In spite of its title, this book appears rather as a general introduction to the music and the musical culture of the Uighurs, the roots of the Onikki muqam (“Twelve Muqam” suites) repertoire in recent history, its structures, its modal and rhythmic systems and its evolution leading to a so called “canonisation” and perhaps beyond it. It provides a living picture of the musical life of the Uighurs thanks to a rich documentation and portrayal of representative artists and musicologists. The author is obviously familiar with the Uighur urban culture and its dependence on Chinese official policy in general, but keeps cautiously silent about this issue. However, it is due to a decision and action by Chinese Han authorities that the Onikki muqam have been recognised by the UNESCO as part of the world intangible heritage ― the result of a unilateral Han decision. Of course, this does not detract from the fact that Uighurs themselves have been for years working towards the establishment of a crystallised official versions of the Twelve Muqam repertoire.
The author, in the meantime, has chosen an anthropological discourse that ironically regards all traditions as the result of “contemporary constructions or, at least, the fruit of new ways of imagining the past (p. 6).” This position, however, is much disputable: The concept of suite is fundamental in the whole world of Islam and its centuries-old roots are documented by ancient texts. Rather than questioning the authenticity of these musical settings, it would have been more interesting to note how such institutions were organised under a political or religious power, an emir, a khan, or a Sufi authority (as it was the case in Turkey and Maghreb). In the case of the Uighurs, the paradox is that this authority would be a Chinese one, or that Uighur nationalism would have enjoyed enough freedom and strength to achieve the unification of the diverse artistic musical schools. . . .
What Rachel Harris writes in her introduction on the establishment of canons and canonical directories also remains unconvincing, mainly because it is based on judgments by Western scholars who, despite their rigorous methodology, are not deeply immersed in the traditions that they study, and fail to grasp the historical context. For instance, locating the canonisation of the classical Persian radif (as well as of the 12 muqams) in the early twentieth century ― assumingly under Western influence ― speaks of the tendency of cutting off a thin slice of history from its past and future. The Persian radif existed as far back as 1800 and today we can distinguish between five different versions (some with much divergence) of which only one or two have been “canonised”. In the case of the Uighurs, other questions arise: How did one end up with a single official version, so predictable that by listening to a Täzi or Marghul, a connoisseur can infallibly predict that the following sentence will be played by the chang, or the nay, before being taken over by a tutti? Over a period of more than forty years the “orchestration” has not changed, which is a unique case in Asia. According to some sources, this orchestration goes back to the Uighur diaspora of the early 1950s in Kazakhstan, as well as the fixation of some parts of the twelve muqams. Following this logic, is the Uighur classical muqam going to crystallise in a way similar to Wagner’s Ring?
Musical analysis is also found in chapter six with illustrations of the impact of canonisation. Yet the example of Uzbek Shashmaqam (which Uzbeks sometimes acknowledge as having been inspired by the Onikki muqam, although the Uighur suites are much better organised), shows that the inertia in innovation was a short lived moment of history, and that musical evolution could neither be standardised nor controlled. The author seems aware that the process of fixation of a repertoire is neither easy to describe nor to adequately trace back, in spite of her attempt to sketch the recent history of classical Uighur music and the role of the diaspora in the latter’s revival, but she takes the canonisation as granted fact (by the way, is there a vernacular concept for this word?) and proposes a useful lively panorama of the contemporary urban musical life, limited to that found in Urumchi.
The first chapter introduces the genres and instruments. The second and fourth chapters deal with the so-called canonisation issue under different angles. The sixth chapter offers a comparative clue between different maqam traditions of Central Asia. Like the third one, it is a revised version of previous published articles. It shows some significant differences between the Kashghar-Urumchi school and the Turfan one, but could have underlined the contrast between the Dolan and Qumul styles, and the 12 muqam schools. In this chapter the Ili classical school is almost left aside although it shares very few elements with the Kashghar, Yarkand and Turfan muqam school. The third chapter paints the portrait of a musician to whose music the entire CD is devoted. It is of course interesting to hear how an independent musician who has adopted the nickname “The Fool” (mäjnun) freely adapts classical pieces. His virtuosity, skill and fantasy may be an antidote to standard performances, but his style leaves much to be desired, and the way he introduces himself does not seem to reflect traditional ethics (akhlaq). It would have been preferable to focus the chapter on the portrait of a great master revered by connoisseurs, such as the late Muhämmät Tursun who was banished in 2002, for alleged “political” reason, with his sister Sanawar, also a great artist.
