Sound and vision blog

3 posts categorized "Central Asia"

29 September 2023

Ripples of history: Sıbızğı recordings from northern Xinjiang

The Sıbızğı Recordings from Northern Xinjiang Collection (British Library ref: C1960) includes digital copies of several home-made cassettes, radio interviews, and film soundtracks from northern Xinjiang, documenting the repertoire of the bi-phonic, end-blown flute sıbızğı (also: sybyzghy), played among Kerey (also: Kereit or Kerei) Kazakhs. The collection contains more than eight hours of music and folk narratives, 309 recording pieces in total. Historically, the sıbızğı was played by eloquent Kazakh orators, often village leaders, at anniversaries, celebrations, and discussions of village affairs. Each sıbızğı melody relates to a unique folktale, of ancient warriors, modern rebel heroes, animals and hunters, birds, orphans, and famous poets of the Kazakhs. Geographically, the sıbızğı tradition is performed primarily in modern-day Xinjiang and western Mongolia. Most Kazakhs in this region trace their ancestors to the Orta Cüz (Middle Horde) group, and the majority of sıbızğı players, though by no means all, are Kerey Kazakhs, whose clans, families, and villages share cultural memory through performance and recordings of the sıbızğı repertoire.

A map of sıbızğı sound collections in Xinjiang

Above: A map of sıbızğı sound collections in Xinjiang. The collections document performances by musicians in northern Xinjiang, including the regions of Altay, Qumul, and Erenqabırğa, a strip region from Sauan to Urumchi.

The origin

According to oral literature, the sıbızğı was created by shepherds while grazing, making a múñlı (sad, melancholy, or sorrowful) sound, which has a pronounced difference from the ‘cheerful’ sound produced by the dombıra (dombyra). Some folktales take the following form:

During a time of many hardships for the Kazakhs of the steppes, a cruel bay (rich lord) sent two orphans to watch over a flock of sheep and protect them from wolves, threatening to beat them if they failed in their task. One day, the younger boy thought he heard the howl of a wolf and drove the sheep to a new location. Over several days he heard the howl again and again, until he realised that the sound was not a wolf after all, in fact it was the wind blowing through hollyhock reeds that had been eaten by the sheep. Plucking one from the ground, he began to blow into it, putting his fingers over the various holes in the stem to change its pitch. One night, the other boy heard this strange new sound and asked, 'Are you crying?' The younger shepherd boy replied, 'No, I am playing a melodious voice.' Since that day, the boys began playing the hollyhock reeds together, creating new sounds. Later, the practice spread to the people, and the hollyhock came to be called 'sızılğı'. Over time, folk intellectuals adapted the reeds with two, three and four holes to make new sounds, and this came to be called sıbızğı.

While found in hardly any written, published sources, such origin stories about the sıbızğı are abundant among the community of sıbızğı players and their listeners. Most of the folktales refer to the Syr River region as an important place in the origin of the sıbızğı, partially because of the legend of Qorqıt Ata (Grandfather Qorqıt; Korkut Dede in Turkish), a famous poet, philosopher, epic chanter, and a high-ranking baqsı (shaman) in both the historical Turkic world and folk literature. Qorqıt Ata was born in the 8th century AD in the Syr River region and served as the prime minister of five khanates in his lifetime. According to The Book of Qorqit Ata, a compilation of oral literature, Qorqıt and the Prophet Muhammad lived at the same time, and the Kazakh national instrument – the qobız – was invented by Qorqıt, who also left a large number of mythological musical accounts to the later Kazakh nation.

Listening example 1

'Qorqıttıñ Küyi' (The Tune of Qorqıt), performed by Tölegen Qúndaqbay-úlı. There are a few sıbızğı pieces that depict the life of Qorqıt, and many sıbızğı players believe Qorqıt is also the inventor of sıbızğı.

Listening example 2

'Aqsaq Qúlan Cosığan' (The Crippled Red Horse Is Running), performed by Mansur Böreke-úlı.

