The changing musical life of north India: social structure, and the sarangi

Neuman cover

The photo shows a gathering of music masters in Nepal, c1900.

While immersing ourselves in the melodic and rhythmic riches of Indian raga [1] we may forget that, like any other musical culture (including WAM), it is an evolving product of a social system, and that “music isn’t a thing, but an activity“. Bruno Nettl’s imaginative citing of the north Indian gharana system in his book on the schools of WAM reminded me to re-read the important early study

  • Daniel M. Neuman, The life of music in north India: the organization of an artistic tradition (1980, with updated preface, 1990).

Nettl ranks Neuman’s work alongside other ethnographic studies of a similar vintage, such as Steven Feld’s work on the Kaluli, Paul Berliner on the mbira, and Lorraine Sakata on Afghan musicians. It also makes a good instance of Nettl’s own taxonomy of responses to change in musical traditions around the world.

Bearing particularly on traditions of “art music”, Neuman’s points may vary significantly for regional folk genres, for India (see under Indian tag, e.g. Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia) and elsewhere around the world (such as flamenco, the festivities of Morocco, or—you guessed it—Chinese shawm bands), where intensity and communication are just as relevant but depend more on constant exposure than on rigorous formal training.

From afar I was absorbed in raga long before I began visiting China. It was a pioneer on the scene later dubbed “world music”, invigorated by the hippy vibe of the 1960s. Raga (at that stage mainly considered as a solo instrumental genre) seemed a pure, spiritual art—and that is indeed part of the story. Like WAM (see links under Society and soundscape) and Chinese music (e.g. Debunking “living fossils”), it may seem timeless, autonomous; and most early studies focused on disembodied musical analysis, notably on the art of improvisation. But change, both social and musical, is a constant theme—a process going on since at least the mid-19th century and still proceeding apace. Neuman’s analysis makes an important corrective to those who still prefer to leave their orientalist fantasies of the Mystic East untrammelled.

In a preface for the 1990 paperback edition, Neuman observes change even over the years since he carried out his original fieldwork, such as the boom in institutions, festivals, and research (both in India and abroad), further technological revolutions, a broadening in class, the increasing importance of pop music—and the scene has continued to transform since. While the general sound of the tradition has proved quite resilient,

as constant as the sound itself is the persistent concern and dismay about the present state of classical music, an ever-present dismay that must be as old as the tradition.

In his Introduction, Neuman asks

how such a characteristic, yet elusive and ephemeral, cultural phenomenon continues to maintain its integrity and autonomy in a world so vastly changed from that which gave it birth.

He reminds us of the 19th-century background of elite private patronage, with musical events taking place in the noble courts and homes of the wealthy, rulers going to great lengths—as in baroque Europe—to sustain a top-ranking musical establishment. And from the 1920s, the scene was partially redefined by the tastes and economic power of the rising middle class and the search for a national identity, with musicking becoming one of the social graces of the bourgeoisie, not least among women—as in 19th-century Europe. From the 1930s new radio stations, and the film industry, played an increasing role in patronage; the culture of art music was becoming urbanized and diversified.

I like Fox Strangways’s comment (1914!):

India has had time to forget more melody than Europe has had time to learn.

Take that, Berlioz!

In Chapter 2, “Becoming a musician”, Neuman focuses on riaz “practice” and the guru–shishya relationship between master and disciple that defines the gharana stylistic “school”. Riaz is a source for many stories of extreme, ascetic devotion to practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”), many of which have taken on a mythic air. Such tales of the moral virtues of perseverance put my tribulations with Ševčík violin studies in the shade.

Neuman gives a nice instance of participant observation:

Often when I met musicians, the very first thing they asked me was whether I had been practicing hard; and while saying this, one would take my left hand and look at my nails and cuticles for the “hard” evidence. If the cuticles were built up into a horny ridge, and if my nails had grooves at the point where the nail meets the cuticle, then the evidence was there.

He discusses the transition from the dedicated discipline of the disciple to maintenance in later years, as “the leisure of the idealized village of the past or the princely patronage system is replaced by the scramble to earn a living”. As Ram Narayan observed, an important stage is learning how to practice correctly. Again, parallels here with WAM.

Exploring the relationship between disciple and master, Neuman cites a venerable ustad on the possible demise of the surbahar bass sitar, with a simile that precisely recalls the Chinese proverb “playing the qin for an ox” 对牛弹琴:

You think that the ustads want to keep the surbahar to themselves. It is wrong to think that way. We want to teach, but who is going to learn? It is such a big science, and if anybody asks for it and we give it then it would be like playing the vīṇā [the bīn] in front of a water-buffalo, so we can only play for those who understand.

Some “secret” ragas, too, are conveyed only to exceptional disciples.

In Chapter 3, “Being a musician”, Neuman discusses music as divine expression. But

although music and God are closely related, music and religion are not.

By “music”, he’s referring to the raga tradition—the soundscape of Indian ritual practice is another subject. He mentions rag Malkauns, considered especially attractive to jinn spirits. But the move to the concert stage has attenuated such knowledge:

Musicians are, in a sense, twice removed from the sacred and magical. They believe in the power of music, but rarely seem to experience it. Like riaz as a sacred duty and the guru-shishya system as a hallowed relationship, musicians as magical performers are becoming a thing of the past. “It is the common man,” as some musicians are fond of putting it, “who calls the tune”. The piper’s patron which has emerged is a very complex mixture of people, and musicians are now listening carefully so that they know which tune to play.

This leads Neuman to a discussion of the listening public. As audiences have become more diverse, musicians adjust their repertoire. Sometimes they perform in special mehfil gatherings for connoisseurs, including other musicians—the most intimate and satisfying context (I think of the flamenco juerga, or the qin gathering in China).

But usually in recent decades they have to perform on the concert platform for a large, unfamiliar audience, or even (as often in the case of radio) with no listeners present as they play. Neuman gives instances of audiences around India considered more and less discriminating, and discusses amplification. He mentions the verbal reactions of audiences—at prescribed junctures—such as kyā bāt! (“what a thing!”) or javāb nahī (“no answer”), yet again reminding one of the jaleo calls of flamenco (olé, agua, and so on).

The move to the concert stage has made performers tailor their repertoire, calibrating the sequence and length of more highbrow alap and vilambit, and the more virtuosic sections of the raga, including crowd-pleasing sawāl-jawāb question-and-answer exchanges.

The book wisely refrains from discussing the substantial variations in length of the preludial alap in the various vocal and instrumental genres. [2] Rather than a simple modern abbreviation of a once-grandiose form, in some cases it may be the opposite. The advent of recording, with its limited capacity, may have influenced performance practice to some extent, but doesn’t seem to correlate closely with the varying duration of alap in live performance. A major factor may be the performer’s assessment of the changing audience’s discernment.

