Ar­ti­sans make in­stru­ments for tra­di­tion’s sake

Crafts­men in vil­lages across West China are ea­ger to main­tain age-old skills and keep their cul­ture alive, as Cui Jia and Mao Weihua re­port from Shufu county, Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

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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 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, 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 visit to see if he was happy with the half-fin­ished sa­tar be­fore he started to paint and dec­o­rate the in­stru­ment. It usu­ally takes about a month to make a sa­tar from start to fin­ish.

‘Best of the best’

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

Like the 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 i n Tuowankewukusake are renowned across Xin­jiang for t heir skill at mak­ing tra­di­tional Uygur mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, an art t hey 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 float­ing from be­hind the doors of 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 in Tuowankewukusake, Rehman is hailed as the best be­cause the in­stru­ments he makes al­ways 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, twostringed 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 age 7 when he started fol­low­ing his grand­fa­ther around 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 added.

“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 long­necked tra­di­tional in­stru­ment for 250 yuan.

Last year, he made what he be­lieves to be one of 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 couldn’t play it. Rehman re­fused to sell.

True power

“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 the spe­cial per­son, some­one 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 three other sons are in­stru­ment mak­ers in Tuowankewukusake.

Rehman has high hopes for his youngest son Ma­mutjon, 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 on his own when he was just 22. He uses so­cial me­dia to ad­ver­tise his work, and now earns about 10,000 yuan a month from his labors.

“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 f ur­ther i mprove t he 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 i n 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 li mited, even within Uygur mu­si­cal set­tings.

In re­sponse, the then-19 year old and his part­ner up­graded t he i nstru­ment us­ing a num­ber of fea­tures of the vi­olin as their model, and i ntro­duced the new ver­sion to Xin­jiang.

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

Last year, Duan i nvited four in­stru­ment mak­ers from Ji­ayi vil­lage in south­ern Xin­jiang’s Aksu pre­fec­ture to his work­shop i n Urumqi. He taught t hem 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 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 of work­ing. His eyes, hands and heart are all he needs to make the per­fect in­stru­ment.


Rehman Ab­dula carves a du­tarin Tuowankewukusake vil­lage, Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, as his son Ma­mutjon car­ries a fin­ished in­stru­ment.


As­man Abula, Rehman’s grand­daugh­ter, holds a model du­tar.

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