A quick glance in the Times Atlas at the Xinjiang Region in the West of China and straight away you can see that it is a pretty inhospitable place, far away from anywhere. Basically it is a desert. The Uyghur people live there in oasis towns a great distance apart and when times were peaceful they traded in goods along the old Silk Road that ran from China into the Near East and on to Europe. They are a Turkic people, victims of geography who were once part of Ghengis Kahn's huge Mongol empire, then were re-conquered by the Manchu and incorporated into the Chinese Qing empire.
Despite these changes over the centuries and today's large-scale immigration of Han Chinese, they have kept their identity, not least through their music. At the heart of this music is the Muqam a set of 12 musical suites, starting with a Taxim-like unmetered introduction the muqadime, moving through a metered slower piece, the dastan and finishing with the meshrep a wild dance piece. The current Uyghur version of the Muqam can be traced back to the 16th century to the court of the Yarkand hanate in Kashgar. It is very much a music of all of the people and is often referred to in terms of a spiritual need. In the words of one old folk singer: "During the Cultural Revolution I was forbidden to sing the Muqam, and I could feel it building up inside me with great heat. Finally I got on my donkey and rode into the desert. I rode until I was far away from all people, then I started to sing. I sang all the Muqam I knew, and then I went back. If I had not done this I would have become ill."
As you might gather from all of this we are dealing with a long and deep tradition in this recording of the Uyghur Musicians of Xinjiang. The roots of the musicians on this CD are in the pre-Communist oral traditions. But the music is very much a living tradition in the oasis towns from which they travelled to the U.K. for a series of concerts arranged by the Asian Music Circuit. It was while they were in London that GlobeStyle took the opportunity to make what turned out to be a remarkable recording of their music. We doubt that it has been documented with such clarity ever before and the whole package is enhanced by Dr Rachel Harris of SOAS's fascinating and entertaining note.
By Roger Armstrong