Neuman discusses musicians’ own evaluations under the headings of competence, appropriateness, and affect. His account doesn’t quite resemble the contrast between an abstract study period and having to make a living in the real world (cf. Training Daoists in Shanghai).

In Chapter 4, “The social organization of specialist knowledge”, Neuman attempts an etic taxonomy, observing hierarchies. As in many cultures, there is no common term for “musician” (and even our term is extremely vague). Neuman unpacks the term “professional musician”—an occupational category that subsumes a variety of performing specialists from various social groups. He discusses performers by ethnic origins (based in Delhi, he found that most musicians came from hereditary Muslim families), community, caste; by gender, residence, and age; by the extent of their musical knowledge; and by the type of music that they performed.

Musicians acknowledge the distinction between soloists and accompanists: a singer with an accompanying instrument (harmonium increasingly replacing sarangi), or a melodic instrumentalist with tabla. Vocal genres (dhrupad, khyal, thumri, ghazal)—ranked on a scale of seriousness—are a constant theme.

Neuman notes that the sarangi player Ram Narayan was rare in making the transition from accompanist to soloist; and he discusses the female vocalists, formerly associated with the courtesan tradition. While most soloists still perform on sitar and sarod, performers of other instruments such as shahnai oboe, bānsrī (bansuri) flute, and violin have occasionally come to achieve celebrity (see also Indian and world fiddles).

He goes on to consider the sarangi and tabla accompanists, mostly belonging to specific occupational groups and “associated by outsiders with dancing girls, tawaifs, and brothels”. The sarangi players are mainly associated with khayal, but never accompany dhrupad. Their knowledge is different from that of soloists (“artists”): while less creativity is expected of them, they are skilled, expert craftsmen (“artisans”). The role of the tabla, previously subsidiary, has grown. Neuman unpacks their basis in the caste system, with historical leads involving rural and urban origins.

In Chapter 5, “Gharanas: the politics of pedigree”, he notes conflicting views about the value of the gharana, yet another fluid system formed with “the introduction of the railway and telegraph system in the 1850s, the great uprising of 1857 with its concomitant social dislocations, and a slow but steady increase in urbanization”.

Chapter 6 concerns adaptive strategies. He returns to the theme of changing patronage; for the former musical parties of the nobility he reminds us of Sayajit Ray’s 1958 film The music room. A fine section follows on the important role of All India Radio, which became a major employer of vocalists and instrumentalists. Neuman discusses the accompanying role of the harmonium, now standard: commonly used in India since the 19th century, it became popular with vocalists themselves. As it came to threaten the livelihood of sarangi players, its use was controversial; All India Radio banned it in the 1950s, but had to recant by the 1970s.

An image of Gauhar Jan led me to this 1902 recording—with harmonium:

For another early instance to illustrate that the use of harmonium is not just a modern abomination, listen to Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1909 here.

Neuman then discusses public performances, fixing fees, “foreign returned” artists, contacts, and changing modes of tuition, including educational institutions. Against the broad and superficial teaching of such schools,

professional musicians are often heard to say that it is far better to concentrate on one or a very few rags, exploring each in depth to enable the disciple to extend his understanding of many other rags quickly. “If you practice rag Yaman intensely, and come to really know it, then the knowledge of other rags will come of itself”

Again, this reminds me of the Chinese qin zither: Wu Jinglue, one of many senior masters recruited to the conservatoire yet never wholly absorbed into its ethos, gave me just the same advice. More broadly reminiscent of Chinese music are the decline of elite patronage, and social change since the traumas surrounding independence—though the historical trajectories of China and India are utterly different.

In Chapter 7, “The ecology of Hindustani music culture”, Neuman ponders the perceived constancy amidst social change and a radically altered cultural terrain (again recalling Nettl’s parameters). On producers of music, he further ponders themes such as the increasing diversity of the scene, hereditary and non-hereditary musicians, and the growing participation of women.

Such changes are reflected in repertoires. Returning to rag Malkauns, he comments:

When rag Malkauns ceases to be the rag of jinns and becomes a pentatonic scale, the music becomes something different because it means something different.

Here are two versions by Nikhil Banerjee and Vilayat Khan, both with magical long alaps: [3]

As to consumers, Neuman includes advertising and sponsorship in his discussion, as well as the role of the state and audiences for live and recorded music. For modern stage performances, he distinguishes “courtly” and “devotional” models, noting stage presentation and costume. He discusses technologies of production and reproduction and their influence on performance practices—again a popular theme in studies of WAM. He suggests a decrease in the diversity of performance styles along with an increase in the variety of experiments and forms.

Chapter 8, “The cultural structure and social organization of a music tradition”, further unpacks the relationship of musicians and audiences to the imagined past. While there is not always a harmonious equilibrium between social and cultural changes, Neuman suggests that the structure

can adapt to changing social conditions because it is constructed from elements which allow both contradictory intepretations and a continuing potential for revision.

* * *

Among the accompanying instruments, the sarangi has long been prominent, though (as we saw) threatened by the harmonium. The remarkable website of Nicolas Magriel contains a wealth of information on individual players, along with a treasury of precious audio and video field recordings—made just at a time when the system was going into decline. As he comments in this interview,

“One thing that’s really unique is the amount of footage inside very traditional musicians’ homes. No one else has done this with anything in Indian music. I happen to be crazy enough to make 450 hours of video of sarangi players—I met most of them in the 1990s, in 18 cities across India. This is the real life of the musician—people practising and teaching at home, while the women are cooking vegetables, people are wheeling motorbikes in and out of the room, and the kids are going crazy. Even in India the concert-going public has no idea what this traditional life of musicians is; they know music as a packaged item that they see on the stage.” […]
“The sarangi is the black sheep of Indian music. It’s the most difficult instrument and the lowest status. It was a rural folk instrument, and in the 18th century it came into the classical world because courtesans needed it to accompany singing and dance. It was by far the most popular and widespread instrument in 19th-century India, because every brothel had sarangi players. But in the 20th century sarangi players were more and more marginalised; they were excluded from the mainstream of classical music, so they maintained their premodern way of life.”

Magriel’s Sangi Rangi website has both male and female stars—the men are sarangi players and teachers, while the women are courtesans: skilled dancers and singers who employ sarangi players as accompanists and sometimes their agents. “In the words of my dear Ustad Abdul Latif Khan,” he says, “these women kept this music alive for the last 400 years.” The site has films of them at work, and pays tribute to their role, which Magriel feels has been written out of Indian musical history. “That was the core of classical music, and it’s something that’s been whitewashed, both in the West but specially in India. Everyone wants to think of it as a kind of spiritual music that was played in the temples. There was court music, but in many cases the male musicians who were idolised, actually they existed in order to teach the women how to sing. When India moved towards independence there was a feeling that there should be a classical music tradition, and so you needed first to connect it with ancient texts. Secondly they tried to create a pure Hindu art, whereas music had been the domain of muslims in India for 400 years. Ordinances were passed which in effect gradually repressed the courtesan tradition. Muslims were discriminated against, and sarangi players were discriminated against by association.”

