Dispatches From Xinjiang: “Older Brother” Abdulla, The King Of Uyghur Music

I’ve asked many people why Abdulla “Aka” (Older Brother) Abdurehim is the undisputed King of Uyghur music. It’s not that he has the gravitas of a young Elvis Presley, the steely resolve of Johnny Cash, the working-class poetics of Bruce Springsteen, or the song and dance routine of the trickster Bob Dylan. People talk about the catchiness of his melodies, the way the best song writers flock to him like pigeons to a master, and women flutter around him like moths to a flame. Yet these explanations always leave me unsatisfied. Abdulla is, after all, an average-looking middle-aged man from Kashgar. He’s average height. He has a moustache.

It wasn’t until I watched a low-quality video (above) of him singing at an olturush, or “sitting,” that I began to appreciate the quiet dignity of his disposition – what Heidegger would call his being-in-the-world – and the way the burning passion of his voice fills a room. Abdulla carries a flame.

When he sings those old lyrics, bare but for the two strings of a dutar, the poetry of Uyghur lifeworlds leap into the frame. It’s a song which tears itself from cityscapes built and survived by tears, laughter, and more tears. His voice is a clear and strong baritone which winds like a bird in flight lifting and falling, wheeling in currents that are not his making. They are old winds which came from other times, from a landscape just out of view. As James Agee observed of singers in the American rural south of the 1920s, he sings with “eyes that are neither shut nor looking at anything.” And likewise his listeners.

In the video, Abdulla is reciting and amending the ruba’ilar, or quatrains of the great 20th century Uyghur poet Abdurehim Ötkür, which were written “During the Ten Years of Catastrophe” (a politically efficacious turn of phrase for Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), during which Abdurehim was “reeducated” through hard labor — much like Ai Qing).

As you will see bolded in the lyrics below, Abdulla adds feeling to the ruba’i by intensifying the vivid imagery of the original poem (plain text), making it immediate and present in the moment of performance.

During the Ten Years of Catastrophe

1. Pen broke, suffering crushed my fragile heart.
Afflicted by the wind1 my nightingale2 tongue stammered.
My hands cannot grasp, my feet are not steady, I have been paralyzed.
With what can I satisfy my precious people?

2. In the cradle of these dark years I was born in one day,
Once born, I was choked with pain in this cage.
Will my life pass with pain and suffering?
I am just a soul that wants to serve his people.

3. If I say I’m alive there is no sign of vitality.
If I say I want to die there is no reason.3
Imagining every day, worrying every day, nervousness every day.
If I want to talk about my suffering there is no wise man to listen.4

Songs of love and hate such as this one do not necessarily promise that the feelings conveyed exist outside of the song, yet for the singer and listeners shown in this video, the song is manifested as fully real. The deftness of Abdulla’s molding of the ruba’i gives us the feeling that the countless repetition of the lyric has given its meaning a felt reality in his life.

Will Oldham, the self-named Bonnie “Prince” Billy of American folk music, compares the narrative flow of a song to that of a reality of a dream:

A lot of it is predictable, because it’s a song, ’cause it’s written, but then a lot it is unpredictable, either because there’s a group of people that you’re working with or a group of people in front of you who are affecting the energy and emotion of the dynamic, or things have happened to change your feelings about the words and melodies that are coming out of your mouth. It’s always unpredictable enough to keep it alive, but for that time you’re navigating an alternate reality. (37)

Dreams are important forms of reality for Uyghurs and likewise the living performance of songs. When Abdulla invokes the struggles of the past he is filling in the cracks of the present in an apartment on the south side of Urumqi. He is filling in the cracks of what can’t be spoken with song because language can’t convey the depth of those feelings. There are some things to which only music can give voice.

A durable existence, what the anthropologist Michael D. Jackson calls “ontological security,” is built when Uyghurs can sit in the presence of Abdulla’s voice and listen to a masterful interpretation of the old songs. Bonnie “Prince” Billy calls this kind of music “religion” since it is so respectful of the human soul (49). Maybe this is why Uyghurs love Older Brother Abdulla so much. He respects their souls.

Thanks as always to M.E. for his help with the lyric translation.

1 In Uyghur epistemology winds are thought to carry spirits

2 In Sufi imagery a nightingale stands for “a lover”

3 That is, there is no cause toward which he can commit his life

4 Here Abdulla replaces “to appreciate” with “to listen”

Further Reading:

James Agee and Walker Evans. Let us now praise famous men. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001.

Will Oldham. Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy. WW Norton & Company, 2012.

Michael D. Jackson. Minima ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the anthropological project. University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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. The original version of this essay first appeared there on July 15, 2013. This was the first post in a multi-part series on Abdulla Abdurehim.

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