your Lord.

Like Hezirti Ali, another rural-urban migrant singer who found faith in the city, Möminjan appears to be positioning himself as champion of a new kind of Uyghur masculinity. He is arguing for integrity and devotion; for a seriousness that doesn’t leave room for personal and social irresponsibility.

Seeing him on the same stage as İsmaİl makes one wonder how the spectacle of pop music can jive with this sort of sentiment. It remains to be seen to what extent his call to devotion will be taken up in Ürümchi. Is this music people can dance to?

Thanks as always to M.E. for his help with translation and his insights into Uyghur pop.

Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asiawhich 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.

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