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Uyghur Music

By Dr. Rachel Harris Lecturer in Ethnomusicology, Music Dept. SOAS, London

and Yasin Muhpul Xinjiang Arts Research Unit

[Originally Published 2002. Encyclopedia of the Turks, vol. 6. Istanbul: Yeni Turkiye, pp542-9.]

Uyghur music embraces several distinct regional styles, product of the geography and complex history of the region, whose oasis kingdoms, separated by mountains and deserts, have been subject through the course of history to rule by many different outside forces. The musical traditions of the southern oasis towns of Khotan and Kashgar are more closely allied to the classical Central Asian traditions of Bukhara and Samarkand, while the music of the easternmost oasis town of Qumul has closer links to the music of Northwest China. Each of the region’s oasis towns have to this day maintained their own distinctive sound and repertoire, but they are linked by a common language and overarching culture, maintained by constant communication through trade and movement of peoples. Musically there is much to link these local traditions, in terms of instruments, genres, styles and contexts.

The most prestigious and well-known genre of Uyghur music is the muqam, the large-scale suites of sung, instrumental and dance music. In addition to the muqam the Uyghurs maintain popular traditions of sung epic tales (dastan) and other forms of narrative song (qoshaq, läpär, äytshish and mäddhi namä); suites of dance music (sänäm); instrumental music; musical genres linked to the ceremonies of the Sufis, and a huge repertoire of folksongs which commonly dwell on the suffering of life on earth and the torments of frustrated love. Contrary to the common perception of Islam in the West as hostile to music, amongst the Uyghurs many traditional musical contexts are linked to the religion, largely due to the influence of the Sufis who use music to express and promote their faith. Today these traditional genres compete with a lively pop music industry and the music of the professional, state-sponsored troupes.


Uyghur scholars trace the roots of their music back to the 11th century BC to the Di people who are referred to in the earliest of the Chinese dynastic annals, living to the north of China. The first Turkic (Kök Turk) kingdom was established in the region now known as East Turkestan in 552AD, while the Uyghur Turks arrived somewhat later, moving westwards from Siberia in 840AD after the collapse of their kingdom on the Orghun river. They settled in the region north and south of the Heaven Mountains and intermingled with the local inhabitants. Hence the pre-9th century music of the region is equally regarded as the heritage of the contemporary Uyghurs. Chinese sources are rich in references to the early music of the region, which they term the ‘Western Region’ (xiyu). Dynastic annals record that a musician from the oasis kingdom of Kösän (Qiuci), named Sujup, travelled to the court of the Chinese emperor Wudi in A.D. 567 in the entourage of a Turk princess, and introduced the theory of seven modes and five tones to China. The music of Kösän, Idiqut (present-day Turpan), Iwirghol (present-day Qumul), Udun (present-day Khotan) and Sule (present-day Kashgar) were all popular in China during the Tang and Song dynasties (7th-10th centuries). Musicians from these kingdoms performed in the imperial court and in China’s major cities, introducing new instruments and repertoires into central China. Their popularity can be seen from the frequent references in the Chinese poetry of that era. Scholars believe that the famed Tang Daqu suites of the imperial court, which were later adopted by the Japanese court, have their roots in the 5th century great suites (chong küy) of the Western Region. The custom of keeping musicians of the Western Region in the Chinese court continued into the Qing dynasty (founded 16th century). Qing court records refer to eight court musicians of the Western Region who played pieces named sänäm, jula, and säliqä; names also found in the contemporary Uyghur muqam.

The historical flow of music has largely moved from west to east. While Chinese histories record the influence of the Western Region on central China, Uyghur music has historically absorbed much influence from the regions of Central Asia to the west, arriving along the famed Silk Road. Islam and Islamic culture spread slowly through the region, reaching Kashgar as early as the 10th century, and taking hold in Qumul to the east only in the 16th century. Uyghurs regard the Karakhan Khanate of Kashgar (founded in the 10th century) as a great age for the development of their music. This, East Turkestan’s first Islamic kingdom, introduced along with the religion, the culture and learning of the Persian and Arab world. During this period the ideas of the musical theorists Al-Farabi and Ibn Shina were introduced, along with instruments like the kettle drum and shawm bands (naghra-sunay) which are believed to have played the Karakhan kings into battle.

