Ashiq: the last troubadour

Liu Xiangchen 刘湘晨 is an outstanding film-maker based in Urumqi in Xinjiang. On Monday at SOAS, as part of a conference on Islamic soundscapes in China (itself part of an excellent project[1] he attended a screening of his Ashiq: the last troubadour (122 mins), one of several films by him on various ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Filmed mainly between 2003 and 2007, the four-hour version of Ashiq was shown last year at the splendid Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music, with a detailed discussion.

Here’s an 8-minute trailer:

and an introduction.

The “exotic” ethnic minorities are always a more popular research topic than the somewhat mundane Han Chinese; I would say, only I’d sound like the UKIPs, that the Han Chinese have become a minority in their own country—which would be just as absurd, given that, in the face of vast Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang, it is precisely the Uyghurs who feel threatened. But I envy scholars of the minorities the stunning scenery, and the costumes—and if they no longer wear them, they’re used to being asked to put them on for the cameras…

I’m now a little confused about what ashiq actually means among the Uyghurs. Simply stated, they are Sufi mendicants who congregate at the shrines of Islamic saints. From the youtube blurb:

Some ashiq are ironworkers, others are beggars, merchants, grave diggers, barbers, woman ashiq, Sheikh (the Islamic clergy) and so on.

As Rachel Harris notes, [2] the term may be a rather modern usage for people once more commonly known as dervishes or qalandar. It’s taxonomy again.

Liu described them as marginalized, a minority themselves, but it looks like a substantial phenomenon. And marginalization is their very raison d’être: they thrive on flouting social norms. The subtitle “the last troubadour” seems unsuitable, not only since the use of a (largely secular) term like troubadour is hardly useful, but because the film doesn’t seem to show that they are dying out. Maybe they are, but it repeats a mantra chanted by anthropologists since early times, claiming to have discovered a pristine tradition that is endangered, rather than noting constant change.

For an outsider, the film, like that of De Martino in south Italy, may also shock. For the total novice, it will just amaze: didn’t the CCP destroy religion over sixty years ago—all the more in Xinjiang or Tibet? At least it shows what a huge task the CCP faces. Are we to celebrate the slow spread of state education and modernization?

The nomination of the ashiq for Intangible Cultural Heritage status is captioned early in the film without comment, though (like that of the Uyghur meshrep) [3] it will seem so very incongruous; perhaps it serves as a kind of amulet to protect the film from official criticism. As with the Han Chinese, a majority of genres selected for the ICH are grounded in ritual, impossible to reconcile with the state’s goals without destroying them—which may indeed be the idea. It is the duty of the ethnographer to reflect such micro-societies faithfully, like any other. It goes without saying that it is no use to regard them purely as “musical cultures” detached from their social roots.

The conceit of academic objectivity may make ethnographers seem to refrain from either celebration or criticism, yet at the same time (to return to De Martino), some may be shocked, pondering the link between religion and poverty—an obstacle to those social changes that can genuinely improve people’s lives, health, life-expectancy, and so on?

I gave an instance for the Han Chinese in my Shaanbei book (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and one main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

One doesn’t have to be a Maoist apparatchik to worry about this. Observers will draw their own conclusions.

Returning to the Uyghurs, the gender issue is sobering too. There’s one fine scene of a group of female ashiq, but as Rachel Harris (whose next book, including a study of female religious groups, I await eagerly) pointed out at the screening, only a female film-maker could get proper access to such groups—like Rahilä Dawut.

The film suggests so many complex issues. It gives full coverage to songs, and texts, not just sonic icing on the cake. The ashiq aren’t big on cake, but some weed helps them commune.

Their basic accompaniment is the sapaye, paired sticks pierced with metal rings, played in a kind of stylized self-flagellation, notable in various degrees in both Islamic and Han Chinese ritual cultures (for one gory instance from Fujian, see Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven).

The tear-stained faces of the ashiq as they sing may remind us that the expression of suffering is a quasi-universal feature of music-making. But it’s always culturally mediated, with differing implications; Rachel Harris again explores the significance of “performative tears” both for Uyghur and other cultures.

The sudden, startling, introduction of scenes from the bustling modern capital of Urumqi is effective. I didn’t pick up hints to change in the rural scene, which must be constantly occurring too, so the film may seem merely to suggest a contrast between (“backward”?) rural traditions and harsh urban commodification. But the structure works well, right down to the final scenes with a birth and a death, the latter in an extraordinary landscape.

I pen these thoughts as a mere outsider. Talking of which, one also wonders how all this relates to the old rejection of ethnographic outsiders, summarized by Nettl as “You will never understand our music”. But here, as with the late great Zhou Ji 周吉 (1943–2008), one of the consultants on the film, Uyghurs seem to have few reservations about certain Han Chinese (or Westerners, indeed) documenting their lives—as long as they are clearly in sympathy and willing to engage fully. Liu Xiangchen, though not himself Uyghur, was also advised by Dilmurat Omar of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology at Xinjiang Normal University.

[1] I am grateful to Rachel Harris, estimable authority on Uyghur culture and music, for pointing me towards several sources. As usual, it goes without saying that I am entirely responsible for my interpretations here.
[2] “Theory and practice in contemporary Central Asian Maqām traditions” (forthcoming).
[3] Rachel Harris, “ ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang” (forthcoming).

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