Dispatches From Xinjiang: The Legacy Of Uyghur Rock Icon Exmetjan

People still remember where they were the day Exmetjan1 died. It was Thursday, June 13, 1991. He was only 22 years old.

As is common with the death of an icon, many people refused to believe he was gone. Instead, rumors spread that thugs from a rival disco had knifed him in a back alley or that he had faked his death and gone abroad to marry a princess.

Exmetjan had been in Ürümchi preparing for a concert across the then (relatively) open border with Kazakhstan when he died. Back in those days, before the train reached Kashgar and the highway stretched across the desert to Hotan, it was difficult to carry bodies home for burial. There were no freezer trucks. So Exmetjan arrived in his hometown of Qarakash (or Black Bank) covered in celery and ice against the smell of rot. People remember when he arrived.

As his official biography puts it, Exmetjan died of “an illness.” No one dared say he died of a heroin overdose.

Exmetjan was the first Uyghur superstar, and it would have been disrespectful to point out the weaknesses of a hero. That would be agreeing with the local officials in Hotan who sentenced him to two years of prison — posthumously — in order to drive home the point that his legacy should not be emulated.

But mythical figures cannot be regulated. Twenty-three years later he is still revered, mimicked, and evoked on stages throughout Uyghur society. There were other popular Uyghur singers in the 1980s, but none of them performed on the stage in the same way as Exmetjan. He had moves.

Exmetjan started learning classical Uyghur instruments such as the rawap, tanbur, dutar at the age of four. By the age of 15 he was admitted to music classes in Hotan, Teachers’ College and joined the New Jade Ensemble, the official song and dance troupe of Hotan. In 1986, when he was 17, he joined the provincial-level Xinjiang Song and Dance Troupe sponsored by the Xinjiang Ministry of Culture. It was there that he learned how to play guitar.

After his move to Ürümchi, Exmetjan picked up on many influences. He developed his Turkish gypsy folk style that you hear in the rhythms of his guitar playing. He transformed the most sacred of Uyghur performances, the Muqam, into a rock opera by transposing one of the 12 epic songs of Uyghur tradition for electric guitar. It was here that he picked up the accoutrements of the rock star: glamorous clothes, sexy dance moves, and “the devil’s drug.”

As a writer put it in 2010: “Unfortunately this star died in the hands of the devil’s drug. If he was alive today wouldn’t he bring acclaim to Uyghur people by performing on the world stage.”

But before he died, Exmetjan produced a legacy. Many young Uyghur singers such as Ablajan and Six City acknowledge the influence of Exmetjan in their attitude toward Uyghur music. He turned folk poetry from rural poets such as Rozi Sayit into love songs that shook stages and audiences. He was loved by everyone. In the song featured above, “Moon-Shaped Face,” he takes Sufi sentiment and turns it toward a sensuality that is provocative and inflammatory in its intensity.

Moon-Shaped Face

Moon-shaped face, flower-like body,

Never leave my thoughts,

You bound my heart with intense feelings,

Oh, you king2 of beauty, flower goddess.

Since then you have disturbed my peace,

You deprived me of my sleep.

Searching for your beautiful body every morning.

I am looking up and down your road,

Oh, you my flower garden.

La, la, la, la, la, la…

Exmetjan’s legacy continues in tribute concerts complete with the Exmetjan shimmy. In a recent performance (below) by the son of Exmetjan’s poetic influence, Memetjan Rozi Sayit, in their shared hometown of Hotan, as they play “Moon-Shaped Face,” Exmetjan comes alive, guitars dueling in harmony and bodies swiveling in synchrony. The medley of Exmetjan songs is subtitled in Turkish, Uyghur, and English, the audiences to whom he paid his greatest tribute. Watching this video with a Uyghur friend, he said, “Wow they’re really rocking out.” Exmetjan died too young; but his memory continues outside of the march of time.

Thanks as always to M.E. for his help with the translation and understanding the importance of Exmetjan’s influence.

1 The “x” in Exmetjan is a guttural “h” sound, as in the “ch” sound in Bach.

2 In the Uyghur lexicon the word “king” is used for descriptions of superlative phenomena.

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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