The Chagatay era (14th-15th century) is also regarded as an important period for cultural and musical development in Central Asia as a whole, and many of the Uyghur muqam are accredited to the poet-musicians of this era, such as Nawayi, Abdurakhman Jami and Mohammed Kuchtingir. An important source on the music of this period is the History of Musicians (Tarikhi Musiqiyun), written in Chagatay by Mulla Ismatulla Mojizi in 1854-5. A copy dated 1919 was discovered in Khotan in 1950, and the book has since been published in modern Uyghur. The book is written in the genealogical style of history common in the Central Asian tradition. It begins with the biographies of Qaruz, thought to be the inventor of music, and Fisaghuwräs (Pythagoras), who is credited with many miracles and as the founder of the ethics of music. Al Farabi is credited with the invention of the qalun dulcimer, and as the originator of Rak, Oshshaq and Özhal Muqam. Mojizi also relates many miraculous tales of the fifteenth century musicians of the mystic tradition of the Timurid areas of Iran and Iraq. In the tale of Mawlana Sahib Bälikhi, for example, a nightingale is said to have perched on his tämbür as he sang, and the people at the majlis festival began to shout and weep, they rolled about and fainted. Fearful, they stoned the nightingale, and when the nightingale died, Bälikhi too fell down dead.

Mojizi also relates the tales of two musicians from the sixteenth century Yarkand Khanate, a period which is widely regarded by Uyghurs as the high point of their culture. Yusup Qidir Khan Yarkandi (d. c.1560) was a musician at the court of Sultan Rashid Khan. He took apprentices from Western and Central Asia, and composed Wisal Muqam. Amannisa Khan was the daughter of a forester. She was discovered, aged thirteen, by the Sultan while he was out hunting. He fell in love with her singing and married her. Mojizi also accredits the composition of Ishrät Ängiz Muqam to Amannisa Khan.

Contemporary Uyghur scholars suggest that the musicians named by Mojizi were not actually creators of the muqam, but instead that these musicians, in particular Amannisa Khan and Yusup Qidir Khan, re-ordered existing music to conform with the Arab-Persian tradition and names. Hence the Uyghur muqam is thought to owe less to the Arab-Persian tradition, and more to the 5th century great suites (chong küy) of the Western Region. The well-known muqam singer, Turdi Akhun, whose 1952 recordings form the basis of contemporary published versions, places the date of the restructuring of the muqam rather later. He recounts that, according to local tradition, different musicians formerly played the different sections of the muqam: court musicians played the complex chong näghmä; narrative singers (dastanchi) sang the dastan; folk singers sang the mäshräp. In the 19th century one Beg Aka of Kashgar brought these three groups of musicians together and unified the three repertoires. In the absence of detailed historical sources it is difficult to make any conclusive claims on the origins of the muqam.

Some of the principal Uyghur musical instruments


– a long-necked plucked lute with two nylon (formerly silk) strings tuned a fifth or sometimes a fourth apart, with seventeen chromatic frets. The dutar is beautifully decorated, like all Uyghur lutes, with settings in horn or bone. It is used to accompany folksongs, and as a supporting instrument in the muqam. A dutar can be found in almost every Uyghur home, and is the sole instrument which Uyghur women have traditionally played. It is played glissando, mainly on the upper string but with some heterophony from the thumb on the lower string.


– the longest of the Uyghur lutes at around 150cm, the tämbür has five metal strings tuned so-so-do-so-so. The melody is played on the double right-hand strings, using a metal pick (nakhäla) on the index finger. The tämbür is sometimes used as principal instrument in the muqam, as well as for folksongs, narrative songs and instrumental pieces.


