Beijing Beat blog with Mark Godfrey

Beijing Beat

Is Flamenco Chinese?

Sep 26

Written by:
9/26/2008 5:11 AM  RssIcon

How did the muslim Uyghur people in China's western region learn to play great flamenco guitar?

I’ve been trying to work out how and why the Uyghurs - a 20-million strong people (or 'minority' in official China speak) in western China have produced a string of groups playing Beijing bars– got so good at flamenco guitar. Way over West in Kashgar a dusty old city near the Pakistan border, a long-haired gangly guitarist called Askar rules (there’s also Arken). Did he simply copy the Gypsy Kings and set off the craze, or does it run deeper? Askar’s 2001 album, the populist Tilag (Blessing) was recorded in both Chinese and Uyghur languages and mixes both flamenco guitars and the local traditional sounds.

 But what is this Chinese man doing playing virtuoso flamenco? This whole town on the western frontier seems to specialize in Flamenco. There are teenagers standing in doorways who don’t need much encouragement to start plucking away. Two more who we met dueled for an hour, each trying to best the other and seeking our judgement to decide the duel.

These aren’t any ordinary Chinese of course. This is Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur people, who have a lot more in common with the Turks than they do with the Han, China’s majority ethnicity group. Flamenco comes from the Arab conquest of Spain – it was Arabs who gave the music to Spain, not vice versa. Arabs came east too and brought Islam to groups like the Uyghurs, who (like Tibet) only came under direct Chinese control in the last century. There’s a big selection of CDs of the local stars in the windows of little shops selling shampoo and cola which dot this old city of baked earth. Out on its margins a vast new Chinese city of concrete and tiles has its own KTV (karaoke) bars and larger CD shops which itzy bitzy Mandopop that’s as heavy on sythesisers as the local’s music is on guitar.
It’s more ironic then that the best of the locals head to karaoke-drenched cities to make their living. Arken plays a series of bars in Beijing and Shanghai. Several other troupes stay on the road and some have moved to America. A combination playing the Saddle Cantina bar in Beijing is a mix of Uyghur and Han Chinese as well as a Uyghur émigré returned from the US.

Andalusia, the home of flamenco, after all takes its name from the Moroccan Arabs who once ruled here: it was Al-Andalus to them. The songs are pure Arab lyric poetry and the “ay-ay-ay” call that interjects songs comes from “ya a-in” or ‘oh eye” the call of Arab beggars.

Flamenco isn’t the only music in Xinjiang. Local popular music draws on influences from ethnically close Turkey and geographically close Pakistan. There’s also the technology and the synthesizers and drumbeats from Mandarin pop. China’s audiovisual counterfeiting industry means there’s cheap access to western sounds.

Two local metal bands, Taklimakan (after the oil-rich desert which occupies a huge chunk of the region) and Riwayat, Darwish meanwhile takes their sounds from Central Asia since they’re Uyghurs based in Kazakhstan. There’s a lot left unsaid in Uyghur songs, which tell of a people subjugated. Rather like Irish poetry during Penal Law days. Social themes such as labour and heroin addiction among local youths juices the words of Sirliq tuman or Secret Mist by Abdullah Aldurehim, drawing melody from sufi ritual songs and words by composer Yasin Mukhpul. Local composers are figures of authority, writes Dr Rachel Harris, a musicologist at the School for Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in London who I hope to talk to soon.  Dutar or lute players sing more allegorical songs: Omarjan Alim from Yili Valley sings in his Mehman the Guest “I invited a guest into my home… invited him to sit in the place of honour…but my guest hasn’t left, now he’s made my house his own.”

On the other extreme, a Madonna wannabe from Hotan, Aytalan sings about fun and hinted sex, usually a big taboo in these parts. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of it all, and seek a long chat with David Mitchell, a musicologist and all-round instrumentalist who plays in Panjir, the most experimental, and arguably accomplished proponents of Uyghur music.

This multinational and multi-instrumental grouping has blended the Uyghur’s music with jazz and flamenco in all-out jamming sessions and on a CD. The best place to watch Panjir is the Stone Boat, literally a stone boat built to amuse members of the imperial court on forays to Beijing’s ancient Ritan Park. Today the Stone Boat bar/café is an in place for expatriate journalists and Sinologists, and its most ‘in’ band is Panjir, which performs on a small stage that juts into the lake water. The mystery deepens.

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