Mahmut Mehmet, a Uyghur musician living in China's Xinjiang province. The Uyghurs are a Muslim ethnic minority losing many traditions under Chinese rule, even music is beginning to suffer. Mahmut began playing the tambur when he was eleven years old and studied with the late virtuoso Nurmahemmet Tursun, but despite his immense talent he is now struggling to find an audience. He makes a living performing at dinner parties and teaching young students but can his music survive in the ever changing and hostile environment of modern China? (Photo by Camilla French,, from her documentary Lost in the muqam. See bottom of page for more background on Ms. French and her work, and contact information.)

The Music of China's Nomads
Reviving Traditional Music in Xinjiang Province
By Anne-Laure Py
(Originally published by and reprinted with permission of


Although many Kazakhs in China long ago abandoned the pastoralist lifestyle, some families retain an element of the bygone traditions by keeping animals. Here one group leads their small herd of cattle, horses and camels to the richer pastures around the Ili River Basin. (Photo by Anne-Laure Py)

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is China's westernmost province, home to almost 20 million people, including the majority of the country's 1.2 million Kazakhs, and almost 160,000 Kyrgyz.

Xinjiang mixes mountains, deserts and deep basins. Miles from any ocean, this is an arid land of wind and rock carved by glaciers and the movement of tectonic plates; the memory of earth. This is land dependent on mountain waters that nourish grape and melon fields during growing seasons.

Standing between 73?3 and 96?30 longitude and 34?10 and 49?31 latitude, it has long been a point in the Eurasian land mass where civilizations meet, and cultures collide. Xinjiang scholar Owen Lattimore dubbed the region the "Pivot of Asia." Today, it is a Chinese Province, comprising one-sixth of China's overall territory. Xinjiang is bordered to the East by the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia and Gansu. It also features more than 5,600 kilometers of borders with eight countries including Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.

The region's incorporation into the Chinese state is relatively new. Although links (cultural, commercial and political) have always existed between the people of this region and the Han Chinese, it was the Manchu-Qing dynasty that brought this area under Beijing's sway in the late 18th century. The Chinese dubbed the region Xinjiang, or New Frontiers. Today, as host to more than 13 ethnic minorities, many of Turkic descent (Uighur, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks etc.), Xinjiang is a place of Turkic tongues and cultures. And even during the Communist era, it has remained a land of faith and religion, home to 23,000 of China's 30,000 mosques.

As the rioting that broke out on July 5 underscores, a cultural struggle is playing out in Xinjiang. Local ethnic groups, especially Uighurs, are striving to defend their distinct traits in the face of Beijing's efforts to promote cultural uniformity. The influx of wealth and economic development brought by the Han Chinese has added an additional layer to the cultural issue. Officials in Beijing insist episodes of unrest in recent years has been the work of Muslim terrorists.

The Music of China’s Nomads, Part 1: Urumqui, The Urban Setting.
Features an interview with Han Chinese ethnomusicologist, Professor Zhou Ji. The beginning of the search for the dömbra, the national instrument of Kazakhs, and a look at the people and multicultural society of Xinjiang Province.


The Instruments of China's Nomads

The two-stringed lute called the dömbra is the national instrument of Kazakhs. This beautifully made dömbra, decorated with the dark black etchings of traditional Kazakh symbols and patterns was made by a 59-year-old, self-taught instrument maker in the village of Qiaolatekerike in Tekesi County. (Photo by Anne-Laure Py)

Music of China's Nomads introduces three instruments that are part of the cultural traditions of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in China's Xinjiang Province:

The Dömbra: The long-necked fretted two-stringed lute of the Kazakhs. This slender cedar wood instrument is associated with Kazakhs' nomadic heritage, and is an essential part of their tradition of oral history.

changharThe 24-year-old Changhar, the lead Dömbra player in the Altai Song and Dance Troupe, plays a Dömbra Kui called "Kongel Tokulge" the heart's feeling.

The Komuz: The three-stringed fretless lute of the Kyrgyz. The instrument is very similar to the Dömbra, and like its Kazakh counterpart is used to accompany bardic singing, folk songs or instrumental kui pieces. The Dömbra and the Komuz have both experienced a revival in Xinjiang over the past 20 years.

assanIn Tekesi County's Kyrgyz village called Kokterek Village, or "Blue Tree" village in Kyrgyz, Assan Joltesh plays an up-beat Kui called Ark Ba Kai.

