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Abdulla, King of Uyghur Pop: His Themes

This is the second post in a multi-part series on Abdulla Abdurehim

I wrote last week about the way Abdulla’s poetic voice corresponds with his deep literacy in Uyghur culture. But clearly Abdulla does much more than lean on the traditions of the past.  Although this attention to cultural symbolism and spiritual ritual are an important aspect of his public persona, Abdulla is also deeply engaged in the everyday life of increasingly urban Northwest China. In order to understand the depth of his appeal, I will outline the themes which emerge from his catalog and then analyse one of these themes.

Put simply, Abdulla sings about love, moral struggle, and parents. If you take a random sample of his song titles you will see that nearly all of his songs fall into these categories:

  1. Songs of love: Embarrassment, They say I’m black, My flower you are not here, My nightingale, If I miss you, A word to my lover, Hey girl, I give you my everything, First Love, I can’t forget about you.
  2. Songs of morality: A song about Uyghurs, Wine, Without language, The footsteps of the ancestors, We are a caravan, Gentleman.
  3. Songs about parents: Father, I have been separated, Mother, Black soil, After 40.

It is this last category and song — “After 40”– that I would like to highlight here. For migrant Uyghur kids in the city it is rare for more than a day to pass without them contacting their parents in the countryside. Talking to one’s parents is one of the great joys of living a good stable life. A fear of many Uyghurs who move from the countryside into other situations, where norms of family relations are less bonded or even devalued, is that this joyful activity will be blocked. In “After 40” (Kiriktin Otkanda) Abdulla addresses this issue.

In the concert video below, he introduces the song by invoking the ritual aspects of close communal fellowship in a “sitting” or olturush. He says: “I thank you for coming to this tablecloth to drink a cup of tea with us here. I know you sacrificed a lot (to be here). If you are feeling sad I hope this will be the end of sadness for you. If you are feeling happy I hope this will be this will be the happiness you experience for the rest of your life. Our masters and teachers taught us when we were young. They told us about the experiences of their life. When I seemed to be confused by these lesssons and did not quite understand, they told us, ‘Hey, you’ll understand when you’re over 40.’ Today I want to share a song about this topic with you.”

After 40
The pains of the past days/The suffering your heart/The preciousness of people close to you/You’ll understand when you are over 40.
The fragrance of wildflowers/ The pain of love/The happiness of your children/You will appreciate when you are over 40.
The pen that doesn’t write the truth,/The missteps you take in life,/The pain that fills your heart,/ You’ll understand when you are over 40.
The hearts that yearn for you/ Generous and heaven-like hands/ The roads that you’ve walked on without a trace/ You’ll understand when you are over 40.
The suffering you’ve caused for your lover/ Fair and unfair judgements you’ve made/ True and false friends/ You’ll understand when you are over 40.
So when the good people leave you/ You sing a dirge/ Your heart will be torn/ The precious value of your parents/ The love of the people in your homeland/ You’ll understand when you are over 40.
Oh my heart, please have mercy on me, this naive man / You really have to cherish your mother/ This you’ll understand when you are over 40/You must treasure your father / This you’ll understand when you are over 40.

Writing about a different moral action in a different situation in urban China, the anthropologist Judith Farquhar has described this sort of intersubjective way of disciplining one’s mentality and habits of the body to be “in relation” as “one of the joys of dwelling in the mainstream. For many settled urbanites in China, the chief pleasures in life have to do with conformity, obedience, regularity, the predictable comforts of home, the intimate joys and challenges of family and neighbourhood” (308). Furthermore, for Abdulla’s Uyghur listeners, the majority of whom were educated in rural Uyghur-medium schools and communities, entering the symbolic space of his performance is a way of participating in the aura which rises from the practice of good Uyghur citizenship. Abdulla is generating a common sense for his listeners.  That common sense is that it is good to be a good son. It is good to honor the dead. If you don’t “get it” yet, just wait until you turn forty. Then it will all make sense.

Thanks of course to M.E. for translation assistance.
Further Reading: Farquhar, J. and Zhang, Q. (2005), Biopolitical Beijing: Pleasure, Sovereignty, and Self-Cultivation in China’s Capital. Cultural Anthropology, 20: 303–327.
Filed under: Music


Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he teaches and writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on state violence and Uyghur decolonization for SupChina.