The Art of Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam is a representative name of various kinds of Muqam in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where people contrived this musical complex with songs, dances, and music.
Muqam music is not only an artistic creation with a long history, but also a record of communication between China and the countries to the west of it in human history. It can be found in 19 countries and regions in Central, South, and West Asia, and North Africa, and along the ancient Silk Road running across the autonomous region.
In November of 2005, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization) proclaimed the Art of Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam as a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of humanity (a UNESCO program that ensures that the best of every country's traditions is preserved, developed and made known to the outside world).
Known as the "mother of Uygur music," the Twelve Muqam has a long history. Some scholars believe its origin can be traced back to the "Great Western Region Melody" that flourished during the Han (206BC-220AD) and Tang (618-907) dynasties and enjoyed a high popularity in Central China.
In the mid-16th century, the imperial concubine of the Yarkant Kingdom devoted all her efforts to collecting and compiling Muqam music, which was then scattered across Uygur-populated areas. Amannisahan herself was an esteemed poetess and musician. With the help of other musicians, she finally worked out 12 grand, light, and entertaining compositions that are now known as the Twelve Muqam.
The Artistic Value of Muqam
Uygur folk Flavor While Muqam is a musical form that has spread in Islamic areas throughout the world, the Twelve Muqam carries distinct Uygur characteristics.
Since its spread among the Uygurs, the Twelve Muqam has played an inseparable role in the people's lives. They dance to the accompaniment of the Twelve Muqam and sing songs and ballads to their melodies.
Muqam is usually performed by a small ensemble of singers, led by the lead singer (the Muamchi) and accompanied by plucked or bowed lutes and a dap frame drum; they may also be played in instrumental form by kettle drum and shawm (a kind of wind instrument) bands. Playing the Muqam is not reserved to an exclusive group of professional musicians; historically it was performed in folk contexts as well as in the courts of local kings.
Men and women, beggars, and respected religious men may practice this tradition, and Muqam is often referred to in terms of both spiritual and physical need. Listening to Muqam can still serve a religious and meditative function, especially in the context of Xinjiang's great religious festivals.
What is significant about its compilation is that Amannisahan did not borrow material from the wealthy and fully developed Arabian and Persian repertoires. Instead, she exploited the rich resources of Uygur folk music spread out in the wide area in the north and south of the Tian Mountains. As a result, the Twelve Muqam is especially distinct due to its strong Uygur flavor.
Diversity Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam is a composite of songs, dances, and folk and classical music, and is characterized by diversity of content, dance styles, musical morphology, and instruments used.
The songs vary in rhyme and meter and are performed solo as well as in groups. The lyrics contain not only folk ballads but also poems written by classical Uyghur masters. Thus, the songs reflect a wide range of styles such as poetry, proverbs, folk narrative, and popular topics such as the praise of love and contemplation on life, reflecting the history and contemporary life of the Uyghur society.
The music of Uyghur Muqam is characterized by variations and continuity of musical patterns, indicating close affinity with the musical culture of China's central plains. In Muqam ensembles, the lead instruments, called satar or aijak, are made from local materials and vary in form (they may be bowed-stringed, plucked, or wind instruments).
The dancing skills involve unique steps, rhythms, and formations as well as figures such as flower-picking-by-mouth, bowl-carrying-on-head, and imitation of animals in solo dances.
Risk of Disappearance
Today, community festivities, such as meshrep and bezme in which everybody participates in Muqam, are held much less frequently. The responsibility for passing on the tradition to new generations of practitioners has fallen almost exclusively on the shoulders of folk artists, and the interest of young people in Muqam is gradually declining. Today, several Muqam pieces are no longer performed, in particular certain elements of the Twelve Muqam, which consists of more than 300 pieces of a total length of over 20 hours.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the local government of Xinjiang made every effort possible to preserve the Twelve Muqam. In 1956, Muqam master Turdi Ahun and musician Wan Tongshu, working with other assistants, took great pains to record most of the vocal melodies and librettos of the Twelve Muqam on tape. They also recorded the music by hand. Their efforts paved the way for the renaissance of this cultural tradition. In 1960, two volumes of Twelve Muqam sung by Turdi Ahun were published. The oral cultural heritage was finally secured in the form of its first publication.
Over the past two decades, local Xinjiang cultural institutions have sponsored seminars, supported research projects, and published a number of books with the Twelve Muqam as the focal theme. In the last four years, 7,000 performers -- many of them Uygurs -- have participated in the national key publication project. Their concerted efforts have resulted in the release of CDs, VCDs, and DVDs of the Twelve Muqam of Uygur.
In addition, the Chinese Government has drawn a 10-year plan to protect the traditional art. An investigation on Muqam in Xinjiang will be carried out. Meanwhile, China is expected to give financial support to the elder people who can sing Muqam, and the government will set up 10 to 20 study centers to train professional researchers on Muqam.
Moreover, the government will encourage local artistic troupes in Xinjiang to perform Muqam, and introduce Muqam into the national artistic education system. A research center, data bank, website, museum on Muqam will be established, and publicity work for common people about Muqam will also be launched.