The complexity of the stories about the early mythological history of the sıbızğı indicates a diverse and cross-regional array of folklore throughout Xinjiang and Central Asia. Sıbızğı tunes often feature folk tales with relatively concrete historical accounts up to the era of Ghengis Khan in the 12th century, also highlighting the shared cultural roots of residents in the Altaic region – merged tribes of Kazakhs and Mongols. For example, 'Aqsaq Qúlan' (Crippled Red Horse) presents a tragic, but philosophical, story of the Mongolian Khan and his son: Genghis Khan loved his son Jöchi, so much so that he ordained that anyone who brought news of the boy’s death to him would have their head filled with lead. One day, the poet Ketquba had a nightmare of Jöchi tumbling from his horse and dying, a vision that proved to be correct. To inform the Khan, Ketquba played his dombıra, making a sound like a galloping horse. Upon hearing the song, Genghis Khan trembled and wept, asking, 'Why does this song make me feel so sad, as if it heralds the news of Jöchi’s death?' The poet put down his dombıra and explained the story of Jöchi’s death in a poem. The Khan was ready to kill Ketquba in the manner he had ordained, until the poet countered: 'It was not I, but the dombıra who told you of your son’s death through sound.' True to his word, the Khan filled the dombıra with lead. In modern-day Kazakh legend, this is how the dombıra got its soundhole.

Throughout the history of the Kazakh nation, there have always been individuals combining the roles of philosopher, poet, and musician, and the same applies to sıbızğı performers. The first widely recognised sıbızğı master was Asan Qayğı Sábyt-úlı, a famous 14th-century Kazakh philosopher, aqın (poet), cırau (folk singer), by (debater and judge), and prophet. He served as an important minister of the Golden Horde and the Kazakh Khanate. According to the sources, Asan Qayğı worried about all matters concerning the life of the Kazakhs, from personal disputes to clan affairs. He rode a celmaya (white camel) all his life, in search of a cerúyiq (paradise), rich in water and plants and free from feuds and inequality.

During the Ablay Khan era in the 18th century, the skilful sıbızğı tradition became highly developed in the Syr River region. Berdiqoja was a famous sıbızğı player of this age, who served the Khan by playing tunes about historical heroes and their martial exploits. In the 19th century, Cılqışı Ahtan-úlı was a well-known sıbızğı master, and later performers called him the Sıbızğı Piri (The Angel of the Sıbızğı). Cılqışı was the first to have the mixed role of sıbızğı master and by, and was highly respected in solving village affairs through gatherings that featured the playing of the sıbızğı. In early 20th-century Altay, there were four prominent bys who are still venerated by contemporary sıbızğı masters, among whom Bensenbi was better known as a composer on dombıra and sıbızğı.

Contemporary practices

Until the later 20th century, any gathering including sıbızğı playing was also regarded with reverence, rather than viewed as normal entertainment. Carole Pegg (1991), writes of the necessity 'for every Kazak family to own one (sıbızğı) and to keep it in a respected place, even if they could not play' (p. 75). In any gatherings where the flute is present, storytelling, mainly in question-and-answer form, and sıbızğı playing function as one, addressing topics of history, social justice, and important public initiatives. Even today, cyın (gatherings or assemblies) and toy (parties) are still important parts of collective life within a Kazakh clan. In such events, talking and discussing issues are major activities, while music-making can serve either as an interlude to such discussions, or sometimes as the central focus.

In recent times, playing dombıra and singing án (folksongs) have become more popular, and the role of the sıbızğırole has diminished, yet historically the sıbızğı played an essential role, and continues to represent a significant cultural memory for Kerey Kazakhs. The use of the sıbızğı to control a crowd’s mood through music, or influence the atmosphere of a gathering during a moment of musical storytelling, is a deeply embedded historical practice that for many Kazakh musicians represents a more ‘true’ vision of Kazakh culture than the dombıra.

Prof. Talğat Múqışov of the National Conservatory of Kazakhstan offers the following explanation of the instrument’s historical development in Kazakhstan: before Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, the sıbızğı was not as popular as now. In 1934, during the Soviet era, the Symphony Orchestra of Qurmangazi was established in the city of Almaty, and the flute replaced other wind instruments, including the ‘unfortunate’ sıbızğı. At that time, musical instruments that could not fully represent the spirit of the entire Soviet people would not be considered 'qualified musical instruments'. A 'real instrument' was one that could play any kind of music in a symphony orchestra. As the sıbızğı only plays Kazakh music, it was regarded as a mere 'national musical instrument' that could only be played on limited stages. According to Múqışov, the sıbızğı currently represents the true 'Kazakh spirit' that has been driving the enthusiasm of the participants in the region’s 'new folk music' (Múqışov 2016).

