Indiana University Bloomington
Choose which site to search

Elise Anderson "Making Music in Kasghar"

In late April and early May of 2014, I spent nine days on a research trip to Kashgar and Yarkend, oasis towns in the southern part of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where I have been living and conducting research since December 2012. When my research plans in Kashgar City fell through several days in, as research plans are wont to do in China, I fell back on my Plan B, one of the things I know best: marching myself into instrument shops and bookstores to see how much I can make my way into arts and intellectual crowds by engaging in the favored human pastime of sitting around and shooting the breeze.


One afternoon after leaving an instrument shop, I walked into a tiny bookstore on the southern edge of Östängboyi (The stream’s edge), a historic neighborhood surrounding Kashgar’s famed Id Kah mosque. I had been to the store once before, in the summer of 2013, but only for a short time when the owner was not in. This day, though, the owner was there, along with a small crowd. I asked for “old” (pre-1990s) materials related to my research topic on the Uyghur performing arts, and the owner gawked at me for a moment, his mouth slightly agape. I looked clearly “foreign” to him but was speaking Uyghur and wearing an ätläs-patterned top; he didn’t know quite what to make of me. He asked if I was the younger sister of a Uyghur-school-educated Tajik dancer from Tashqorghan, an ethnic Tajik city located west of Kashgar. I was impressed at how quickly he had worked out a backstory to explain who/what I was, and corrected him: “No, I’m American.”


I became a spectacle in the bookstore, and the owner, Tursunjan Aka, offered to me a sincere invitation to come back the next day.* I went to the bookstore each day for the remainder of my time in Kashgar, and Tursunjan Aka introduced me to some of the city's finest minds, who regularly congregate there to thumb through books and/or talk about life. One day he even arranged for me a brief meeting with a famous musician who just happened to be visiting for the holiday. Another day, Tursunjan Akainvited me to a chay (Uy. tea, referring to a somewhat ritualized gathering of friends) with a number of his childhood pals (plus another young woman they invited so that I would not be the only female there).

Elise in the Bookstore

The chay was held in the top-floor banquet room of Zäytun (Uy. Olive) Restaurant, an eatery tucked away in a housing complex on the ever-expanding eastern edge of Kashgar.I was seated in the tör, the place of honor, next to Osman Aka, the bookstore owner's childhood friend. Our being seated together was no coincidence: Osman Aka just so happened to be an excellent hobbyist player of the tämbur (a five-stringed lute and virtuosic instrument in Uyghur music), and the plan was that he and I would offer up the musical entertainment for the evening.


I had been learning to play the dutar (a two-stringed lute foundational in Uyghur music) since February 2013 and had begun studying vocal and instrumental muqam (classical music, more or less) performance at the Xinjiang Arts Institute in March 2014. Everyone at the chay knew this and insisted I show off what I’d been learning. I performed a few folksongs for everyone, the standby tunes I’ve played all over Xinjiang. I tried my hand at playing and singing for everyone a bit of the Pänjigah muqam suite that I had been learning back at the Arts Institute in Ürümchi. I won praises like “that was really good for a foreigner” and “well, that’s better than what I can do [seeing as I can’t play anything]”; these were mere courtesy platitudes showered on me simply because I’m an Outsider Who Tries.


Then, a few participants of the chay announced, it was time for me to duet with Osman Aka. I was mortified by the prospect, but my request to get out of it was no good. “Okay, Osman Aka,” I said, “do you know the first dastan of the Pänjigah muqam suite?” He stared at me, surprised, and fumbled as he said, “I, I guess I’m not sure exactly what you’re talking about; just sing a little bit of it for me, and I’ll let you know if I know it.” He did, it turned out, know exactly the dastan I was talking about. We started in together. His lightning-speed strumming technique was too much for me to keep up with, and I dropped in and out of the accompaniment. Our best attempts to sing together were foiled by the fact that we knew different versions of the texts: in Ürümchi I had been learning to sing the “most classical” of all muqam texts, those sung by professional ensembles, while Osman Aka knew the texts that are “among the people.” We alternated singing the versions we knew; I continued to slip in and out of the accompaniment. Ours was by no means a stellar performance, mostly thanks to my musical shortcomings, but we enjoyed ourselves and finished with smiles, winning the laughter and applause of the other chay attendees.


Osman Aka told me later that he had been embarrassed when he realized that he couldn’t talk about muqam in the same “scholarly” way that I could. I told him how amazed I was that a high school principal who can’t read music could ever have acquired such lovely tämbur technique and learned so intimately the classical tradition. If the night was for him a lesson in the importance of “the book,” it was for me a glimpse into a world in which the musician's ear reigns supreme, and an inspiration for my subsequent inquiries into the range of pedagogical and performance practices that define the largely oral-aural world of Xinjiang Uyghur music.

It was also a beautiful moment that spoke to how music can serve as a bridge between people. I often cringe at the claims that music is a “universal language” and a path to “world peace.” No one will ever convince me that either of those statements is true, but I understood in this moment, set amongst a group of fortysomethings on the top floor of this Kashgar restaurant, where these sentiments come from. Music has a power to tap into some of the most fundamental, ineffable parts of our human selves. Osman Aka and I, and indeed the rest of the attendees of the chay, connected on a level that we might not have had I simply sat and chatted with everyone that night. Playing music with and for others can be deeply emotional and was in this particular moment a form of intercultural exchange, when not only individuals but also entire worlds collided through some of the sounds that animate Uyghur life. Moments like these are precisely why I am an ethnomusicologist: I want to understand what music means to people—in particular to the fine Uyghur musicians, professional and otherwise, for whom I have such an affinity—and for me that understanding comes partly through my own playing and singing along.


We stayed at Zäytun Restaurant well into the night, dispersing only as our eyes began to droop from exhaustion. I returned to my hostel in Östängboyi and sat up for several more hours, thinking and writing about the chay, realizing that while I had a long way to go before I could be considered even a decent performer of Uyghur music, being a good performer wasn’t even really the point anyway.


*Personal names have been changed to protect privacy. Also note that to them are attached the word “Aka,” which means “older brother” in Uyghur and is used as an honorific when speaking to and about a male older than onself.


Elise Anderson is an IU Ph.D. Candidate in Folklore & Ethnomusicology and Central Eurasian Studies whose research focuses on performing arts among the Uyghurs. She is a five-time recipient of IAUNRC FLAS Fellowships for the study of the Uyghur and Tajik languages (2006–2009) and her research in China, which she has been conducting since 2012, has been funded by Fulbright IIE and Hays grants. Elise was recently the subject of a short documentary film titled "An American Xinjiang Idol," which was produced by China Radio International's English-language service. Please also visit her personal site at for more information on her scholarly endeavors.