– the shorter lute, plucked with a horn plectrum. Several different types are played by the Uyghurs. The Kashgar rawap, at around 90cm, has a small bowl-shaped body covered with skin and five metal strings, and is decorated with ornamental horns (möngüz). The shorter herder’s rawap (qoychi rawap), found in the Khotan region, measures around 70cm and is strung with two paired or three sheep-gut strings. Both of these types are played by the narrative singers (dastanchi and qoshaqchi). The Dolan rawap, principal instrument in the Dolan muqam, with one melodic and several sympathetic strings and pear-shaped body, ressembles the Afghan rubab more closely than the Kashgar rawap. The Qumul rawap is similiar to the Dolan version, and used in folksongs and the Qumul muqam. The Kashgar rawap has more recently become a professional virtuoso solo and orchestral instrument (täkämmul rawap) with six metal strings tuned do-do-so-re-la-mi. An equivalent bass rawap has also been added to professional orchestras.


The large hammer dulcimer used by the professional troupes and found in the folk context, its metal strings are strung in sets of three across several raised bridges.


A smaller dulcimer, plucked with a bone pick held in the left hand, while the right hand presses on the string with a bronze key (gustap) to produce quarter tones and ornaments. The qalun is found more commonly in southern East Turkestan, especially amongst the Dolan. It plays a supporting role in the muqam.


– a long-necked bowed lute with one melodic and eight to twelve sympathetic metal strings. The satar plays an important role in the muqam, usually played by the lead singer (muqamchi). Its sympathetic strings may be tuned in five different ways depending on the mode of the muqam being played.


– a fiddle with a soundboard of stretched skin. The largest of the Uyghur ghijäks is found amongst the Dolan, with one horse-hair melodic string and several metal sympathetic strings. The Qumul ghijäk has two bowed strings tuned a fifth apart, and six to eight sympathetic strings. The earliest Chinese historical records relate that a bowed instrument strung with horse-hair was played in the Qumul region, but the contemporary instrument is probably a fairly recent hybrid between the Chinese erhu fiddle and the Uyghur ghijäk, testament to the Chinese cultural influence in this easternmost point of East Turkestan. The ghijäk now played by professional musicians was adapted in the 1950s, today its four metal strings are tuned like the violin but its playing technique is closer to the Iranian spike fiddle, held on the knee, the bow is held loosely in the hand, palm upwards, and the strings are pressed against the bow by pivoting the instrument. This ghijäk is also found in soprano and tenor versions.


– now a prominent instrument in the professional troupes, the khushtar viol was developed in the 1960s, modelled in its shape on instruments depicted in East Turkestan’s early Buddhist cave murals. It is tuned and bowed like the professional ghijäk, but its tone is lower and softer, since the whole instrument is made of wood. It is also found in soprano and tenor versions.


– a frame drum, of which two types are current. The smaller näghmä däpi, at around 25-30 cm in diameter, is a virtually indispensable instrument for the muqam, playing a leading role in the instrumental sections (märghul). The larger chong dap is used in other folk contexts, it may be used to accompany other instruments or may be played solo. The third and largest type, thought to have magic powers, is used in the healing rituals of the Uyghur shamans (baqshi or pirghun).


– always played with the sunay, these are a pair of cast iron small kettle drums covered with cow or donkey skin laced over the body, played with a pair of sticks. The naghra-sunay group usually consists of one sunay player, with at least two and up to eleven sets of naghra which play complex rhythmic variations, with a large chong naghra maintaining the basic rhythmic cycle.

Other percussion instruments include the sapayä – paired sticks pierced with metal rings, the most common folk percussion instrument, especially used by beggars and Sufis; the tash – four stones, two held in each hand, struck repeatedly and quickly together, and the qoshuq – two wooden spoons struck together back-to-back.


– a small double-reed shawm, its conical wooden body has seven front holes and one thumb hole. It has a metal bell and metal mouthpiece. It is played using circular breathing, and has a range of over two octaves.


– a short double-reed vertical reed pipe with seven finger holes, tuned by a cross-piece of reed fixed near the mouth end of the instrument. The balaman is now found only in the Khotan region, where it is used as a lead instrument in the muqam.


– found in the folk and professional contexts, traditionally the Uyghur näy was a long horizontal flute made of walnut wood, with a soft tone. In recent years the Uyghurs have adapted the Chinese bamboo horizontal flute.


– the metal jaw harp, played mainly by Uyghur women up until the 1950s, it is now rarely seen.

