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Musical Treasure of the Uygurs
Editor-in-chief of the Uygur language periodical, Xinjiang Culture, Kurban Mamut, is now in his 50s, and often listened to Twelve Muqam performances when he was a child.

While humming the various melodies of the music, Kurban Mamut also heard the songs and ballads that went along with the Twelve Muqam.

"The Twelve Muqam performances have helped instill moral ideas in the Uygur children, and given them a noble and strong personality," Kurban Mamut said during the three-day National Symposium on Twelve Muqam which ended on Friday in Beijing.

But he and other participants at the symposium also expressed their worries that the traditional popularity of Twelve Muqam is giving way to pop culture and foreign entertainment.

They called for more urgent measures to help preserve ancient Uygur music and its accompanying songs and ballads, so that the Uygur cultural tradition and customs will not be lost to globalization.

What is Twelve Muqam?

Known as the "mother of Uygur music," the Twelve Muqam has a long history.

Some scholars believe that its origin can be traced back to the "Great Western Region Melody" that flourished during the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties and enjoyed a high popularity in Central China.

In the mid-16th century, aided by other experts, the imperial concubine Amannisahan of the Yarkant Kingdom, who was also an esteemed poet and musician, devoted all her efforts to collecting and compiling Muqam music, which was then scattered across Uygur-populated areas. She finally worked out 12 grand, yet light and entertaining, compositions, which became The Twelve Muqam.

The music of other ethnic groups is no match for the gigantic and neatly-arranged system of the Twelve Muqam.

Strictly following the astronomical almanac, each of the Twelve Muqam is divided into three parts: Cong Naghma, Dastan, and Mashrap, and each has 25 to 30 sub-melodies.

The whole set of the Twelve Muqam consists of 360 different melodies, taking 24 hours to play the full work.

While Muqam is a musical form that has spread in Islamic areas throughout the world, the Twelve Muqam carries distinct Uygur characteristics.

What is significant about the compilation of the Twelve Muqam is that Amannisahan did not seek materials from the wealthy and fully-developed repertoire of Arabian and Persian music. Instead, she exploited the rich resources of Uygur folk music that spread the wide area of both the north and the south of the Tianshan Mountains. As a result, the Twelve Muqam is especially distinguished by its strong Uygur flavor.

Ever since its spread among the Uygurs, the Twelve Muqam has played an inseparable part in their lives. They dance to the accompaniment of Twelve Muqam and sing songs and ballads to its melodies.

It is common to hear the following questions and answers that illustrate how important the Twelve Muqam are to the Uygur people.

"From whom have you learned how to behave as a good person?"

"From parents, seniors, tutors, and the Twelve Muqam."

"Where have you learned morality and politeness?"

"At those sites where singing and dancing (to the accompaniment of Twelve Muqam) are performed."

"From whom have you learned shame?"

"From musicians and dancers."

After New China was founded, the local government of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region made every effort to preserve the Twelve Muqam.

In 1956, Muqam master Turdi Ahun and musician Wan Tongshu, working with other assistants, made great pains to record most of the vocal melodies and librettos of the Twelve Muqam onto tapes. They also noted down the music by staves.

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 a publication for the first time.

Over the past two decades, local Xinjiang cultural institutions have sponsored seminars, supported research projects and have a number of books published with the Twelve Muqam as the focal theme.

Over the past four years, 7,000 performers -- many of them Uygurs -- participated in the national key publication project. Their concerted efforts have resulted in the recent release of CDs, VCDs, and DVDs of "The Twelve Muqam of Uygur."

Indigenous Culture

While academics have been doing more research into the Twelve Muqam, many urban Uygur teenagers are no longer interested in traditional music. Kurban Mamut looks with sadness at the tide of entertainment rushing in from overseas, seeing it as an unprecedented threat to traditional Uygur culture.

"It's a pity for us to see that the Uygur instruments of satar and tanbar are being replaced by electronic instruments," Kurban Mamut said. "Peaceful and happy gatherings of groups of Ugygur people in their yards, playing the satar, singing Muqam folk songs, or dancing Mashrap under the moonlight are now few and far between."

Tian Qing, a professor of the Religious Art Center of Chinese Art Institute in Beijing, expressed the same worries at the symposium.

Xinjiang will certainly welcome the introduction of new ideas and information from the rest of the country and from the outside world, but local people must take up the challenge of preserving their unique ethnic culture as well, Tian said.

"Development should always have the first priority. But, at the same time, we should undertake the protection of the traditional culture environment and ecological environment as a very crucial task," Tian said.

(China Daily December 24, 2002)

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