The Sybyzghy: The upright end-blown flute of the Kazakhs that is usually accompanied by the vocal drone sounds of khoomoi throat singing. The Sybyzghy is said to have been completely obliterated in Soviet Kazakhstan during the Soviet-era collectivization-push of the 1930's, surviving only in China's most remote Kazakh communities. Today, although the Sybyzghy tradition is slowly being rekindled by a handful of masters, it remains hard to find and stands on the threshold of extinction as a musical tradition.

sybyzghyMaster Sybyzghy player, Houtebai sits in his living room in Qinghe city and plays on his self-made Sybyzghy, a Kui called "Horketen Konger" about the hardship of life on the pastureland.

The Music of China’s Nomads, Part 2: Yining, The Frontier Land
Importantly for music, Yining and its surrounding area is not only home to a large community of Chinese Kazakhs, but has served as a cultural haven for Uighur, Mongol, Xibo and Kyrgyz peoples, among others. Over the past 50 years, Ili has also seen a large and persistent rise in its Han Chinese population (a trend common throughout Xinjiang). These demographics have clearly influenced Kazakh music, infusing it with the sounds and melodies of several cultures. Trying to revive traditional culture and ethnic music following the devastation of the Cultural Revolution.

Myths of Origin

Musicians and ethnomusicologists in northern Xinjiang tell many stories recounting the birth of their communities' instruments. Most are tales set on the wide summer pastures, in which the dömbra, the komuz and the sybyzghy are instruments played to enliven the solitary lives of herders.

Among the many different legends about the birth of the dömbra in northern Xinjiang, two stories are most common: the first story's protagonist is a beautiful young woman, who dares her suitor to win her hand in marriage by making a pine tree create sound. The young man works night and day to discover a way to make the pine tree make a sound too, finally chiseling and carving out an instrument from the tree. Finished, he beckons his love with sweet serenades, and the dömbra is born.

Another popular fable tells of the gifts of the natural world conspiring to help the nomads. The story centers on a young shepherd undertaking the hard lonely work of tending to his sheep in the summer pastures. Lonely and aching for company, the shepherd hears a strange voice calling him from across the pasture. He follows the sound across the plane to stumble on the dried carcass of a sheep. The sheep's intestines, torn apart by vultures and other predators have been wrapped around the sheep's ribs, where they have dried. Strung across the hollow of the leather carcass the dried strings of intestines are vibrating in the wind, producing sound. Intrigued, the shepherd starts to pluck the strings, and is stunned by the emotions he can translate with this natural echoing box. The young shepherd reproduces the instrument with wood, recreating the hollow of the sheep carcass above which he strings sheep intestines, making the first dömbra.

Traditionally, dömbra strings were made with naturally processed sheep intestine.

The Music of China’s Nomads, Part 3: Tekesi County’s Village Virtuosos
Leaving the large apartment towers and relative affluence of the cities, and entering the grasslands and their rural communities, the sound of the dömbra grows louder, more vibrant, alive. In the future, as these rural communities inevitably become influenced by the trends flowing out of urban centers, traditional culture, including the music of the dömbra, will face a serious struggle for survival. How to preserve the sounds, knowledge, craft and emotions of existing masters of the dömbra is a pressing question one not yet fully answered by the government-run Song and Dance Troupes. This photo essay looks at life in Tekesi County in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, where dömbra master and teacher Hakima speaks of the instruments' narrative strength and introduces listeners to the Kui, or instrumental pieces that are meant to relate an emotion, event or idea through the expressive force of the dömbra.

Landscapes and Sound

The music of Central Asia's nomads was born of the grandeur and challenge of life on the pasturelands, shaped by its expanse, beauty, and danger. The stories of the instruments' creation reinforce the close connection between the music and the nomad's natural world.

The materials used to make the instruments were also all traditionally found on the pastureland: wood (the same used for yurts, the traditional felt and wooden homes of Central Asian nomads), sheep intestine for the strings, camel hide, reeds etc. The instruments' shapes themselves were also molded by the pastoralist lifestyle. "The dömbra's shape is that of a long-necked swan," notes Sultan Gaze, a Kazakh instrument maker and former director of Yining's Song and Dance Troupe. "We are a nomadic people," he says, "We have to be able to carry it [the instrument] easily, in our tents. It is adapted to our way of life."

