Friday, 1 March 2019

Arrested, Disappeared, Murdered? The Plight of Uyghur Musicians

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 146, April 2019.



There is a crisis in East Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang, an autonomous region of northwest China. For many years, Uyghur people of the region have spoken of the persecution taking place at the hands of the Chinese government; it is a persecution that has increased dramatically in the last 18 months. Culturally and ethnically Turkic, majority Muslim and with their own language (using the Arabic script), Uyghur life is culturally aligned with Central Asia and markedly different to the Chinese mainstream.

Under the guise of combatting Islamic extremism, the Uyghur way of life has come under systemic oppression and repression enforced by heavy surveillance and restrictions on movement, expression and association. Over one million people – mostly Uyghurs, but also Kazakhs, Mongols and other minority ethnic groups – are thought to have been imprisoned in euphemistically-named ‘re-education camps.’ These moves have been seen by the international community as a stepping-up of the long-brewing cultural purge of the Uyghur from the Han-majority Chinese government.

As is often the case in these sorts of situations, it is culture bearers that have incurred a particular wrath, with many prominent writers, academics, musicians, comedians, actors, poets and sportspeople confirmed as detained; some simply disappeared. Popular figures in Uyghur music such as pop stars Ablajan Awut Ayup and Zahirshah Ablimit and the folk and classical dutar (long-necked lute) player Abdurehim Heyit have all been detained within the past 18 months. As of writing, reports are just coming out that Heyit has been beaten to death in custody, although this is refuted by the Chinese government.

One of the most prominent arrests has been that of Sanubar Tursun. The classical singer is well-known for her contributions to the Aga Khan Music Initiative and her collaborations with Chinese musician Wu Man as part of the Master Musicians from the Silk Road ensemble. She has performed concerts around the world and was scheduled to complete a tour of France in February this year. She has not been heard from since November. Sources close to Tursun have stated that she was arrested and imprisoned for five years, but Chinese officials have refused to confirm the singer’s charge or even her whereabouts. An open letter, with over 120 signatories, reads ‘The case of Sanubar Tursun reminds us how powerful, but also exposed, fragile and vulnerable the voice of an artist is. This is unfortunately one example amongst many in the tragedy that is unfolding in the Uyghur region, and that now disrupts the French and international art scene, as well as the life of its audience who were looking forward to meet Sanubar Tursun in February.

The plight of the Uyghur people and the attempted eradication of their culture by the Chinese authorities is cause for international concern; the stories of internationally-recognised figures such as Tursun help to spread the word far and wide. The world music community surely has their role to play.


Photo: Sanubar Tursun and ensemble

Ayub Ogada (1956-2019): Luo roots musician who brought the nyatiti to the world

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 146, April 2019.



A giant of Kenyan music has passed away. Ayub Ogada died on February 1 at his home in Kisumu, after an illness. He was a master of the nyatiti, an eight-stringed lyre of the Luo people, on which he accompanied his beautiful voice. Ogada, under his birth name Job Seda, had a massive impact on the Kenyan music scene through the bands he founded, Black Savage and the African Heritage Band, whose influences are still felt in the country today. International audiences will probably be most familiar with his 1993 album En Mana Kuoyo, released on Real World Records, containing a quiet, intimate version of his most well-known song, the haunting lullaby ‘Kothbiro’. He was first noticed by Real World busking on the London Underground, but went on to perform around the world and collaborate with artists such as Peter Gabriel, Geoffrey Oryema, Afro Celt Sound System, Susheela Raman and even Gary Barlow; most recently, his work was sampled by Kanye West. In his tribute to Ogada, Gabriel said: “In the early days of WOMAD and Real World Records, many people weren’t interested to listen to music from other cultures and whenever I was trying to convince them, I would play Ayub singing ‘Kothbiro’ and invariably win them round.


Photo: Ayub Ogada, by Andrew Catlin.

Chris Prosser - Mistune: Violin and Tanpura

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 146, April 2019.

Chris Prosser
Mistune: Violin and Tanpura
Rongotai Records (73 mins)

In Mistune, Chris Prosser continues to explore his fascination with alternate tunings on the violin, this time paired with a five-string Indian tambura drone, played by Susan Thomson. The 15 semi-improvised pieces featured on the album all utilise a different tuning, which allows Prosser to ruminate on the sonorities and dissonances offered by each.

With the focus on sound and atmosphere, it is hard to describe a style that the music inhabits. Some of the ornaments and embellishments are similar to those in Karnatic music, and Prosser’s playing technique is obviously heavily informed by Western classical, but, unlikely as it sounds, it most often put me in mind of Scandinavian fiddle playing. There is a spacious, contemplative and sometimes sad ambience here that often permeates the Nordic styles. In fact, the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, with its many sympathetic strings, would have suited this project perfectly.

It’s an interesting album to listen to. It can take a bit of time to acclimatise to the artist’s vision, but it is compelling, even if the experiments don’t perfectly resound. Mistune feels like a real labour of love, intended primarily for Prosser's own ears. But maybe they can tingle yours too.