In the film The Silk Road of Pop a classically trained Uyghur tambur player tells viewers that listening to Western music such as hip-hop and jazz does not carry the same feelings of love, tradition and family as Uyghur folk music. He says that he hopes that the generation of Uyghur musicans coming of age today do not forget about their past. This tambur player, a member of a group of studio musicians who often accompany the King of Uyghur pop Abdulla, is repeating a refrain heard frequently by performance artists trained under the legacy of the Maoist regime of multiculturalism. During the Maoist years, ethnic theater, opera, music and dance troupes, were major institutional outlets for ethnically-ascribed life projects. Not only were they economically and politically secure positions, but they provided a space where the souls of people could leak out through gaps in the filter of Socialist Realism. Classically-trained performers of state-approved culture inhabited a role many people highly valued. Of course I’m not suggesting that Uyghur cultural performance was invented by the Chinese state, but it’s value was certainly enhanced and elevated by the good feelings it contributed to the discourse of Chinese multiculturalism.
In the past few decades the role of ethnic culture has shifted. It is no longer as strongly sponsored by the state as an art which serves the good feelings of the state. Instead it is pushed by commercial viability and mainstream relevance. The tambur player is thus both feeling his age and the way cultural values are shifting. The kids these days are following different models; they are interested in futures that are not tied to a golden age in the past.
The feelings the tambur player expresses are echoed in Adil Mijit’s 2008 etot or comedy sketch. Beginning in the mid-1990s Adil became one of the most famous Uyghur comedians; it was under his direction that etot was promoted to a featured performance during Uyghur festivals. As a spokesperson for official Uyghur cultural institutions, Adil is an important figure in debates regarding the future of Uyghur performance art.
Adil is acting from this position when in the sketch comedy (above) he demonstrates how easy it is make music videos and mimic hip-hop stylings to a group of baggy-pants-wearing teenagers. Then he tells them: “(Rap) is popular all around the world. It represents a high level performance art in (Western) culture; something they are proud of. But why do you want to imitate other people and become their fans? Even if you wear jeans for 1000 years you will not become an American…. You are still Uyghur kids (Clapping, 4:09).”Continuing he says: “I can’t say that is wrong to be interested in other cultures, but we have our own folksongs, muqam, other musical works which have been passed on for generations. They have beautiful melodies which express beautiful things. That is why other people like them. Let’s learn the refined aspects of (Western) arts, but let’s also modernize and develop our own arts. Only then can our art be found on the world stage and find its rightful place.”
A young man who stands in as a properly-trained Uyghur muscian says: “Wow, the way you talk sounds like sugar.” Significantly chastised, one of the swaggering youth replies, “Why have we wasted out time on this?” (this paragraph has been edited, see comments below)
His message to the kids delivered, Adil then directs his attention to his own generation of Uyghur fathers and mothers. He replies: “We shouldn’t just blame you, it is also our job to remind you of these things.” The sketch ends with the hip-hop kids dancing a traditional Uyghur dance. Arms bent at the elbows, hands upturned, double-X-large white t-shirts and skate shoes spinning on a stage that is once again claimed as explicitly Uyghur.
Adil’s position here is plain, but as the hip-hop crew, Six City, featured in The Silk Road of Pop (and interviewed below) points out they are interested not just in posturing in a solipsistic way. One of the main things they borrow from hip-hop is a particular attitude toward the world and their position in it. Rather than merely “acting-out” in a form of youthful rebellion, they are addressing deep-seated problems that they see in their everyday lives. Their engagement with protest music from other places is not a dismissal of their traditions as much as a way of raising awareness of how difficult it is to keep their culture alive.