In addition to these contemporary instruments, instruments historically used by the Uyghurs include the ghunqa – a form of harp, the bärbap lute – ancestor of the Chinese pipa, the jalla – a bronze skin-covered tambourine, the sapal chora ocarina, and the isqirt slide flute.

The Muqam

The Uyghur muqam are large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes and instrumental sections. Some of the lyrics of the muqam are drawn from the great Central Asian Chagatay poets, Nawayi, Shah Mäshräp, Fuzuli, Mulla Belil and Zelil. Some are drawn from folk poetry, especially the popular tale of the lovers Ghärip and Sänäm. Much of the poetry is linked to the imagery and ideals of the Sufis. The muqam are usually performed by a small ensemble of singers, led by the lead singer muqamchi, accompanied by plucked or bowed lutes and dap frame drum, but they may also be played in instrumental form by kettle drum and shawm (naghra-sunay) 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 the muqam are often referred to in terms of a spiritual, even physical need. Listening to the muqam can still serve a religious and meditative function, especially in the context of East Turkestan’s great religious festivals. Contemporary scholars refer to four distinct regional genres: the Twelve Muqam of the Kashgar-Yarkand region, the Turpan Muqam, the Qumul Muqam, and the Dolan Muqam.

The Twelve Muqam each consist of suites of fixed melodic sequences and order. To sing a complete muqam takes around two hours. The names of the muqam are drawn from Arabic and Persian, many related to the names of the Arab maqam: Rak, Chäbbiyat, Mushawräk, Chargah, Pänjigah, Özhal, Äjäm, Oshshaq, Bayat, Nawa, Sigah, Iraq.

Each of the Twelve Muqam is structured as follows:

Muqäddimä (introduction) – sung solo in free meter. Themes dwell on human suffering and religious feeling. The lyrics are attributed the great Central Asian poets.

Chong näghmä (great music) – a suite of named pieces in varying set rhythms. Each sung piece is followed by an instrumental ornamented version, märghul. For example, in the piece Oshshaq muqamining täzi, the first part of the name indicates the modal and melodic material relating to Oshshaq muqam, while the second part indicates the 6/4 rhythm of täz, which is the same in each muqam. The chong näghmä is the longest and most complex section of the muqam. Of the muqam performed today only about half possess the full complement of eight pieces in the chong näghmä and work is ongoing to restore, or more often recreate, the missing pieces.

Dastan (narrative songs) – each muqam contains several dastan in different rhythms. Again each dastan is followed by an instrumental märghul. The lyrics are drawn from sections of folk narrative songs and relate the stories of famous lovers. The melodic range of the dastan is particularly wide.

Mäshräp (gathering) – several faster sung pieces in 2/4 or sometimes 7/8 rhythms, consisting of folk love poetry. This section of the muqam is for dancing. Usually the lyrics of the first mäshräp are attributed to a famous poet.


Chong näghmä

Muqäddimä unmetered

Täz + märghul 6/4

Nuscha + märghul 5/4 or 4/4

Säliqä 4/4

Kichik säliqä + märghul 4/4

Chong säliqä 5/8

Jula 4/4 or 8/4

Sänäm 2/4

Päshro + märghul 4/4 or 5/4

Täkit + märghul 6/8


1 4/4 or 6/4

2 7/8

3 3/4

4 6/8

Mäshräp 7/8, 2/4

Unlike the Arab tradition, the term muqam does not imply mode to Uyghurs. Its associations include mood, smell or style (piraq), pitch, tone of voice, person, time or place. The term also refers to the place where musicians performed in the royal courts. The term muqam has moral power, as in the saying “uning muqami yoq” (he has no muqam, i.e. he is unreasonable). Each muqam is distinguished by its dominant melodic patterns and modal characteristics, some feature the use of a principal and a secondary mode. Modulation is a major feature of the Twelve Muqam. A single piece may pass from a heptatonic to hexatonic to a pentatonic scale. In pitch the muqam are not confined to the tempered scale, but make frequent use of raised or lowered notes, pitched according to the sense of the musician. Unfixed sliding notes are common, and used frequently in modulation, especially the fourth or seventh of the scale. Uyghurs excel in the art of juggling modes. In the course of one piece a new mode appears, subtly changes, makes a brief reappearance, and moves back into the principal mode.