Still, while Magriel finds a growing shallowness in the music, along with Indian art music in general, he doesn’t entirely subscribe to the notion that the sarangi is endangered.

sarangi pics

Among the numerous masters covered in depth on Magriel’s site are Sabri Khan and Bundu Khan, who feature in Neuman’s study. The site includes much material on female musicians (such as here), as well as his films for the Growing into Music project.

One of the first sarangi players to attract attention abroad was Ram Narayan, who was largely responsible for elevating the sarangi as a solo instrument on the international concert stage, and who collaborated with Neil Sorrell in Indian music in performance: a practical introduction (1980), just as Neuman was writing. Joep Bor (compiler of the indispensable annotated CD set The raga guide) also paid great attention to sarangi players.

Having featured rag Marwa in a previous post on Heart of glass (yeah, I know), here’s a version by Ram Narayan:

What I find so attractive about this raga is the challenge of having to struggle to keep track of the scale and its relationship with the tonic. This is always true, actually—just that in this case one is forced to engage with the pitch hierarchies.

While our interests in the diverse ways of musicking around India, and elsewhere, have broadened substantially, the northern raga tradition remains a major topic, for which Neuman’s work was an important early ethnography.


[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, to the Grove and Garland encyclopedias, The Rough Guide to world music, and so on), useful references include Jairazbhoy’s chapters in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993) and Richard Widdess’s lucid introduction in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

[2] For dhrupad, note Richard Widdess, Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004), chapters 5 and 6.

[3] NB for those who are no more expert than me in the subtleties of sargam solfeggio: taking C as the notional tonic, you may at first here the basic scale as
however, the drone strings are not the common C and G, but C and F—so it’s actually
F–A♭–B♭–C–E♭–F—or rather, rearranged with the tonic as C:
in sargam (lower-case denoting the lower degrees of pitches):
with the 5th (Pa) and 2nd (Re) degrees absent. As always, it’s a lot more complicated, and enthralling—but that’s a start…



Reviving culture: the Yazidis

Lalesh April 2019

Lalish, April 2019.

Among all those who suffered under ISIS, the Yazidi people, and particularly its women, endured most appalling traumas. [1]

Yazidi 1920s

Sinjar, 1920s.

With most Yazidi populations living in north Iraq, they are ethnically Kurdish, speaking Kurmanji dialect; major locations include the pilgrimage site of Lalish and Mount Sinjar to the west.


While the fate of the Yazidis under ISIS is shocking, they have long been persecuted, with massacres during the Ottoman empire and tribulations under Saddam. For social and religious change over recent decades, suggesting the region’s troubled history and complex economic and political context, do watch this documentary by Eszter Spät, filmed on the eve of the genocide, about the ritual tour of the sacred peacock standard—with the hymns of the qewwal ritual specialists accompanied by frame-drums and flutes:

For the oral tradition, see e.g. here, and for a detailed textual study,

  • Khanna Omarkhali, The Yezidi religious textual tradition: from oral to written (with CD-ROM, 2017).

Under the ISIS regime the Yazidis were executed, abducted, enslaved, raped. With many survivors now in displacement camps, refugee communities are also quite widespread, such as in Germany and Nebraska.

In extremis, culture may lie dormant (cf. Blind minstrels of Ukraine, and the ongoing onslaught on the Uyghurs), or adopt exceptional forms (cf. the Cultural Revolution in Tibet). Now a project from the AMAR Foundation is working with Yazidis to support and document their musical culture, and earlier this month they brought a group of male qewwals and female singers to England to perform for select audiences in Oxford and London (see e.g. here and here).

While media coverage tends towards clickbait headings like “rescuing ancient music”, suggesting an unspoilt, pristine culture destroyed by a single apocalypse (cf. China), the Yazidis’ fate under ISIS is but the latest and most extreme instance of their persecution.

And music is not a thing, it’s what people do. So as AMAR recognizes, the whole maintenance of Yazidi culture is part of a complex long-term endeavour, depending on the rebuilding of communities with a modicum of stability that require ceremonial and entertainment activities and have scope to practise them. Cultural foundations may play a certain role, but most of what such societies need is beyond their powers. The task is not to become the latest flavour-of-the-month on the world music bandwagon; foreign tours can help promote their international profile, but the regeneration of Yazidi culture depends on their’ own efforts in their homeland, and in the camps where they have been relocated. This was filmed in July 2019 at Khanke displacement camp, Duhok:

As Bruce Jackson observes about “salvage” fieldwork, it’s always too late. The fate of the Yazidis may be an extreme case, but much of this applies to the cultures of the diverse ethnic groups and communities throughout the war zone. For instance, what will become of the rich musical and ritual culture of Aleppo, whose fall is so movingly documented in For Sama? And alongside traditional music, popular genes (rap, hip-hop, and so on) are a major part of the identities of such ethnic and political groups.

For Kurdish ritual culture, see here.


[1] On wiki, see here, and for Yazidi religion, here. Apart from the outstanding journalism of Channel 4, I also admire the sincerity of reports by Stacey Dooley; in this programme she spent time with an all-female Yazidi battalion. Among numerous media articles from before and since the 2014 genocide, see e.g.


Bhutan: a tongue-twister, archery festivals, and teasing cheerleaders


Not a Lot of People Know This, but the popular tongue-twister*

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

is a modern American adaptation of an ancient ritual in Bhutan.

Really?—The Plain People of Ireland.
Begob! You had me there.

The woodchuck song (cf. More stammering songs) dates from 1902—here’s the popular version by Ragtime Roberts, recorded in 1904, just as Mahler was conducting the premiere of his 5th symphony:

I like this 1946 Glenn Miller version, with the follow-up “How many cats would a catnip nip…”:

To answer the question, apart from the song’s decidedly surly “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”, there have been some hilarious scientific attempts
(cf. Stewart Lee’s pedantic research on “the tip of the cesspit” under The c-word).

* * *

The word woodchuck, first recorded in 1674, is an English rendition of the Algonquin wejack or wuchak. And by way of the etymology of wang in whangdoodle (cf. schlong), I note, with the greatest respect, the many illustrious bearers of the name Wangchuk in Bhutan—which inspires me to

How much wang would a Wangchuck chuck if a Wangchuck could chuck wang?