Sıbızğı player Nığımet Qabdolla-úlı in his home in Qútıby County

Above: Sıbızğı player Nığımet Qabdolla-úlı in his home in Qútıby County, date unspecified.

Sıbızğı player Qúttıbay Sıdıq-úlı in a public assembly

Above: Sıbızğı player Qúttıbay Sıdıq-úlı in a public assembly, 5 May 2002.

Students playing sıbızğı  Qútıby County

Above: Students playing sıbızğı, Qútıby County, 2014. Photo by Xiaoshi Wei. 

Recordings

Since the 1960s, the sıbızğı has been recorded for radio, mainly on open-reel tapes, the first ever medium to capture and preserve the sound of the sıbızğı. Due to the high acoustic fidelity of open-reel tape and to the diffusion of radio, recording artists began to be viewed with respect and to gain higher status across Xinjiang. In the early days of the radio network, artists who were played on radio, e.g., Qoşanay and Tölegen, were held in particularly high regard.

Since the 1980s, the rise of cassettes has given people a more personal connection to their recorded music, with greater autonomy over their use of the medium itself. Because of the compactness of the cassette machine, the sıbızğı community started to believe this was more advanced technology. In village life, being recorded, similarly to being photographed, became seen as an ‘advanced’ act. People began to make personalised programs on cassette to document sıbızğı gatherings, creating playlists with the music in their preferred order. Recording is also an act that can strengthen ties between clan members: events involving the sıbızğı frequently include discussion of migration history, forging strong relationships between performers within the same clans. At parties or gatherings where old friends and relatives reunite after a long time, people play songs and talk about their shared relatives who were lost along the way. Sıbızğı players would intentionally play tunes about the journey of life. Lengthy spoken introductions before each tune talk about those who were lost, and the act of recording helps to preserve these interpersonal moments.

Since the 2000s, historical recordings of the sıbızğı began to appear on VCD (Compact Disc Digital Video) and on the internet. At present, the younger generation can access performances by their fathers’ contemporaries from mobile phones and computer screens. Although the traditional large gatherings that centre on sıbızğı performance have begun to diminish, the historical recordings still function as a means to pass down the music.

Sıbızğı player Mansur Böreke-úlı

Above: Sıbızğı player Mansur Böreke-úlı.

A family cassette tape of performance by Mansur Böreke-úlı

Above: A family cassette tape of performance by Mansur Böreke-úlı.

A family cassette of performances by Tölegen Qúndaqbay-úlı

Above: A family cassette of performances by Tölegen Qúndaqbay-úlı.

Recording session with sıbızğı players

Above: Múhamet Áubákir-úlı in a recording session with Urumchi-based sıbızğı players Beyilqan Qalyakbar-úlı and Qúsman Maqmırza, date unspecified.

VCD of documentary film

Above: VCD of the documentary film Máñgilik Sarın: Qútby Öñiriniñ Sıbızğı Táryhi (Eternal Melody: History of the Sıbızğı in the Qútby Region), 2007.

Listening example 3

'Marğabıldıñ Qara Qasqa Atınıñ Şabısı - Bastapqı Şabısı' (The Running Posture of Marğabıl’s Horse - Beginning), performed by Nığımet Qabdolla-úlı.

This tune portrays a historical horse-racing gathering among the Kerey and Nayman tribes of Xinjiang Kazakhs. It highlights the historical rivalry between the two tribes and the sense of prideful superiority the Kerey feel over the Nayman, a sentiment that still prevails among Kerey cultural insiders, even those who live hundreds or thousands of miles from their homelands.

Poster for the publication Ripples Historical Recordings of Sıbızğı

Above: The poster of the publication Ripples: Historical Recordings of Sıbızğı, with written text in Kazakh (in both Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets), Chinese and English.

