25 January 2021
Recording of the week: Amping up Uyghur music with the electric guitar
This week's selection comes from Finlay McIntosh, World & Traditional Rights intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.
In 1988, the investigative journalist Paul Lashmar attended a concert in Kashgar, where he was treated to a performance of traditional Uyghur music. Luckily for us, he recorded the whole event and donated the recordings to the British Library.
The concert includes narrative songs accompanied by the dutar long-necked lute, solo performances on the rawap lute and qalun dulcimer, and large suites performed by a full ensemble of musicians, singers and dancers dressed in colourful costumes.
The recordings display the rich musical traditions that have matured over centuries of trade along the Silk Road. Along these trade routes, oasis towns like Kashgar became confluence points, where people coming from far-away places would pass through, bringing new musical instruments, styles and practices with them. This created a fertile ground for the creation of a vibrant musical culture that fused everything from Chinese to Central Asian, Persian and Middle Eastern influences.
However, when listening to this performance of traditional music, what really caught my attention was a less-than-traditional instrument—the electric guitar.
Of course, this modern instrument did not come to Kashgar through the ancient Silk Road. The guitar (or rather its sound) arrived through international media like cassettes, which were imported from neighbouring Central Asian countries or further afield. This inspired local musicians to acquire one of these exciting new instruments and start using it to make their own music.
Unfortunately, we do not have much information about the performer of these songs but he was probably a wedding singer, hired by the art troupe to entertain the audience of tourists with some popular music.
I have selected an excerpt from each of the three songs he performs. As they were recorded in 1988, I believe they document an early example of the presence of the electric guitar in Uyghur music.
In this first excerpt, we hear that although the performer’s instrument is Western, his music sounds undeniably Eastern. One of the musical elements that contribute to this is the rhythm—specifically the bouncy, limping aqsaq rhythm essential to Uyghur music—which is created by the driving interplay between the electric guitar and drum-kit.
This second clip begins with a punchy rock ‘n’ roll-sounding riff. Afterwards, the subtle guitar accompaniment contrasts with the musician’s highly ornamented nasal singing, which employs all of the melisma, minute tone shifts and swooping melodic lines you would expect from Uyghur singing.
At the beginning of this final excerpt, we hear another, twangy riff, played on the electro-acoustic guitar as pictured in Lashmar’s photos.
I like this specific clip because we can really hear how the guitar has been adapted to local music. The guitar might sound out of tune to a Western ear but it has probably been tuned to allow the performer to play microtones that lie beyond Western scales.
Whereas many ethnographic recordings are made by researchers seeking to document the world’s musical traditions in their purest and highest forms, these recordings are different. They don’t boast the best audio quality and you can even hear people talking throughout the performance. The use of guitar in the region is hardly an age-old tradition and it’s perhaps arguable whether the musician has necessarily mastered it yet.
But I think it is this rawness that makes the recordings so fantastic. They capture an exciting time when new musical elements were first entering the region and local musicians were picking them up, experimenting with them and mixing them with their own traditions. Here, we are not hearing the ‘pristine’ canonized versions of traditional music but the very moment where traditions are developing and morphing into something else.
Throughout the 1990s, the electric guitar would gain notoriety in the hands of musicians like Ekhmetjan, often credited as the first Uyghur superstar. The instrument’s popularity only increased as more and more global music genres entered the Uyghur market. As ethnomusicologist Rachel Harris shows in her article “Reggae on the Silk Road: The Globalization of Uyghur Pop,” guitar-driven styles like rock, heavy metal and reggae all trickled into the region. And in 1996, there was even a flamenco trend inspired by The Gypsy Kings. Musicians soaked up all of these influences and continued to refashion them into their music.
The electric guitar may not be a traditional Uyghur musical instrument but the Uyghurs certainly made it their own.
I am grateful to Paul Lashmar for the generous donation of these recordings and photographs. If you want to find out more about the recordings in the Paul Lashmar Collection, their catalogue entries can be found in the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.
Harris, Rachel. 2005. “Reggae on the Silk Road: The Globalization of Uyghur Pop.” The China Quarterly 183: 627-643. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305741005000391.