In translation this may not quite match the elegance of the woodchuck version, with its euphonic “wood” and “would/could”—but I like to imagine that it works even better in the original Middle Bhutanese (just the kind of wacky topic that Sir Harold Bailey might have relished: “Indeed I’d say there’s hardly a line that could not have been understood by any Persian of the fourth century”)—perhaps

Wonga wang wunga Wangchuk chuka wangka Wangchuk wunga chuka wang?

wangsDare I surmise [Yes, I’m afraid you probably do—Ed.]** that wang-chucking festivals were once a major part of the ritual calendar in Bhutan, with ornately decorated wangs,*** assembled from monasteries throughout the region, to be hurled towards a distant target, or tôs-pöt? The arcane sentence might thus be the pious request of a courtly petitioner, curious despite the ineligibility of the royal family to participate in an event of which they were the main patrons.

Indeed, phallic symbols, representing Avalokiteśvara, are common in Bhutan and Tibet, as documented in this substantial (and for once, real) article. One of the names of Shiva is Wangchuk chenpo; and the phallus was a major part of the symbolic repertoire of atsara jesters.

* * *

Perhaps [sic] we may find the modern descendant of the Bhutanese wang-chucking ritual in its archery festivals (cf. Zen archery). OK then, so far this post has been Rather Silly, but now that I come to seek material on archery in Bhutan, I am full of genuine admiration.

Via the splendid community website, I find several videos of archery festivals (do consult the original posts, under bongop videos). Here’s a lovely short documentary from 2015, showing the ritual sequence, with vignettes from flag-bearer and storekeeper as well as the women of the chorus, and—for anyone who likes to think of Bhutan as “unspoilt”—a final comment on the decline of the “old rules” (cf. China, e.g. here):

Women play a major role as cheerleaders [sic], singing songs to tease the archers with their nicknames (cf. French taunting):

Whose forehead is bulging and swollen like a wine-serving spoon, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Lips sheltered in a black beard, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Here are some more instances (“Forehead is like wine sieve??”, “Dried ears!!!”, “Sneezing carpenter??”, “Pumpkin wine container”, “Polished stone head”):

And some more choral songs:

So while I’m encouraged by their own delight in jocular wordplay, ethnography makes a fine counterpart to my earlier frivolity.

Talking of Bhutanese films, this looks interesting.

Archery festivals are also common in Ladakh and Sikkim, and, with very different modern histories, in Tibet, Kham, and Amdo—as in this documentary, filmed in Lo khog village, Qinghai:

Returning to Bhutan, all this should encourage us to explore the riches of diverse soundscapes there, through sites such as this—not least monastic rituals, such as this 2-CD Lyrichord collection recorded by John Levy in 1971 (liner notes for download here):

The research for this project was
not made remotely possible by a generous grant from SPICE, the Society for the Promotion Prevention of International Cultural Exchange; and believe it or not, no ice-cubes were “educated” with Bombay Sapphire during the creation of this post.


* For an operatic tongue-twister, click here; and for a Chinese tongue-twister of mine, here.

** In such exegesis I may be inspired by Mots d’heure, gousses, rames; for other spurious excursions in cultural and linguistic history, see my series on the faqu (“French pieces”) under this roundup of posts on the Tang dynasty.

*** Cf. Dud ‘n’ Pete’s illumination of the lyrics “Mama’s got a brand new bag yeah, gonna groove it the whole night long baby“. More recently, Miranda Vukasovic has amassed an impressive collection of gaily-coloured phallic bottle-openers from Bali.



Noh drama in London

Noh poster

Following my recent posts on contemporary Noh drama and transmission and change in Noh, and hot on the heels of relishing late Beethoven quartets, for a different vision of sublime mysteries I returned to the South Bank for a live performance of a new English-language Noh play at the Purcell Room. Do hurry (an unlikely word in this context!) to catch further dates on the tour here, with more in London, as well as Ireland and Paris.

Since the group can hardly recreate the elaborate Noh stage on tour, they’ve opted for a simple backdrop. But the performance, by the seasoned artists of Theatre Nohgaku with their long experience of creating Noh in English, was mesmerizing.

The evening opened with the auspicious final dance from the traditional drama Takasago, which I introduced in my first post, with the distinguished Akira Matsui embodying the God of Sumiyoshi.

Then came the world premiere of the English-language Noh drama Between the Stonesthe third collaboration between author Jannette Cheong and composer Richard Emmert. It explores how the burden of grief can be transformed through the healing power of the karesansui Zen rock garden. Attuned to the spirit of traditional Noh, the text is highly poetic. The programme’s libretto gives helpful clues to structure—shidai and issei entrance music, sageuta and ageuta low- and high-pitched song, mondo dialogue, and so on.


In the midst of a typhoon, a grieving traveller (waki, Jubilith Moore) visits the rock garden at the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto. where she meets a woman gardener (shite, Kinue Oshima—the only professional female Noh actor in the Kita school). Understanding the traveller’s sadness, the gardener helps her appreciate the nurturing properties of the garden and how the art of raking the gravel enhances its beauty and evokes a peaceful soul. The gardener then vanishes.

In the interlude a temple priest (ai, Ashley Thorpe) appears, giving the traveller an introduction to the history and mystical significance of the garden. He then tells her that the woman gardener was an illusion, perhaps the spirit of the garden appearing to the traveller.

Act Two takes place some years later “on an island in the West”, where the traveller has now created a simple rock garden of her own. The woman gardener reappears and reveals herself as the garden’s Spirit of the Silent Waves. Along with the chorus, they evoke the pain of loss and the courage of those who face death—”as heavy as Mount Tai, or as light as a winter butterfly”. The Spirit of Winter Butterflies then emerges with the final dance, performed by 11-year old Iori Oshima—sixth generation in the Oshima lineage.

The hayashi ensemble—including two female performers—is entrancing as ever, with ethereal flute and haunting kakegoe cries from the three drummers. The international chorus plays a major role too.

Between the Stones makes a numinous addition to the growing repertoire of Noh in English. Here’s an excerpt from Pagoda, the first collaboration of Cheong and Emmert from 2009, a modern British–Chinese story pondering themes of identity and migration:

Transmission and change: Noh drama



Further to my post on contemporary Noh drama, I’m grateful to Allan Marett for drawing my attention to

the lucid text well rendered in fluent translation by Edgar W. Pope—no easy feat.

I introduce this lengthy article here not just for its insights on Noh, but because it bears more widely on the transmission of traditional genres—including the WAM canon. Indeed, it often reminds me of debates over rubato in romantic piano music.

Bruno Nettl has suggested parameters for change in musickings around the world; Noh would seem to belong to his rubric of “gradual, normal change” (“An absolutely static musical culture is actually inconceivable”; for Daoist ritual, see e.g. here), and the concept of “isolated preservation”. Fujita’s article also bears on Nettl’s discussion of flexibility and improvisation.