The development of melodic material is an attractive feature of the muqam. Typically a single theme develops over the course of several phrases, tracing an arc moving from low to high to low pitch, then transposing into the secondary mode. The many varied rhythmic cycles are somewhat shorter than those of the classical Turkish tradition, but they are brought to life by the complex and diverse variations rendered by the drum. Irregular aqsaq rhythms are common, and another attractive feature of Uyghur music is the tendency to transform ternary rhythms into binary rhythms, overlaying a basic 7/8, for example, with varying sets of duolets and quadruplets.

The Twelve Muqam are found around southern East Turkestan, and also in the Ili valley although only the muqäddimä and dastan sections are now performed in Ili. The vocal style here has absorbed much of the local flavour, and the preferred instruments are the plucked lutes tämbür and dutar, the chang hammer dulcimer, and the violin, while the dap frame drum is rarely used. The other three regional muqam are distinct from the Twelve Muqam in structure. The Turpan Muqam, of which nine have been creditably collected, each consist of a suite in six named sections:

Ghäzäl – in free rhythm, sung solo

Bashchäkit – in 3/4 rhythm, a slow sung piece

Yalangchäkit – in 5/4 or 13/8 rhythm, a slow sung piece

Jula – in 4/4, a moderate dance piece

Sänäm – in 4/4, an accelerating dance piece including the local dance piece, Nazarkum.

Säliqä – in 4/4, a moderate dance piece

Each of the Turpan Muqam generally corresponds to one mode, and each is about thirty minutes in length. Although no information on its historical transmission is currently available, musically there is much to link the Turpan Muqam to the chong näghmä of the Twelve Muqam. While the section names differ, there is correspondence in overall structure, rhythmic cycles and melodic material. The preferred instrument for the Turpan Muqam is the satar bowed lute, plus tämbür, dutar, chang and dap frame drum accompanying voices. The Turpan Muqam are also played in an instrumental version on the naghra-sunay combination. Skilled drummers add breath-taking variations to the basic rhythms, transforming the Yalangchikit section, for example, from its basic 5/4-beat into a 17-beat aqsaq.

Although it is common practice now to refer to the Qumul Muqam, the use of term muqam here is recent. The Qumul Muqam take the form of suites of local folksongs, varying in length between eight and twenty-two songs, with a free rhythm muqäddimä at their head. Nineteen suites have been collected and published as the Qumul Muqam. Each suite bears an Arab or Persian name, some of which are similiar to the Twelve Muqam. Musically, however, there is little to link the Qumul tradition to the Twelve Muqam. Qumul folk musicians still use the local names, thus the Qumul Rak Muqam is popularly known as Sayrang Bulbulum (Sing, My Nightingale). The Qumul Muqam have a strong pentatonic basis, rhythms include 2/4, 4/4, 5/8, and 7/8. The main instrument for the Qumul Muqam is the Qumul ghijäk accompanied by the Qumul rawap, chang and dap.

The Dolan Uyghurs who live in the region between Aqsu and Kashgar have their own distinctive muqam tradition. The Dolan Muqam take the form of a five-part suite:

Muqäddimä – a brief unmetered solo sung section

Chäkitmä – in 6/4 rhythm. This signals the start of the dancing

Sänäm – in 4/4 rhythm (like the opening rhythm of the sänäm dance suites)

Säliqäs – in 4/4. The dancers begin to move in a large circle

Serilma – in 4/4 or 5/8. The dancers whirl, and some enter a trance-like state

Some of the names of the Dolan Muqam are the same as the Twelve Muqam, but musically they are distinct at six to nine minutes in length, and nine suites have been identified. Folk musicians tend to refer to their suites as bayawan (desert), suggesting that the use of the term muqam in this context is also a rather recent phenomenon. The instruments and texts used by the Dolan are unique. The Dolan Muqam are accompanied by drummers, a Dolan rawap, Dolan ghijäk, and the qalun dulcimer. Rhythmically, syncopation is common in the Dolan Muqam, they use hexatonic and heptatonic modes, with much use of modulation and raised or lowered tones. The unique feature of the Dolan Muqam is that each of the different instruments follow different melodic patterns as they play, giving a sense of heterophony and heterorhythm. Local musicologists like to say that if the Twelve Muqam are the classical music of the Uyghurs, then the Dolan Muqam are the Uyghurs’ jazz, remarking on their complex instrumental patterns and ecstatic falsetto vocal style. They also suggest that the Dolan is a pure folk tradition, unlike the Twelve Muqam, which has never been taken into the court and ordered and refined.