Speaking of the music of Kazakh and Kyrgyz nomads in Xinjiang, Han Chinese ethnomusicologist Zhou Ji, an expert affiliated with the Xinjiang Art Research Institute, notes that "nomads' music, their songs, their rhythms are very connected to their land, to their experience as pastoralists." In Ili Prefecture's Tekesi County, a Kazakh dömbra teacher and master, Hakima, reinforces the close connection between music and the surrounding environment, saying; "dömbra music is closely related to life on the pastures. It reflects honesty. Direct, like sheep." Talking about the free rhythms and beats of the Kazakh's dömbra music, Hakima further notes that traditional songs are based on asymmetric rhythms that are "free, like the nomad's life."

Prof. Zhou Ji remarks: "Kazakhs have the dömbra to tell stories. This is common to all nomadic peoples." The music provides entertainment, serving as a means to express deep emotion and preserve the heritage of the nomads.

The Music of China’s Nomads, Part 4: Qialoatekerike, A Night of Akyns
Akyns are virtuoso performers: they are Kazakh poets and bards of improvisation. The Akyn improvises with lyrics while playing the dömbra to a set traditional rhythm. The Akyn must not only be a master dömbra player, but also an expert story-teller, with a good wit and a great sense of timing. Akyn competitions are exciting and humorous, full of theatre and soul. They bring life to a party, helping to strengthen the sense of community among villagers. In Qiaolatekerike, the villages young dömbra players join with master Akyns for a competition.

Oral History

Born of the jailoo (the summer pastures), many of the dömbra, komuz and sybyzghy songs played in northern Xinjiang tell stories of past feats, military prowess, a tribal leader's difficult choices, an important man or woman, travels, ideas, and many other important moments in the community's life.

Songs are narration, whether through lyrics, or what ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin calls musical onomatopoeia. In one kind of instrumental piece, played by both Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, and known as kui—meaning "frame of mind" or "mood"—the dömbra or the komuz imitates the nomad's environment and natural world without the support of lyrics. Purely instrumental, kui pieces tell stories through the power of the instrument's sound alone.

In Qinghe city, near China's border with Mongolia, Houtebai, a master of the sybyzghy plays a kui that recounts the forced migration in the 1930s of a group of Kazakhs from Qinghe to Gansu. Told purely through the instrumental prowess of the end-blown flute, the melody expresses the devastation then provincial leader Sheng Shicai brought to the Kazakhs, and how hard it was for the Kazakhs to leave their homeland. In Altai City, on the northern tip of Xinjiang Province, nine-year-old Alibeke plays a kui called Aldai, which recounts the feats of a Kazakh hero. In the countryside around Tekesi, Nortu Han plays a kui written by his great grandfather Hocike that recalls his flight from the Tsarist police. All of the kui pieces tell rich and emotional stories simply through the virtuosic force of the instruments.

zhetperRecorded in the bright office of the director of the Boardjin Cultural Association, the 48-year-old Botan Saike Oulu plays a Kinghiz Kui written by Baisambai on the Dömbra. He uses the traditional Zhetper method of plucking the Dombra strings.

Beyond the narrative onomatopoeias of the kuis, the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have a whole repertoire of sung or spoken musical performances used to convey the history of their respective communities. The most common are folk songs, whose lyrics narrate a wide variety of anecdotes—from a couple's courting to historical feats, to the blooming of trees and plants on the pastures. Sung by both men and women, they often include incredible vocal feats, like the folk song called Maida Hong, sung by husband and wife team Maolin and Koulbaketi in the town of Boardjin.

koulbaketiKoulbaketi and her husband Maolin are performers for the summer tourists that flock to Boardjin's beautiful mountain lakes. Koulbaketi's stunning voice is accompanied by Maolin's Dömbra, in a folk-song called Maida Hon.

Virtuoso-performers called akyns are specialists in another kind of story-telling musical genre—present in both the Kazakh and Kyrgyz musical tradition. The akyns use improvised lyrics to speak of both the present and the past. An akyn—either a man or woman—improvises a text, often humorous while playing to a set traditional rhythm. The akyns must not only be master dömbra players, but must also be masters of improvisation. The akyns often play in pairs, in a kind of competition in which each player performs individually and responds to his "opponent.” These competitions are both theatre and soul—a comedy of the present sung and spoken to the rhythms of ancient traditions. Improvised, they depend entirely on the wit and acumen of the singer.

akhenA traditional Akhen phrase, recorded in Atta Han's home in Tekesi County's Qiaolatekerike village during an Akhen competition. Here the thirty-year-old Norguilden demonstrates his skill as a Kazakh bard.