Recovering home cassettes

Starting in 2013, Prof. Xiao Mei at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music has been financially supporting my initiative to collect and document a large number of homemade cassette recordings of sıbızğı performance. With the goal of creating an archival package containing interviews, audio recordings, and edited texts, I conducted fieldwork in Altay, Qútıby, Urumchi, Şiñgil, and Qumul, gaining access to several individuals’ private recordings. At the individuals’ homes, I also created digital copies of their private cassettes; more than 400 recordings of sıbızğı tunes were collected from families in northern Xinjiang, allowing researchers to examine the repertoire, content, and stories behind the music in unprecedented scope. The Sıbızğı Recordings from Northern Xinjiang Collection, now deposited at the British Library, displays the significance of Kazakh musical heritage, documenting a way of life that is rapidly changing and helping to preserve an image of longstanding traditional musical practice, capturing performances by masters of the sıbızğı who have since passed away.

This post was written by Dr Xiaoshi Wei, Newton International Fellow at SOAS University.

Reference

Pegg, Carole. 1991. 'The Revival of Ethnic and Cultural Identity in West Mongolia: the Altai Uriangkhai Tsuur, Tuvan Shuur and Kazakh Sybyzgy'. Journal of the Anglo-Mongolian Society, 12 (1-2): p. 71.

Múqışov, Talğat. Interview. Conducted by Qahar Erbol, 24 May 2016.

Núsúltan Núrahmet-úlı. Múratqan Bybyrál-úlı, and Örken Qaydar-úlı. 2007. Mañgilik Sarın: Qútıby Öñiriniñ Sıbızğı Táryhi (永恒的旋律:呼图壁地区斯布孜额介绍, 'Eternal Melody: History of Sıbızğı in the Qútıby Region'). Şyncyañ Dıbıs-Beyne Baspası (新疆音像出版社).

Various Artists. 2023 (forthcoming). Ripples: Historical Recordings of Sıbızğı in Xinjiang (Толқын: Сыбызғы үнінің тарихы, 波浪:斯布孜额历史录音). Recordings compiled and liner notes written by Xiaoshi Wei.

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.

Uyghur dancers performing to an audience of tourists
Uyghur dancers performing to an audience of tourists. Photo courtesy of Paul Lashmar.

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.

A dancer and singer accompanied by musicians
A dancer and singer accompanied by musicians playing the qalun and ghijäk. Photo courtesy of Paul Lashmar.

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.

Uyghur singer playing the guitar
Uyghur Singer Playing the Guitar. Photo Courtesy of Paul Lashmar.

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.

Uyghur concert - excerpt 1 (BL REF C436/1)

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.

Uyghur concert - excerpt 2 (BL REF C436/1)

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.

Uyghur concert - excerpt 3 (BL REF C436/1)

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.

References:

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.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

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11 February 2019

Recording of the week: the endingidi and the erhu – two types of the spike tube fiddle

This week's selection comes from Tom Miles, Metadata Coordinator for Europeana Sounds.

The Hornbostel-Sachs classification system is a way of grouping types of musical instruments by structure and the way in which sound is produced, rather than the culture from which the instruments are made. This system reflects the classification of the animal kingdom by skeletal structure, rather than by size or behaviour. This means that similar types of musical instruments can be found in very different parts of the world and playing different styles of music.

The two instruments featured here are both spike tube fiddles. That is to say, the string bearer passes right through the resonator of the instrument. In this case, the resonator is a tube, at right angles to the spike.

One instrument is the endingidi (or ndingidi) from Uganda. The other is the erhu, a two stringed instrument from China.

Photograph of two types of spike tube fiddleTwo types of spike tube fiddle (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz - Ethnologisches Museum, CC-BY-SA-NC-ND)

Our recording of the week is an unidentified song for erhu and voice, recorded by Colin Huehns during a field trip to Xinxiang, China, in 1994.

Unidentified song for erhu and voice (C485/79)

There are quite a few other examples of both instruments on Europeana here. In addition, you can see the erhu played in this photograph of “Female Musicians and singers of Foo-Chow” taken around 1910, provided on Europeana by the Världskulturmuseet (CC BY-NC-ND). It’s played rather like a cello, but the bow is held with the palm facing upwards rather than downwards.

Photograph entitled 'Female musicians and singers of Foo-Chow'

Over 1000 recordings of music from Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as China, can be found in the Colin Huehns Asia collection on British Library Sounds.

Follow @EuropeanaMusic, @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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