Arken - At ease in Uygur. A young Uygur man who is active in the singing world on the Chinese mainland, and he is called Arken. In keeping with the meaning of his name (to be at ease), he wants only to sing in an unrestrained manner, and he sings in Mandarin as well as in Uygur. Possessing persistence and talent, he left the remote desert and moved onto the stage, generated a world of attention and built an audience. People from his hometown and even those who don't understand Uygur are fascinated with his music.
Childhood: Music Flows Silently
Born in Kashi, a place where most are well versed in singing and dancing, the young Arken didn't display an outstanding talent for music. On the contrary, the young Arken could often be found behind a door reading books, or writing Uygur poems quietly, while other children sang and danced outside.
"I didn't like going out then. I just loved writing poems, and I had never thought of the relationship between life and music," Arken recalls. Then one day, when his father brought home a guitar, everything changed. The 11-year-old boy was found to have a strong and uncontrollable passion for music.
He held the guitar and started to play. Because no music sheets or textbooks were available, he used only his listening skills to become accustomed to the music. He searched across the entire Yecheng (Kargilik) County for tapes and discs of various types of music: Chinese rock-and-roll, music of local ethnic groups, popular songs from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and exotic and foreign music from India, Pakistan and other countries. When he couldn't find what he was seeking, he would just go to other places in the region. He listened carefully to one tape after another, and practiced every day, following the sounds of the guitar. He was so fascinated; it seemed that nothing existed beyond this world of music. His primary and middle school days were spent involved in music and performances.
College Years: The Guitar Becomes His Companion
Arken loves music, but he didn't know how much so until 1997, when he went to university in Beijing. He joined the university's guitar club even before he knew how many canteens there were. Educated at ethnic schools since childhood, he didn't speak fluent Mandarin, but it was not a problem, for music was the common language of the guitar club. His outstanding guitar-playing techniques immediately earned him some fame among guitar fans in colleges and universities in Beijing, and he made many friends. During exchanges with guitar fans in other colleges and universities, Arken met three young men and they organized a small band of their own. The band sang at a bar in Baishiqiao every weekend. "I am so in love with music," Arken said. "And this helps me earn money to support myself. A couple of months after I attended university, I called my family telling them not to send any more money, for I could support myself."
At that time, Arken and his band were just a group of enthusiastic music fans. They didn't have any original songs yet, and would just sing rock-and-roll that was popular on the mainland, or well-known English songs.
"That was my earliest on-stage experience," Arken said. "I think, in terms of music, you need to have that kind of experience. I like the audience shouting, waving, singing together with me, or simply coming onto the stage to hug me. That is the power of music. It is also my attitude towards music."
Now, addicted to on-stage singing, he never refuses any chance to perform. "When we had get-togethers in the university, or went to other universities for competitions, I would always go with my guitar and sing Hotel California." Arken smiles as he recalls his college life.
Life: To Sing Boldly
Arken graduated from university in 1999 and returned to Xinjiang to become a civil servant at the Kashi Prefecture Government. Two months later he resigned from his job and returned to Beijing to become a freelance musician. His family and friends thought he was perhaps a bit mad, but he felt that music was what he loved and wanted to work with, and he just did what he liked.
"I returned home to persuade them to let me continue to work with music," Arken said. "But my father didn't agree, and I was not able to change his mind. After all, I hadn't showed any achievement in music. Two months passed in this way, and I felt that I couldn't wait any longer."
Arken returned to Beijing with two great plans: learn English and organize a band. Several months later, his band was formed and they performed for four years in a bar known as the Jam House.
The year 2002 proved to be a turning point in Arken's musical career. His first musical album Daolang Who Walked out of the Desert was released and was popular all over Xinjiang. (Daolang, the ancient name for Maigaiti County, which is located at the southwest edge of the Taklimakan Desert, is a name by which many who live in the region refer to themselves as a people - as "Daolang." The word "Daolang" also applies to various local folk and cultural art forms, as well as those people who are well-versed in the forms.) In the same year, Arken, as a singer with his original compositions, took part in a TV art competition program jointly held by the Beijing Television Station and Japan Fuji Television Station. He won the championship seven times consecutively in the program and was the overall champion of the year. It was at that point, that people on the Chinese mainland for the first time recognized this unique voice from Xinjiang.
Also in 2002, his album Daolang Who Walked out of the Desert and two songs of Orda Hinm, and A Uygur Girl were rewarded respectively as Best Musical Album, Best Adopted Folk Song, and Top Ten Golden Songs at the Nanning International Folk Song Art Festival. From Xinjiang to inland cities, from the folk genre to the pop genre, more and more people have gotten to know Arken and become fascinated with his music. From then on, Arken's musical road became easier, and he became a real musician.
Music: Duty and Dreams
"I hope my music will be more broad-minded, diversified and international," Arken said when introducing his third album. "So, with Night in City, I reduced my personal color, and instead I added musical elements to it."
Each of his first two albums sold 300,000 to 400,000 copies, an astronomical figure compared with 2,000 to 3,000 copies sold by previous local singers. But the ambitious Arken is not satisfied with that accomplishment.
"I want people living inland to know the meaning of modern Xinjiang music," Arken explained. "Their knowledge of Xinjiang music still stops at Wang Luobin in the last century. In fact, some young people there have now already started to blend ethnic music with modern international music, and I have the responsibility to let others know about their efforts and achievements."
Things that are ethnic are also things that are international. Arken thinks the same is true in music. Every time he begins to compose new music, the Muqam, an ethnic music form unique to Xinjiang, that has been there in his blood will be released. That's his trademark, but something that is ethnic also needs to blend with the world. So, besides the Uygur musical style and form, his music includes elements from other ethnic groups such as Kazak and Mongolian. He adds some foreign flavors into his music, such as Indian and Pakistani, and even the Flamenco from Spain. He was totally overwhelmed by the Flamenco when Mardan, a guitarist with his band, introduced him to this intense music for the first time. The music contains great expression and an abundance of enthusiasm, and its gypsy culture origins immediately resonated with the Uygur music deep in his heart. He felt he was filled with happiness and he had found a merry song echoing on the other side of the ocean. So, in the blend of Chinese and foreign music, we can still recognize the unique melody identified as "Arken." Even the most critical of listeners will succumb to its unique charm.
As he ventures further along the path of music, he finds himself closer to the music of his own ethnic group. "I am making a plan for an original Xinjiang song and dance evening in cooperation with the Daolang Muqam Art Troupe in my hometown," Arken said. "You will be able to see how modern Xinjiang music, which combines the customs of the world and the original ancient music, can be sung harmoniously."
(China Pictorial December 13, 2005)