- Intimate Heritage: Creating Uyghur Muqam Song in Xinjiang
Nathan Light's Intimate Heritage: Creating Uyghur Muqam Song in Xinjiang is a dense and learned book that draws on the author's fieldwork in Xinjiang in the early 1990s, as well as on a broad knowledge of source materials and scholarly literature in a host of languages. The title of the book notwithstanding, Light's focus is not song per se, but the poetic texts of the Uyghur muqam songs. Light examines in detail the crucial role of song lyrics in the canonization of Uyghur muqam that has been ongoing in Chinese Xinjiang since the 1950s. As such, Light's study complements the excellent, recently published work of Rachel Harris, whose book, The Making of a Musical Canon in Chinese Central Asia: The Uyghur Twelve Muqam, focuses on the musical forms themselves (2008).
After a schematic overview of the Uyghur muqam's historical roots and present-day performance tradition, Light proceeds to his analysis of the texts, beginning with a fine historical account of what he calls "the poetics and politics of literary Sufism." Light's point here is that the poets who forged the Central Asian Islamic tradition a half millennium ago and contributed to it in the ensuing centuries reveal a great deal about the cultural politics of their own time through their choice of style and syntax, language and lexicon, rhythm and meter, imagery and script. This discussion prepares the ground for Light's central conceit: that the present-day project of textual modification and canonization in the Uyghur muqam is at root a response to an epic mismatch between the literary cosmopolitanism cum spirituality of the Central Asian poetic tradition's progenitors and the cultural requisites of Uyghur nationhood and secular ethnicity in contemporary Xinjiang. Intimate Heritage: Creating Uyghur Muqam Song in Xinjiang takes readers inside the process through which Uyghur scholars, musicians, and politicians adapted the sprawling muqam tradition, with its diverse regional variants, Sufi-inspired texts, and intimate, improvisatory performance style to serve as an enduring public symbol of Uyghur identity. Light reports on the social and political context in which the new muqam canon has emerged and, through an in-depth portrait of one musician caught in the middle of the transformation of the muqam—an astute and articulate tradition-bearer named Ömär Akhun—brings an abstract social process into sharp focus at the level of individual practice.
Custom remodeling of the past aimed at legitimating or aggrandizing present-day national, regional, or ethnic identities is of course not restricted to the [End Page 204] Uyghurs. Across the Chinese border, in the post-Soviet Central Asian "stans," cultural strategists and scholars in the employ of national ministries of culture and state research institutes burnish monuments of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage to serve as appropriate symbols of nationhood. In doing so, they face essentially the same challenge as their Uyghur counterparts: filtering and recasting the complex genealogies and cosmopolitanism of their ancestors to fit the Procrustean bed of present-day mono-ethnic national cultures.
It's easy enough to dismiss the canonizing process Light describes as a benighted consequence of politically motivated censorship and unsavory nationalism. But if you've ever studied the lyrics to classical Central Asian art songs, you understand the problem of trying to render them comprehensible to contemporary listeners who can't understand macaronic couplets filled with Arabic and Persian words that are often implicated in sophisticated puns and tropes. Even singers, when pressed, turn out not always to understand the meaning of the lyrics they're singing or, for that matter, the titles of the songs. Whatever bowdlerizing of erotic imagery and sanitizing of spiritual content may have occurred as a result of the editorial process, one could argue that it made the Uyghur literary legacy more accessible to...