Within the conservative goal of preservation, Fujita seeks to reconcile apparently conflicting emic and etic viewpoints, and the tensions between ideal and real performance—common concerns of those analysing world music. He wisely considers the whole Noh community, and addresses both the nuts and bolts of performance and the mystical underpinnings of the tradition. As Pope summarizes:

A puzzling situation defines the contemporary transmission of Noh. On one hand, the genre’s community of practice is governed by strict orders to preserve musical sound through repeated imitation and to avoid change at all costs. On the other hand, the community discourages explicit dialogue between teachers and learners concerning what exactly constitutes those ideal musical sounds as well as the extent to which those sonic ideals are being faithfully maintained across performances. With a focus on the transmission of hiranori vocal rhythms, Fujita explores the ambivalent strategies with which participants navigate this conundrum and discovers a paradoxical process by which Noh’s so-called “preservation imperative” actually encourages musical change.

Pope also highlights the relationship between ideal models and actual performance, discourses of continuity and authenticity, and the sometimes-frustrating ambiguities of self-consciously “traditional” arts.

The article also demonstrates Fujita’s characteristic methodological approach: combining close musical analysis with perspectives gained from extensive ethnographic experience, and using critical historical insights to complicate his own ethnographic observations and challenge common scholarly assumptions.

As Fujita explains:

According to the theorists cited above, the place of performance is precisely where creativity happens. But in reality, do the spectators gathered in that place of performance always expect creativity or novelty from the performing art? At each and every performance, do they always focus their attention on how much creativity is being exhibited? One cannot necessarily say so. Depending on time and circumstance, many spectators are likely to expect not something new, but rather a past performance repeated in the same way, here and now. A performance that makes use of bodily movement and sound occurs only once, and then immediately vanishes. The desire to try repeating it again the next day often arises; but can we say conclusively that creative processes and interpretive variation exist there as well? […]

Classical music is like an antique, in the sense that as times change it does not necessarily adapt itself to the changing tastes of its audience. In order to transmit this antique from generation to generation, the community itself has taken on the distinctive form of the iemoto system, in which the iemoto and their branch families are at the apex, and beneath those, in the form of a tree, are positioned their disciples and the disciples of disciples (cf. my image of the iceberg). The focus of this essay is the acquisition by low-level members (disciples) of the techniques held by high-level members (teachers).

Performing artists must be sensitive to the changing demands of changing times if they always construct their performances on the basis of unchanging prescriptions, it is likely that audiences will eventually grow tired of them, and the art itself will become extinct. [….]

This high-pressure imperative takes the form: “Even if it’s boring, don’t ask why—just preserve!” […] Suppose, hypothetically, that you were to find yourself a member of such a community. You yourself have no clue as to what the purpose of preservation might be. And yet you are compelled to participate in preservation. You think to yourself “What’s the use of this? It’s boring. I want to quit!” But you are unable to defy the preservation imperative, and as your participation immerses you completely in the various mutually contradictory rules of practice that fall under the preservation imperative, you experience, at some times and in some cases, a joy in the very practice of preservation itself. Once you have had this sort of experience a number of times, you reach a state where you suddenly think to yourself “I’m glad I’m doing this.” Even though you are repeating (or being made to repeat) over and over again things that have been determined in advance, one day a feeling even comes over you that some realm of freedom is finding expression here—a world in which you feel that a kind of richness that surpasses the merely technical has been secured. The community that provides this strange experience is the community of classical music transmission in Japan.

Fujita suggests the enduring basis of this conservatism in the vestiges of Confucian ideology, with instances from Buddhist chant and biwa music (and of course around the world other ideologies impose limiting effects on creativity in varying ways and degrees), and a brief aside on the aesthetics of calligraphy. He goes on to observe that the community’s emphasis on preservation is modified in actual practice, adroitly suggesting why my suggestion of punk versions of Noh was so impertinent (not to mention this).

Notation is always an imperfect tool. Analysing the rhythmic structure of Noh, Fujita uses tradional graphical representations, largely to reveal their inadequacy. Indeed, he notes that in the past, they “were considered an impediment to learning and were apparently kept hidden”; that they have never come to be used as standards; and that the actual sound of Noh deviates greatly from such schemas.

A stable flow of sound that could appropriately be called a pulse never reaches your ear. You hear a series of terrible arrhythmias, so to speak. As a result, it is generally difficult to perceive an eight-beat meter [2] from the actual sound, that is, to reconstruct the graphical representation from the sound.

Fujita explains in detail the vital roles of the kotsuzumi and ōtsuzumi drums. Commenting on the great flexibility of the pulse, he gives a magnificent analogy:

For the reader who is unfamiliar with the sound of Noh, please envision, for example, a scene in which a drunk person is singing a song with a great deal of emotional expression. Large changes in the pulse will often occur. If a sober listener who knows the song well tries to clap along with the performance, it will become clear that there are large expansions and contractions in the intervals between pulses, of the kind we have described here.

On singing, Fujita observes:

Scholars who try to explain the rhythm of Noh singing usually abandon from the beginning any attempt to explain this phenomenon of elasticity of the aural pulse. Many of them, when explaining rhythm, begin by introducing a graphical representation (such as Figure 1) that shows twelve syllables arranged over eight beats. After that they add some such commentary as the following:

In transcription it appears as shown above, but in actual performance the rhythm is transformed, through various techniques, to the point that this basic meter can barely be perceived. When watching Noh, the parts where one cannot follow the beat in relation to the performance on stage are mostly these hiranori parts, which are constructed through an extremely complex and subtle rhythmic sense. One might call it a rhythm that does not show its rhythmic sense on the surface.

This is clearly a declaration that the writer has given up on explanation. But why does he arrive at this kind of impasse? The problem is that with no detailed observation or description of contemporary practice, he has developed an explanation that depends from the outset on graphical representations, which are not actively used as models within the community. We have seen that the rhythm of Noh, when compared to its graphical representation, involves large tempo changes and is greatly “distorted” in performance. We must not, however, take such “distortion” [henkei] to mean literal distortion. The “distortion” of Noh rhythm is systematic and has been thoroughly drilled into the performer in the course of practice. To that extent, rather than being the result of individual contrivance, it is more accurate to think of it as something that has been habitualized.

He then identifies the set of norms that produce such “distortion”: the way that the drummers memorize sequences, with mnemonics for timings (komi, the preparations for producing sounds) and timbre, and the haunting kakegoe vocal cries (mostly in the intervals between pulses, and a major element in Noh’s rhythmic elasticity). The interplay of the two drummers is crucial. We may be only mildly reassured by the conclusion of this section:

The form of explanation that begins with something like “Noh rhythm is based on an eight-beat meter”, although not at all incorrect as a historical explanation, turns out to be completely meaningless as a description of current practice. In reality, as we have seen, the lengths of drum syllable sequences used by ōtsuzumi and kotsuzumi players do not necessarily fill up a span of eight beats; and performance proceeds from a consciousness centered on those drum syllables. During a performance, moreover, many performers have no idea where they are (i.e., which beat they are on) in terms of pulse numbers. In actual practice, this is no longer eight-beat music. It is quite natural, then, that the sound produced by the performers does not sound like eight-beat music.