The Uyghurs classify folksongs according to their region of origin, and each region has its own distinctive sound. Modally the songs of southern East Turkestan are usually heptatonic while the songs of Ili, Turpan and Qumul are more commonly pentatonic or hexatonic. Many folksongs have recurrent raised or lowered intervals. Folksongs may take any note of the scale as tonic, and many folksongs feature modulation to a secondary mode. Rhythms are in short cycles, with much variation. The Ili style tends to use duple rhythms while in the south 5/8, 7/8 and 9/8 rhythms also appear. Primarily accompanied by the dutar and/or a frame drum, one interesting feature of Uyghur folksong is that the accented drum beat does not fall at the beginning or end of the melodic phrase. The singing style is highly ornamented and uses a wide range, especially in the songs of Ili whose attractive swoops and leaps in the melodic line have lead the Chinese to term them ‘wolf songs’ (lang’ge). The Qumul style is considered softer, while Kashgar style is more vigorous. Songs are usually short, lasting a few minutes, and are commonly strung together into suites (yürüshi), like the street song suite (kocha nakhshisi yürüshi) of Ili. The vast majority of song lyrics dwell on tragic love, others take religious or local historical themes, and others are comical.

Dance Music

Uyghurs use the term sänäm (from the Arab: carved image) to refer suites of between six and thirteen folksongs played usually for dancing. All the major oasis towns each have their own distinctive sänäm, as does the Ili valley and the Dolan people. Each sänäm employs the distinctive vocal style and a fixed suite of folksongs of its own region, but the sänäm across the region are all related rhythmically, beginning with the same moderate four-beat dance rhythm and move gradually towards a faster four-beat. Each region uses its own preferred instrumental combination to accompanying singers, and the sänäm may also be played in a purely instrumental version by the naghra sunay bands.

Other forms of dance music are specifically dedicated to dancing. During the festival of Qurban, naghra-sunay bands may play on the roofs of the main mosques, most famously in Kashgar, and large crowds gather to dance the local styles of shadiyana and sama throughout the night. Many styles of Uyghur dancing involve a theatrical element, like the läpär, comic skits with sung lyrics and spoken parts, or the popular dance nazarkum of Turpan. Some Uyghur dances are thought to be of totemic origin and may formerly have served a ritual function although they are now performed for entertainment, like the swan dance (ghaz ussul) or horse dance (at ussul) in which the dancer dresses in pantomime animal costume.

Narrative songs (Äl näghmä)

There are five named genres of narrative songs, performed by one or several singers accompanying themselves on plucked lutes or percussion. Some dastan are to do with famous lovers, like the tale of Ghärip and Sänäm or Horliqa and Hämrajan, others tell of mythical and historical heroes and heroines of the Uyghurs like Emir Guroghli, Abdurakhman Khan, and Nuzugum. Some of these tales have a long and complex provenance, taken from the oral tradition and reworked by the Central Asian poets and returned to the folk context. Others are based on more recent historical events. Musically the dastan employ a comparatively wide pitch range, they are attractive melodically, and may use any of the modes found in Uyghur folksongs. Dastan are found in 3/4, 4/4, 5/8 or 7/8 rhythms. Qoshaq are short rhymed poems, on moral or comical themes, employing a narrower pitch range. The läpär skits are also counted as a genre of narrative song. The äytshish are sung in duets and mix sections of speech and song. They are usually comical and may be theatrical in performance, often involving cross-dressing. The Mäddhi näghmä are stories relating to the Islamic tradition or on moral themes, with short sung refrains and longer spoken sections, usually performed without musical instruments.

Formerly after Friday prayers people gathered in teahouses to listen to the story-tellers, but the tradition is now increasingly rare, a phenomenon of modernisation, in particular the impact of television and cassettes. But storytellers can still be found today on the streets of East Turkestan’s bazaars, and especially in the poorer south, and they are common sight at East Turkestan’s great mazar festivals held at the tombs of Islamic saints, where people gather in large crowds to listen.

