All posts filed under: Music

Singing Back to the Steppe: Kazakh Poetry Battles in Contemporary Xinjiang

  On a summer evening in 2015, when I was attending a friend’s wedding after-party in a small village in Mori in Northern Xinjiang, a professional aqin – an oral poet who improvises while performing – sat next to me playing his dombra (a Kazakh two-stringed instrument). He was singing a song with the refrain: “ahaw sar qiz, pisqan darbiz, darbizingning qizilin maghan jarghiz” (Hey, fair-haired girl, you are like a ripe melon, let me cut your red ripe melon). It was clear he was directing the song at me. I felt my face begin to turn red. I was tongue-tied. I didn’t know what to say or do. How do you respond to lyrics like that from a poet? A Kazakh girl sitting nearby tried to sooth my discomfort by making excuses for him. She said he was just joking around and that the lyrics were supposed to be funny. That is just the manner of a poet. A while later, the poet received a phone call from his leader to go entertain some visiting officials who would attend …

Ablajan and the Subtle Politics of Uyghur Pop

The pop star Ablajan hates it when people refer to him as the “Uyghur Justin Bieber.” When I interviewed him in 2015 he said: “People just have a certain image of who I am but actually I built my image out of my own style.” He said that it was just happenstance that he and Bieber share the same aesthetic: black leather jackets, chains, a perfectly quaffed high fade. Ablajan said “Actually I cut my hair short like this before Bieber. When I saw him doing it, I was surprised. We all joked that he was copying me. Actually I haven’t seen any of his work for over two years.” To Ablajan’s thinking, it was an older icon that drew him (and perhaps Bieber) to the style of glamorous pop he tries to emulate in his work. That icon was Michael Jackson. He still remembers the day in 1999 when he saw the Michael Jackson video “Thriller” for the first time. It was on a big screen TV in a restaurant in Turpan. He had …

Äskär: an Independent Uyghur Musician

Recently a Uyghur intellectual told me that the most important representations of Uyghur life are in music. Literature and film are also important but because these cultural mediums have a shorter history and smaller industry among Uyghurs, music continues to be the main mode of expression that circulates beyond intellectuals and cosmopolitan urbanites into the homes of every Uyghur family. It is because of this that most Uyghurs encounter abstract cultural concepts through music and oral poetry. Since the 1980s with the introduction of the cassette and then in the late 1990s the VCD, music has become a ubiquitous form of cultural representation. Since music has such an important place in Uyghur cultural life, in this blog we have detailed the rise of pop stars such as Abdulla, Erkin, Perhat Khaliq, Ablajan and others. But these mainstream pop singers have not always been mainstream. In fact most of them owe the start of their success to an anti-pop star—the first truly urban, heavy metal Uyghur musician, the iconoclast Äskär Memet. Now in his early 50s …

The Poetic, Timeless Solitude In Tahir Hamut’s “Beautiful Lover”

One of the driving forces in the Uyghur film scene is a filmmaker and poet named Tahir Hamut. A graduate of Beijing’s National Minorities University, Tahir began his academic career as one of the premier Uyghur critics of Western Modernist literature. Throughout the 1990s he, along with Perhat Tursun and others, were the leaders of a Uyghur avant garde poetry movement. Then in 1998 he turned his attention to filmmaking. Now Tahir serves as one of the principle instructors in the Film Department of the Xinjiang Arts Institute in Ürümchi. Tahir’s first films were feature-length fiction films. Although in many ways straightforward romantic dramas, even in this early work we see flashes of ethnographic detail that give us hints of Tahir’s previous life as a poet and the way he was beginning to translate that vision into visual form. Tahir is a brilliant poet. His 1998 poem “Returning to Kashgar” is punctuated by a haunting imagery that tackles both the timelessness of loneliness and disillusionment of youth. It feels both forever contemporary and particular to …