While he points out that performers are not entirely oblivious to graphical schema, they may adopt some principles and regularities that they perceive therein for the purposes of their own performance.

Principles discovered by performers for themselves are not used as oral explanations in education. Moreover, graphical representations of those principles have never come to the forefront and circulated as a primary means or as standards for learning. This has been especially true in the study of Noh singing.

In §3 Fujita takes a historical approach to komi. While the concept has long existed, it has only been emphasized more recently. Identifying “surreptitious” change below the preservation imperative, he astutely unpacks emic and etic approaches:

When scholars accept without question the ideology of the preservation imperative, thinking that the practices of traditional music transmit the forms of ancient sounds mechanically like a tape recorder, and repeating like parrots the community’s assertions that they “do it exactly the way it was taught,” it is evident that we have a problem. On the other hand, a standpoint that assumes people in the community are simply lying when they say “we do it exactly the way it was taught”, that focuses only on empirically tracking down changes in actual sound and seeking to discover in those the creativity of performers, could be seen as rushing to conclusions and distorting the object of research. What we need, then, is to look carefully at how the ideology actually operates.

So he goes on to discuss the language used since the late Meiji period to inhibit undue reliance on graphical rhythmic schema—particularly with regard to singing, the most popular activity within the amateur community.

With regard to singing practice, sound itself is excessively emphasized [!]. Everyone in the community is expected to imitate faithfully the sound of Noh singing. From the beginning, they must not rely on schemas that serve as frameworks. They must not look at graphical representations. They must not have any interest in theory. This sort of thing is hammered into their heads.

Fujita cites a passage from 1943 [his italics]:

At first there is no need to think about the logic of jibyōshi [the eight beat meter]. One simply has to swallow as a whole the actual way of singing with the meter, and pound it into one’s memory until it becomes a habit. Regardless of any theory about meter, its actual use is nothing other than a focusing of the spirit [kiai], and so the best way to give life to the meter is to grasp the focusing of spirit that appears in your teacher’s singing. In short, the fundamental problem must be to build a foundation from which you can sing more or less together with the meter, even if you don’t know how to keep the meter. You can try to study meter on the basis of Noh singing, with its uncertain pulse, but all you will get is a logical understanding, which you will not necessarily be able to use in the actual practice of singing. Even worse, you may well end up with meter for the sake of meter, not meter for the sake of singing.

He explores the learning process, and the interaction of singers and drummers:

Of course, the singer’s memory of the sound is not perfect. The singer, furthermore, has no understanding of the schema. It is therefore entirely possible that discrepancies will arise between the singer and the drummers in some places. For example, it must frequently happen that a singer starts one pulse too early, or one pulse too late. Those who do so are instructed to practice that part over and over, and as a result of this repeated practice acquire a feeling of “falling into the meter”, even in that part.

§4 goes on to discuss the mysticization of identity: the realm of kokoro (heart/mind)—”the place for secret manouevring”. Here he turns to the flute:

In the following episode, a teacher of Noh singing critiques the flute-playing of one of his students. Unlike the drums discussed in §2, the flute is an instrument with a low degree of structure in the realm of articulation, and in that sense we could say that it is similar to vocal performance. On one occasion, a flute performance was critiqued in the following way. Kaneuchi Yoshihira was the youngest Noh flute player during the time my teacher was alive, and he also had a weak physical constitution. One time when he was playing flute for the otokomai dance in “Atsumori” he noticed that his teacher was looking at him; apparently he froze, and the sound of his flute abruptly stopped. Nevertheless out of fear of his teacher he tried even harder to play, while taking kurai, but finally he lost his composure and was unable to produce a sound. He continued on like a madman, puffing away at his flute without making a sound, until the piece ended. He then went back to the musicians’ room, cringing at the thought of the scolding he would get. But he found his teacher to be in an extremely good mood. “It was fine, it was fine. Your iki [spirit] and your kuraidori [taking kurai] were very good today.” Kaneuchi spoke of how happy he was when he heard those words of praise, and said that for the first time he felt self-confidence in his flute playing.

Noting a further tendency: “an irresistible turning toward the enjoyment of unrepeatable immediacy”, he ponders the apparent conflict between emic (“we always do it the same”)  and etic (“these details are completely different”) views (again, cf. Nettl), and lists significant emic terms that appear to resolve them.

Observing that

in spite of its rigid, closed, and conservative appearance, there actually do exist “free” and “creative” processes,

Fujita concludes by discussing the recent influence of audio-visual techology on the learning process, which was slow to gain acceptance but is now compressing the space for the preservation imperative.

Such thoughtful, detailed analysis is a valuable contribution to studies of change in musickings around the world.


[1] For this post I silently [sic] convert the “nō “of the text to “Noh”. For more in English, see e.g. here.

[2] For the very different (and more audible) eight-beat structure of Chinese shawm bands and Daoist groups, see here. For official attempts to replace ritual skills with discursive knowledge, see Training Daoists in Shanghai.


Contemporary Noh drama

AM poster

Noh drama is both austere and enthralling.

Whereas gagaku traces its origins to Tang China, Noh evolved within Japan, notably with the canonical work of Zeami (c1363–1444). [1] While the local ritual dramas (often using masks) of China have been much studied (setting forth from projects led by C.K. Wang), everything about Noh seems remote from Chinese theatre.

The plots, derived from medieval literature such as the Genji and Heike monogatari, are based on the theme of exorcism; often a traveller or pilgrim (the waki role) meets a local dweller, who is later revealed as the ghost of a renowned ancient personage who died there in tragic circumstances (the role of shite).

Perpetuating the spirit of Zen in modern Japan (cf. posts on Eugen Herrigel and Gary Snyder), all the performative elements are other-wordly and entrancing—from the vocals of the solo actors and chorus, and the masks and costumes, to the hayashi ensemble of piercing flute punctuated by the haunting rhythms of the three types of drums (with their otherworldly kakegoe cries), and the cathartic final dance (cf. Bertolucci).

Noh in Japan, 1992. My photos.

Orchestral tours always gave me an opportunity to explore local cultures (flamenco in Seville, táncház in Budapest; for a fortuitous spinoff, see here), and on tours of Japan in the 1990s local Noh theatres were always my first port of call. Here are two complete dramas:

Atsumori is a mugen ghost play by Zeami, based on the Heike monogatari:

The monk Renshō (in the waki role) arrives at Ichi-no-Tani seeking to ask forgiveness from Atsumori (the shite role) and calm his spirit. There he meets a flute-playing youth and his companions; after they briefly discuss the flute and Atsumori, the youth reveals that he has a connection to Atsumori.