Instrumental music

The Uyghurs play many forms of instrumental music in diverse styles, many derived from vocal genres. Popular pieces include äjäm and äshway performed on the tämbür and dutar. Many musical genres are also played in instrumental form by the naghra-sunay bands.

Religion and music

Amongst the Uyghurs the boundaries of the sacred and the secular are blurred, and many forms of secular music are performed in ritual contexts. Some musical forms, however, are unique to the ritual context. Uyghur ritual healers, still found in the countryside, are known as baqshi or pirghun. Their ritual chants of expulsion often employ local folksong melodies, and sometimes their lyrics are on the same themes of love as the folksongs. They are usually accompanied by several drummers (dapändi). Their rituals are strongly shamanic in form, with the use of the rhythms of the frame drum to drive out the possessing spirit, and the trance-like dance of the pirghun. Some Uyghur dance forms, like the sama, are also thought to have shamanic roots.

The Uyghur Sufi lodges maintain a unique musical tradition in their large-scale dhikr rituals. The practice of dhikr, found amongst Sufis across Central Asia, Iran, and Turkey, refers to the recitation of the names of Allah and Islamic saints. Amongst the Uyghurs this ritual is popularly termed – hälqä (suhibät) – circling (and talking), while zikiri (dhikr) refers specifically to the ritual chants. The ritual song hökmät is sung in a free metered falsetto, with a plangent melody. As the names and deeds of the saints, in this tradition the founder of the lodge and the subsequent generations of his disciples, are recited, the men attending the ceremony weep. As the singer moves into the metered section, at first the men kneel and rock back and forth energetically, then they begin to move in a large circle, moving their arms to the beat and chanting. Each chant has a specific rhythm, and up to seventeen may be performed in the course of a ritual, lasting up to seven hours. In the Khotan region, up to the 1970s, Sufi rituals were accompanied by musical instruments, including bowed and plucked lutes and percussion. This practice has now virtually died out, although some groups still use sapayä percussion sticks to accompany their chants.

Women Sufi ritualists, known as büwi, are numerous across the region. Their ceremonies are similiar in form to those of the men, although the melodies of their ritual songs (munajät) differ from the hökmät of the men. The büwi also sing at mazar festivals, they may serve as mourners at funerals, and they conduct healing and exorcism rituals (khätmä) in peoples homes. Their plangent munajät songs, usually sung unaccompanied, are considered to be very moving. Amongst the Uyghurs religious mendicants can still be found, called ashiq or mäjnun. These wandering beggars are said to have consecrated their life to music-making for God, and Uyghurs are very charitable towards them. Today they most commonly use percussion instruments, dap, sapayä or tash, but at mazar festivals they may also play plucked or bowed lutes. Many of their songs, also called hökmät, are closely related to the mäshräp sections of the muqam.


The Uyghurs hold mäshräp or gatherings regularly at festival times, and for many kinds of toy – weddings, circumcisions, for girls coming of age, for the harvest, etc. Mäshräp are common around the region, and may include any number of people. The Dolan mäshräp are commonly held on a much larger scale, attended by hundreds of people, and often last the whole night. Such occasions are incomplete without music. Alongside performance of the muqam and dancing, comical skits and epic songs, an akhun may be invited to discourse on moral and religious questions, and mäshräp have traditionally served the social function of a public court, with wrongdoers brought before the mäshräp organiser (yigit beshi) to be criticised and punished. At weddings, the more solemn rituals of the morning held in the groom’s home are often followed by singing from the muqam. When the groom goes to fetch the bride, the procession is led by a naghra-sunay band, these days often played from the back of a truck. In the afternoon, a banquet is held and a band is employed to sing a range of music from folksongs and sänäm to pop music, for dancing. The festivals of Qurban, Rozi and Nawruz are also important occasions for musical activity, and the great mazar festivals held at the tombs of Islamic saints are the venues for all kinds of music: muqam, story-telling, Sufi ritual music, and dancing.

Copyright ©Asian Music Circuit

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