Dispatches From Xinjiang: Uyghur Flamenco And “World Citizenship”

On any given weekend in China you can find a Uyghur band playing flamenco. It has not always been this way. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that a young man from Qarghiliq in Kashgar prefecture discovered Turkish variations of Spanish flamenco. Over the next decade that man, Arken Abdulla, along with other early flamenco guitarists such as Qehirman and Tursun (see the above video), introduced flamenco to the Uyghur world.

Today it seems to be everywhere. Young Uyghur men with long flowing hair clap out the music of Andalusia from Ürümchi to Beijing. Many times this music is fused with the sounds of Sufi music and dance from the deserts of Southern Xinjiang; often it reflects the phrasing and compositional styles of the Muqam – a form of classical Islamic music and dance performance which is a source of immense pride for many Uyghurs. Arken, perhaps more than any other contemporary artist, is seen as embodying an “interlocking” (kirishmaq) of Uyghur forms of performance into the romance of the flamenco guitar. When one asks about cosmopolitan Uyghur artists, the universal answer is Arken. They will tell you about how he studied in Spain and the Beijing Music Conservatory, how his wife is of Manchu descent, how much he knows about jazz and bossa nova.

Uyghur Flamenco

Flamenco Guitarists as Cosmopolitan Inspirations

Many of them will be quick to tell you that most of their songs are “just love songs, they’re not serious songs about Uyghur identity like Abdurehim Heyt’s, Abdulla’s or Esker’s songs.” Yet, despite this distancing, cosmopolitan artists like Arken and Tursun are still widely respected – even if they aren’t widely understood. The fusion they promote is seen by many as admirable. Often even people who have become a bit guarded when it comes to identity politics have grudging respect for people like Arken and Tursun. They might not love everything about them, but they still admire their accomplishments on the world stage.

Perhaps more importantly though is the way Arken and Tursun act as models for other artists. Many urban Uyghur cultural producers are motivated by them and their aesthetic experimentation. I’ve met architects, filmmakers, painters, photographers, doctors, and lawyers who cite Arken as a major source of inspiration. Songs like City Night present a cosmopolitan affect and seriousness that resonates with many aspiring urbanites. Yet if we just zero in on flamenco itself we can see that Arken and other guitarists who followed his path have become catalysts to a cascade of dozens of musicians.

Uyghur Fusion

As the video above demonstrates, Arken’s and Tursun’s model has provided a pathway out of poverty and rural life toward a cosmopolitan life in the city where young men cobble together a life in pursuit of their passions. Like Arken and Tursun, many aspiring Uyghur flamenco players were educated on the margins of the Mandarin language education system; their education came instead through the oral traditions (the poetry and music, the dancing and bargaining, the mentoring in craftsmanship) that are so strong in rural Uyghur society.

Tursun begins the video above by talking about how ethnicity is not that important for an artist. Identifying with a group is only one of the tools an artist carries. Instead, for him and his younger apprentice Yasen, guitarists in particular are improvisers adept at solving the problems that confront them. They are “wanderers” who always find ways to follow their passions and move their music forward.

Tursun argues that artists “should always be lonely.” In order to be in tune with their instrument and what it can do, they have to leave their people and their tradition to find their art. Others will always see artists as strange. But Uyghur artists, despite their distance from their people, have an important role to play in society. Artists can make it clear that Uyghurs have an important contribution to make in the world; they do this by making Uyghur traditions relevant to the contemporary world.

In the video above we can see this happening. The intro to their song resembles the long free rhythm and phrasing of the first section of a Muqam – the täzä. At around the 4:00 mark, Yasen sings that “life is desolate” in the absence of his lover; his voice hangs in the air waiting for the march of time to return. This is precisely the feeling that precedes the arrival of the first major melody theme, or nuskha, in a Muqam.

By the 4:58 mark, when he is answering the call of the previous tension-building section of free rhythm and improvisation, the rhythm of vital love returns. He tells his lover that he will return and never leave. He sings about growing old together; he tells his lover that “if you are the pomegranate’s flower I am the nectar,” and then in a variation of the old Sufi trope he ends the song by singing, “Your love is like a flame, don’t burn the haystack!”

Throughout this song we find the Sufi imagery of the lover and his beloved. What on the surface sounds like a recasting of the novo flamenco of the Gypsy Kings, Ottmar Liebert, Carlos Montoya, and Paco de Lucía is more than that; it is an entwining of Uyghur sentiment with radically new media. Although it isn’t present in all of the new Uyghur flamenco, in much of it, particularly Uyghur language songs, the compositional forms and lyrics related to Muqam and older traditional folk music is a recurring theme.

In the video Tursun mentions briefly the meaning of his name: “the one who stays.” During the decades of immense hardship in Xinjiang (the 1960s-70s), this was a tremendously popular name among Uyghurs. On one level it refers to the extremely high infant mortality rate during those years, but on another level it refers to the hope that someone will come to bring forward the traditions of the past. What Arken and Tursun begun has brought a new genre to the Uyghur art world.

Uyghur Flamenco as World Citizenship

Guitar, or gitter as it is referred to in Uyghur, first came to Xinjiang in the Elvis-esque stylings of Exmetjan. It had a role in the rise of Esker’s rock-n-roll as well (Arken was an early guitarist for his band), but it has found its most mature and seemingly lasting form in the flamenco mode. Uyghur flamenco produces more than songs of love meant to appeal to a non-Uyghur audience, they also bring Ugyhur forms of performance to a new environment.

The scholar Joanne Smith-Finley ends her recent book, The Art of Symbolic Resistance, by discussing Arken’s rise and its importance as new performance genre. She writes that he and his supporters have presaged “a new generation as part of a confident, unfettered global youth. By aligning themselves with Mediterranean and North African Sufi cultures, flamenco guitarist Arken Abdulla’s fans shift the boundaries and ‘re-map their lifeworld,’ positioning themselves as confident, passionate, outward-looking ‘world citizens’” and, following the geographer Vinay Gidwani, “subaltern cosmopolitans” (406).

When Tursun tells us about his travels in Mexico and the United States and how Uyghurs deserve a place at the table, he is referring precisely to what Smith-Finley identifies as “world citizenship” and, one might infer, the distinct “world-class” status of Uyghur flamenco. Even more than that, as I have tried to point out above, he is using the mode of the flamenco guitar to amplify Uyghur ways of feeling that might otherwise not be recognized. As Smith-Finley puts it, “they do not simply maintain Uyghur traditions; they enable the ongoing development and transformation of a modern Uyghur culture” (407). Uyghur flamenco is more than blithe love songs played in a new style; it is a way of repointing the Uyghur art world in a way that builds transnational connections to Mediterranean and Turkish worlds while at the same time building on the songs of the deep Xinjiang south.

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.

|Dispatches from Xinjiang Archives|

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