In the second act, after a kyōgen interlude, the actor who played the youth in the first act has changed costume, now playing Atsumori. Along with the chorus chanting for him, he relates his tragic story from his perspective, re-enacting it in dance form. The play ends with Renshō refusing to re-enact his role in Atsumori’s death; the ghost declares that the monk is not his enemy, and asks him to pray for his release.

In Takasago, a priest travels to Takasago in pleasant spring weather. Among the beautiful pine trees, he hears a bell toll in the distance. An elderly couple arrive and begin to sweep the area under the pine bower. The old man recites from a collection of waka poetry, describing the Takasago and Sumioe wedded pine trees that, according to legend, will remain together for eternity. When he explains that the paired pines are a symbol of the marital relationship, the priest observes that all relationships, like life itself, fall short of the ideal expressed in the poem.

At this point, the old couple reveal that they are the spirits of the paired pines, and they set sail across the bay in a small boat. As the tide goes out, the priest also sets sail.

* * *

While the Noh scene in Japan has remained largely faithful to medieval plots, Allan Marett, working with Richard Emmert, has composed two remarkably imaginative new Noh dramas in English. Among the distinguished pupils of Laurence Picken working on Tang music at Cambridge in the 1970s, Allan then began devoting himself to Noh, and his drama Eliza (1985) makes a kind of bridge to his fine fieldwork on aboriginal culture in Australia:

A traveller to Fraser Island in Australia meets an old woman who tells the story of Eliza Fraser, the wife of the captain of a ship shipwrecked years ago. The woman begins to tell fantastic stories about Eliza’s experiences and how these were used to satisfy the beliefs of white society. As the traveller questions her story full of exaggeration, the woman’s true nature as the spirit of Eliza is set free. The spirit then reappears and dances in an aboriginal festival, reliving her experiences of aboriginal culture and the truth of her harmonious stay with aboriginal peoples.

No less remarkable is his 2015 drama Oppenheimer:

In Noh, agents of suffering (often warriors) first appear trapped in the form a ghost and then—in the course of the play—attain liberation; thus the drama traces the spiritual journey of Robert J. Oppenheimer from tormented ghost to agent of redemption. It makes an allegory about the tragedy of Hiroshima and how it affects us all. As Allan comments, “my play points beyond Hiroshima to all acts of violence and inhumanity.”

Oppenheimer has the structure and form of a traditional mugen Noh, where the main character is the ghost of a person who, because of some karmic hindrance, is unable to leave their human form at death. In many cases, the action of a mugen play will free the ghost from the wheel of samsara, so that they can attain liberation. In this play, the ghost is that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, tormented by the horrible consequences of his action in fathering the atomic bomb, is condemned to return each year to Hiroshima to himself suffer the agonies that his weapon caused. Through a contemplation of the traditional Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox, the ghost of Oppenheimer is finally released from his suffering when he encounters Fudô Myô-ô within the fires of Hiroshima. Fudô gives Oppenheimer his sword and snare, so that he can dance for the liberation of all beings from suffering, and in particular the wounds and scars that we all bear as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Putting to one side experiments like traditional Noh versions of Shakespeare (such as Macbeth), and the influence on Western dramatists and composers (Yeats, Brecht, Britten, and so on), much of the impetus for innovation within Noh has come with international collaboration. Richard Emmert has long been a protagonist in developing Noh in English. Here’s his introduction to its history—citing several other productions, including Pagoda and Between the stones by Jannette Cheong, as well as Deborah Brevoort’s Blue moon over Memphis,

a stark and beautiful meditation on loneliness, with numerous textual and musical allusions to 20th-century popular song. Judy is a lonely, middle-aged woman, and a devout Elvis fan. She makes a pilgrimage to Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis’s death, but she is forced to wait outside, due to the overwhelming crowds. Her dream shattered, she is left to reflect on her life, through the verbal imagery of popular song. But then, during the candlelight vigil, a mysterious man lets her into the Meditation Garden where Elvis is buried, and there, under the light of a blue moon, she encounters a spirit.

Further productions are listed on the Theatre Nohgaku site.

Such creations feature new plots while remaining faithful both to the spirit of Noh (recognition, redemption, and so on) and to traditional performance style and staging. I wonder impertinently if there’s more radical potential for modern Noh. Bruno Nettl has suggested some parameters for change in world musicking (gradual or radical, allowable variation, isolated preservation, and so on), with varying approaches to maintaining elements considered to be core. In Europe, opera changes substantially over time. Apart from new operas, we have avant-garde productions of older operas, using the original plots but interpreting them in modern settings, often with the “original” music; and we have “rock operas”. Within Japan, might one use sax, or ondes martenot, with drum-kit, and punk vocals; skyscrapers and modern costumes? [Noooh—Ed.] For a masterly rebuttal of these meretricious ideas, see here.

Irrespective of such idle musings, works like Eliza and Oppenheimer make refreshing, stimulating innovations in the Noh repertoire.


Having enjoyed a London reunion with Allan Marett,
I much appreciate his guidance on this post.


[1] For a useful database, see here. For succinct introductions to Noh in the context of other Japanese genres, see Isabel Wong’s chapter in Bruno Nettl et al. (eds.), Excursions in world music, and David Hughes’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics. For a meretricious footnote to this post, see here.

Uyghur culture in crisis

My love’s flames, I have become a beggar, indeed Allah
Before the whole world I stand alone, indeed Allah
I have suffered for an age, Allah, my patience is ended, Allah
I have become a moth drawn to the beauty of your face, indeed Allah
Oh lovers, your desire, Allah, my heart is addicted, Allah
I revel in your pleasure, Allah, I have become a drunkard, Allah
In the city, Allah, I have become a wine shop boy, indeed Allah
Before the whole world, Allah, I have been ruined, indeed Allah

—from Chahargah muqam, fifth mäshräp,
translated by Rachel Harris.

I’ve already featured Uyghur culture in Ashiq: the last troubadour, shrine festivals, and drum-and-shawm bands, I began writing this post with the simple idea of sharing an exquisite free-tempo prelude from the great muqam suites; but, as often, it has grown into more wide-ranging reflections.

In particular, since I noted the perceived crisis of “serious music” in the West, the current plight of Uyghur culture makes an extreme instance of crisis—to which the muqam’s lyrics of religious anguish make a sadly fitting commentary.

The muqam
I’ve been revisiting

  • Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Chinese Central Asia (2008),

a book that seems even more important now that virtually all of the culture she describes, which having been tolerated (and in its official manifestations even supported) by the Chinese state for more than half a century, is now being ruthlessly extinguished. [1]


Over an economical 157 pages, Harris pinpoints a range of major issues.