Today, akyns tend to sing about a given community's most pressing issues. They are also adept at interpreting the past.

The Music of China’s Nomads, Part 5: The Kyrgyz of Kokterek
Tekesi County in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture is also home to 7,000 of Xinjiangs more than 150,000 Kyrgyz. A nomadic people like Kazakhs, Kyrgyz have a similar musical tradition, rooted in their experience in the grasslands of Central Asia. Relying on bardic narrative techniques, the Kyrgyz musical tradition is anchored in its role of orally transmitting experiences. Kyrgyz music, however, is centered not on the dömbra, but on a three-stringed lute called the komuz.


Traditional Culture Survived China's Tumultuous Century, But How Will it Fare in the Future?

Shyrdaks are traditional felt carpets, decorated with colorful appliqués and ornaments. Usually produced by women in both Kyrgyz and Kazakh communities, shyrdaks once were a compulsory element of a young woman's dowry. The Cultural Revolution in China threatened to destroy the traditional ways of the country's myriad ethnic minorities. Over the past few decades, however, the traditional art of making shyrdaks has been rekindled in Kazakh and Kyrgyz villages throughout Xinjiang. (Photo by Anne-Laure Py)

Over the past century, China has experienced an inordinate share of political, social and economic upheaval, including the collapse of the Manchu dynasty, civil wars and the rise of Communist Party leadership. Amid all the changes, the various peoples of China experienced radical lifestyle changes. Although Xinjiang Province was far removed from the political tumult, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and members of other Turkic nationalities in region felt the social ripple effect of upheaval.

Perhaps the most dangerous era for traditional ways of life was the Cultural Revolution of 1965-76. During this era, all traditional music, crafts and beliefs were categorically banned, and their practitioners were in danger of arrest. Although its impact was less severe in Xinjiang than elsewhere, the Cultural Revolution nevertheless caused an almost irreparable break with the past for national minority groups.

The Music of China’s Nomads, Part 6: Altai Frame of Mind
This photo slideshow explores how musicians in Altai are responding to changing economic and social conditions. The official response is framed by the Altai Regional Song and Dance Troupe, in which ethnic minority traditions are reinterpreted, keeping Beijing’s priorities in mind. Some individual performers also have chosen to adapt their sounds in order to cater to the tastes of increasingly numerous Han Chinese tourists. But some purists remain, people who cling to the most traditional methods of the Altai region, such as the old zhetper style of playing the Dömbra.

In Xinjiang's northwestern region, traditional music and culture are making a comeback today. Masters have reemerged to share their knowledge with students and schools and are being built. Meanwhile, government associations pride themselves on safeguarding traditional cultures. Sadly, many old masters passed away before the reform years in the 1980s, a circumstance that has greatly complicated cultural revival efforts.

For more than two decades, Xinjiang's 1.2 million Kazakhs and almost 160,000 Kyrgyz have embraced traditional music as a central element in the revival. Kazakh-language television broadcasts, aired in Urumqi, provide almost daily concerts and shows featuring the dömbra, the traditional lute. Book and CD stores in downtown Urumqi sell the recordings and posters of dömbra and komuz masters, along with posters of Kazakh and Kyrgyz folk heroes and leaders. In Kazakh-dominated areas beyond urban centers, the dömbra is once again an anchor of community life, as is the komuz in Kyrgyz-majority towns and villages.

The recovery of musical traditions has not only helped Kazakhs improve the odds of their own cultural survival within China, of late it has also helped restore a long-lost bond with Kazakhs across the border in now independent Kazakhstan. The Kyrgyz community has also seen similar developments, although their exchange and contact with neighboring Kyrgyzstan remains relatively small—a fact perhaps explained by the fact that Kyrgyzstan remains economically less attractive than resource-rich and fast-growing Kazakhstan.

While the political obstacles to cultural expressions are not as high as in the recent past, some preservationists remain concerned about the future of Kazakh and Kyrgyz traditions in Xinjiang. Sultan Gaze, a Kazakh ethnomusicologist from Yining, notes that "young people are interested in modern things." Given the spread of globalization, changing lifestyles and Xinjiang's rapid economic growth, traditional cultures now face different challenges. Sultan Gaze expressed fear that, despite the strides made since the 1980s, "traditional culture may [still] disappear."

The Music of China’s Nomads, Part 7: Masters and Their Students
The revival of traditional Kazakh music in China has succeeded largely because of the dedication of older masters to passing along their knowledge and skills to the next generation. This slideshow explores the nuances of one such relationship between a young master player, Chang Har, a dömbra player the Altai Region, and his nine-year old student Alibeke.