The fourth chapter returns to the examination of music itself with comparative examples of muqam performances or transcriptions, and sometimes religious songs (hikmät). The author touches on the question of modality, in the Middle-Eastern sense of maqam, or modal scale. Yet as expected, despite careful comparative analysis the concept of “mode” (maqam) remains unclear among Uighurs, a situation that we also find in Bukhara and Khwarezm maqam. Uighur scholars (102) think that the Persian and Arabic classical names of maqam (Segah, Chahargah, Bayat, Rak . . .) are borrowings applied to previously existing compositions deprived of modal taxonomy. (The author qualifies this process as maqamisation.) This is why comparing Arabic and Uighur or Tajik Segah does not reveal much similitude. Rather, the second section of the Segah muqam sounds very close to Persian-Azerbaijani Nava. Only the Charigah resembles Persian and Azerbaijani Chahargah.
In all, twenty years after the first general or specific publications on Uighur music, this book is an essential contribution and a source of documentation, reflexion and discussion on the phenomenon of heritage (preferable to the term canonisation) and on the workings of creativity. It represents an important entry point into the impressive vitality of music and dance of the Uighurs, their complexity, richness and diversity. Finally, one should note some details that could be taken in account in a further edition: The accompanying CD labelled Mäjnun, Classical Traditions of the Uyghurs is in fact devoted to a single musician who is better in lute playing than in singing, and whose style does not reflect the main classical trend. In addition to the author’s comments about the pieces, the CD data automatically downloaded through the internet requires some corrections. 1) Raq (sic, for Rak) muqam: Muqäddimä [a vocal piece performed here instrumentally); 2) Raq: second dastan märghul [in a very personal rendition]; 3) Oshhaq: Muqäddimä + Ghulja traditional song [vocal pieces performed on tanbur] 4) Mushawräk: Muqäddimä [vocal pieces performed on satar] + Täz (sic, for Täzi) Märghul; 5) Raq muqam: Mäshräp [vocal + dotar]; 6) Nawa: muqäddimä [vocal piece performed on satar]; 7) Charigah muqam: Mäshräp [vocal + tanbur]; 8) Shadiyana [dotar]. As usually in scholarly publications by English speakers, the bibliography includes a majority of works in English and only a few ones in Uighur or Chinese, although there are significant resources that could be useful for further research, like: Nur Muhämmät Sayit, Uyghur onikki muqamning melodiya alahidiliki, Urumchi: Sinjang khalik näshriyäti, 1995; Abdulaziz Hashimov, Abdulaziz Hoshimov, Uyghur kasbii musiqa an’analari, Tashkent: Shveitsariia Hamkorlik va Rivojlanish Biurosi, 2003 (164 p. of text and transcriptions, with a CD recorded by J. During); A. Hashimov, “La structure du muqam ouïgour et les conditions de sa préservation,” in Maqâms, mugams et composition contemporaine, Tashkent, 1978: 130-8; ibid., “Uigurskii sanam,” in Traditsii muzykal’nykh kultur, Moscow, 1987: 196-99; see also Jean During’s encyclopaedia article “Uyghur,” in Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Kassel: Sachteil 9, 1998. Furthermore, for a pioneering monograph on a great tradition still unknown to the West, a more extensive and descriptive discography would have been appreciated. Besides, in the recordings devoted to Uighur music, the author omits to mention the collectors and authors of the CDs’ booklets, such as S. Trebinjac, J. During, and M. Mijit. Several titles available are missing (such as our Muqam Rak (Tradition of Uighur Twelve Muqams), Tehran: Mahoor, 2007, or A. Bakewell, La Route de Soie: Chine, Xinjiang, Paris: Sunset, 1992.