Keeping the music alive
2017-08-28, CUI JIA and MAO WEIHUA

Rehman Abdula is a quiet man, so when he speaks people know his words are important.

“It sounds good,” he said, after listening to Memet Ali play a satar, a traditional Uygur musical instrument that resembles an Indian sitar. 

When Memet visited, Rehman was in the process of making the instrument at his house in Tuowankewukusake village, Shufu county, in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Memet, 30, is a Uygur musician who plays in a local band that specializes in muqam, a popular and famous genre in the music of the mainly Muslim ethnic group. A few weeks before his visit, he had commissioned Rehman to make him a new satar.

The 65-year-old craftsman had asked Memet to see if he was happy with the half-finished instrument before he painted and decorated it. It usually takes about a month to make a satar from start to finish.

“He is the best of the best,” Memet said, gently tapping the 5,000 yuan ($740) instrument to check the sound. The hollow body was carved from a mulberry log by Rehman, using a small, homemade machete.

Like other makers of traditional Uygur instruments in his village in southern Xinjiang’s Kashgar prefecture, Rehman makes every piece by hand. He has no need for plans or drawings because all the measurements are in his head.

People in Tuowankewukusake are renowned across Xinjiang for their skill at making traditional Uygur musical instruments, an art they have practiced for more than 150 years. At present, 290 of the 570 families in the village support themselves by making and selling more than 50 different types of instruments.

The signature melodies of Uygur music, played on instruments such as the rawap, dutar, tembur and ghijek, can often be heard coming from village houses as craftsmen and their clients test the products.

Unsurprisingly, Tuowankewukusake is known far and wide as “the village of music”.

Of the nearly 600 craftsmen there, Rehman is hailed as the best because his instruments produce the purest, most beautiful tones.

“We can tell immediately if an instrument has been made by him. It feels as if the melodies penetrate deeper into your brain,” Memet said.

As he hollowed out a piece of mulberry wood that would be transformed into a dutar, a type of long-necked, two-stringed lute, Rehman said: “I don’t think my instruments are all that magical. I just want to make sure their sound doesn’t pierce people’s ears.”

As the seventh generation of a family of instrument makers, Rehman was 7 years old when he started following his grandfather to find the best wood for their craft.

“My grandfather told me that a craftsman can only make a good instrument if he puts his heart into making it, instead of thinking about how much money it will fetch,” he said.

“You have to inject life into the wood little by little,” he said, repeatedly turning the log from left to right to search for the correct spot to land his machete.

After mastering the skills he was taught by his grandfather and father, Rehman first made a rawap on his own when he was 25. He sold the long-necked traditional instrument for 250 yuan.

Last year, he made what he believes may be the best rawap of his career so far. The instrument, decorated with tiny pieces of black yak horn and white cow bone, has a market value of about 8,000 yuan.

The instrument’s stunning appearance prompted a man to visit Rehman’s house and ask to buy the instrument, even though he could not play it. Rehman refused to sell.

“He only appreciated the external beauty of my rawap but he cannot play it to release its true power, which is to charm people with the sounds it makes,” said the craftsman, who is still waiting for a buyer who is just right for the rawap.

Rehman is determined to pass on the family tradition. In fact, he regards it as his duty. His eldest son lives in Urumqi, the regional capital, where he runs a shop that sells the family’s work, but Rehman’s three other sons are instrument makers in Tuowankewukusake.

Rehman has high hopes for his youngest son Memutjon, because the 27-year-old craftsman exhibits all the passion he had when he was young. “He is a quiet man, too,” Rehman said.

Memutjon made his first instrument when he was just 22. He uses social media to advertise his work, and now earns about 10,000 yuan a month from his work.

“Unlike me, my father is very confident and never hesitates to use force when carving the instrument from the wood,” he said, as he watched Rehman making a dutar. “The instruments even sound louder when he makes them.”

To further improve the quality of traditional Uygur instruments, Memutjon has studied the structures of guitars and violins. “The ghijek plays like a violin and also sounds like one, so I think understanding the violin will help me make it sound better,” he said.

In fact, the current version of the ghijek is actually an adaptation based on the study of violins. The new version was introduced in the 1950s.

The changes were made by Duan Qiang, a composer, and Samat Abdula, a violinist in a People’s Liberation Army art troupe based in southern Xinjiang.

According to Duan, 83, he and Samat realized that the old-style ghijek had a narrow range of tones, which meant its use was limited, even within Uygur musical settings.

In response, the then-19 year old and his partner upgraded the instrument using a number of features of the violin as their model, and introduced the new version to Xinjiang.

It is capable of carrying the melodic line in harmony with other Uygur instruments across a wide range of music.

Last year, Duan invited four instrument makers from Jiayi village in southern Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture to his workshop in Urumqi. He taught them how to draw plans for different instruments using detailed measurements.

Jiayi is also famous for instruments. About 105 of the 208 families in the village make a living from their craftsmanship. Now, Duan hopes they will try to standardize the production of traditional instruments by following the drawings he has made.

The new approach may work for younger craftsmen, but Rehman has no plans to adjust his style. His eyes, hands and heart are all he needs to make the perfect instrument.


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