Some ethnomusicologists, such as Sabine Trebinjac, have also noted that the revival itself, largely sustained and funded by the Chinese state and its network of song and dance troupes and cultural associations might also be significantly altering Xinjiang's musical traditions, infusing it with Han Chinese cultural influences.

Song and dance troupes are a central element in cultural revival efforts throughout China—and in Xinjiang, they often prepare lavish concerts that are televised throughout the province and beyond. Concerts are designed to project a political purpose, demonstrating the Chinese government's proclaimed tolerance of minority groups, while subtly fostering a notion of a culturally unified mainland. As seen in Tekesi County's Cultural Association Kyrgyz Naruz concert, performances can come across as a caricature of local culture, made to fit the local government's political prerogatives—that of showing a costumed, docile, central-government-loving and easy-to-understand minority culture.

As China tries to foster an image of a united nation, one in which there are at least 56 minority groups, Chinese officials are eager to demonstrate their attachment to diversity. In her dissertation "La Musique Comme Pouvoir, Music as Power," Sabine Trebinjac notes that by incorporating the traditions of Xinjiang's local communities into China's larger cultural repertoire, the Chinese are also saying that these people are part of China, and their territory part of the Chinese landmass.

The Music of China’s Nomads, Part 8: Qinghe’s Magic Flute
While the dömbra is alive and thriving among Chinas Kazakh community, the vertically held flute called the sybyzghy is a rarity, played by a handful of masters and their students. The sybyzghy is one of the Altai regions oldest musical traditions, pairing the deep drone of Khomooi, or Mongolian-type throat singing, with the soft melody of the wooden flute. The slow layered sound of the sybyzghy is used by Kazakh masters to express hardship and suffering, and to speak of sadness. It is a solitary instrument, often played by herders as they tend their flocks during the summer months.

This slideshow explores the rarely heard sound of the sybyzghy, profiling two masters from Chinas Altai Region. One of them, 70-year-old Baisal Nabi, is reticent to play, and speaks of the hardship of Chinas Cultural Revolution. Another master, Houtebai, is more upbeat. He recounts the deep historical roots of the sybyzghy in ethnic Kazakh culture, and how he has worked with more than 40 students in trying to promote the revival of the instrument.

In some song and dance troupes, there remains substance behind the folklore. In the Altai County Song and Dance Troupe, for example, China's government funding enabled Kazakh ethnomusicologist, Habulade, to collect and record traditional music in the remote villages of Altai County in the early 1980s.

Habulade spent months visiting old masters, talking with them and recording their music. He has hundreds of hours of these recordings in his home—waiting for someone with the time, money and technology to digitalize and publish them. He has also transcribed 300 songs, including 150 folk songs. Across his home are scattered endless pages of music, volumes of unpublished melodies and lyrics: his home is an encyclopedia of Altai's recent musical history.



The eight-part slideshow presented above is also accessible at, where it supplements Anne-Laure Py's superb reporting on the revival of traditional music in Xinjiang Province. The slideshow features Han Chinese ethnomusicologist, Professor Zhou Ji, a leading expert on the music of Xinjiang's ethnic communities.

"The Music of China's Nomads" is a production of with funding provided by the Open Society Institute. Copyright 2008,

The trailer for Camilla French’s documentary Lost in the muqam

This trailer and the photo at top of page are from the documentary Lost in the muqam, by director/cinematographer/co-producer/editor Camilla French, broadcast on Al Jazeera TV this past July. A graduate of the London Film School in 2009 with a Masters degree in filmmaking, Ms. French has lived and worked in China as a freelance writer and editor for Time Out Beijing. Her first film was a collaboration with the art group The Red Room on the subject of internal migration. She has also produced China-based short films and news pieces. In 2008 she co-directed a half-hour documentary with Judy Bretschneider about a Beijing sex worker, Pretty Girls, which premiered at the Women Make Waves Film Festival in Taiwan in 2009 and is part of the British films catalogue of 2010. In 2009 she shot her graduation film Lost in the muqam about Mahmut Mehmet. Since graduating she has worked with acclaimed director Chen Shi Zheng as his videographer for A Chinese Home, which premiered at Carnegie Hall, and most recently she worked with Palestinian NGO Riwaq to film the 3rd Riwaq Biennale in the West Bank. For more information, visit Ms. French’s website at

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