Throughout the course of the 20th century, as newly formed nations have sought to assert and formalise their national identity, they have typically acquired a range of identifiable national aspects. Thus we find in this new period new musical canons springing up across the world. These canons, however, cannot be dismissed as arbitrary collections of works imposed on the public by the authorities. They acquire deep resonance and meaning, both as national symbols and as musical repertories imbued with aesthetic value.

The Chinese state has invested large sums of money in a succession of projects to preserve and develop [sic!] the Twelve Muqam, and it uses these projects to showcase the positive aspects of its minority policies on the national and international stage.

Describing the wider project on minority cultures, she comments:

Subject to processes of “reform and ordering”, dance styles were transformed into group choreographies, songs were transcribed and fixed, scales and musical instruments standardized, and a nation-wide system of professional performers was put in place, trained in arts academies, and organized into state-sponsored performing troupes.

These versions are disseminated through live performance, TV and radio, publications and recordings. Still, while documenting the official urban troupes, Harris never loses sight of local folk traditions. She also places the Uyghur muqam within the wider context of Central Asian muqam families (notably in Chapter 5).

Perhaps I should now use the past tense in this section:

The muqam are large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes, and instrumental sections. Lyrics by both the major Central Asian poets and folk poetry. Religious mendicants also perform versions of the songs, and drum-and-shawm bands play the instrumental melodies. All this music is traditionally handed down without notation.

The titles of the muqam denote modal attributes, while the names of the pieces within them denote rhythmic patterns. Its tripartite outline subsumes numerous subsections:

  • chong näghmä, a lengthy suite of sung pieces with märghul instrumental interludes
  • dastan: a sequence of folk narrative songs, again with märghul
  • mäshräp: faster dance pieces, sung to folk lyrics.

One fascinating theme of Chapter 2 is how canonisation predates the PRC initiatives, with Uyghur troupes in the Soviet Central Asian states formalising the repertoire as early as the 1920s under the influence of Soviet ideology.


From Wong, “The value of missing tunes”.

In China under the PRC, the 1951 and 1954 recordings of the Kashgar master Turdi Akhun (1881–1956) formed the basis of transcriptions by the Beijing-based scholar Wan Tongshu, published in 1960, and went on to become the core of the whole glossy edifice of the official Twelve Muqam. [2]

So it seems strange that these celebrated recordings (apart from a brief section on the CD with a 2007 book) have remained under a cloak of secrecy. Doubtless Turdi Akhun’s performing style was less polished than that of the state troupes, but archive recordings of Chinese music [sic] from the pre-Cultural Revolution era have been issued.

Wan Tongshu also headed a new state-supported Muqam Research Working Group, which in 1957 organised a three-month fieldtrip to the southern region. Another leading Han Chinese scholar working on the muqam in the 1950s was Jian Qihua, whose transcriptions of the “Ili variant” were belatedly published in 1998. The official song-and-dance troupe in Urumchi began performing sections of these arrangements until the Cultural Revolution disrupted traditional activity. Meanwhile similar initiatives, producing composite versions of the muqam, were under way beyond the borders of China.

Ozhal coverIn Xinjiang the liberalisations following the collapse of the commune system from 1979 allowed the resumption of both folk activity and official research. Furthering the work that had begun in the 1950s, a Muqam Research Committee was formed in 1979, soon incorporated into the Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble. They went on to produce major series of recordings and transcriptions. Meanwhile the compilation of the Anthology provided a major new stimulus to fieldwork.

The 16th-century princess Amannisa Khan, subject of a popular 1993 film, was now claimed as an early fieldworker and compiler of the muqam, providing a fanciful historical cachet. Chinese state support for the muqam continued despite the increasing tensions that followed 9/11.


Reminding us that the musicians and researchers involved in such projects are real people with real lives, Chapter 3 is a vivid portrait of the eccentric musician Abdulla Mäjnun (b.1946). Indeed, the word mäjnun denotes an ashiq religious mendicant and a fool, a sarang: intoxicated and infatuated. Though he identified strongly with the ashiq, and was an outsider in the official Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble troupe where he was employed, he had learned to consider himself not a muqamchi, a term to describe an accomplished folk performer (cf. the Chinese minjian yiren), but a “muqam expert”, a more prestigious term with connotations of science, modern scholarship, and the urban world. In the professional musical circles of Urumchi, where drinking culture loomed large, he was in a league of his own.

Harris gives lively vignettes of a trip with him back to his native Khotan, observing his prestige and capacity for liquor. She concludes:

On one level Mäjnun’s conversations are revealing because he is so clearly engaged in strategically deploying the range of different metaphors at his disposal. On another level Mäjnun is interesting precisely because he embodies that collision of metaphors which I delineated in my discussion of Uyghur music histories: the disreputable, uncontrolled aspects of music and creativity in Uyghur tradition which sit uncomfortably with the notion of “national traditions” and the canon.

Abdulla Mäjnun is heard, solo, on the CD with the book, notably in some intimate muqaddime preludes. For these he favours the diltar, a combination of dutar and satar that he himself invented, “a cross between a double-necked electric guitar and a cathedral, or perhaps, rather, a mosque.” He also features on the CD Majnun: classical traditions of the Uyghurs.

Harris mentions Sabine Trebinjac’s brief biographies of female beggar musicians such as Shāyrnisa Khan,

living in Kashgar in the 1980s, who had had four husbands. Her husbands had disapproved of her begging, but she suffered from a sickness, and had to sing and play daily, in front of the mosque or at festivals, or on pilgrimage. She was a member of Naqshbandi Sufi group, and also took part in regular zikr rituals.

Such accounts, like my own for Han Chinese folk musicians, contrast with the compulsory image presented in Chinese biographies, in which folk musicians “selflessly present their art”, the vicissitudes of their lives under modern regimes largely ignored.

Contrary to the current tendency to regard the Twelve Muqam as something isolated and essentially different from the song repertoire (“classical” versus “folk”), in practice the two have often been mixed together, and it is common practice to follow the muqaddime with a suite of folk songs.

Chapter 4 gives details of the musical structure of the competing, evolving versions, showing that in the diversity of traditional performance, both the musical and lyrical repository of the so-called Twelve Muqam have long been combined in different ways.

A mounting body of evidence suggests that the Twelve Muqam have existed less as an actual body of music and more as a kind of idealised framework surrounding a much more fluid oral tradition, from which individual musicians would learn and perform different parts, and into which musicians might slot their own local repertoires and compositions.

After an astute historical introduction, Harris shows the links between the mäshräp sections of the muqam with hikmät prayers of Sufi religious mendicants. She notes the Muqam Research Committee’s ongoing quest for another Turdi Akhun among the folk:

They were not above pulling in ashiq they found begging in the bazaar to see if they might possess the holy grail of previously undiscovered parts of the repertoire. Mäjnun told me one morning as I arrived for my lesson:

We found an ashiq on the street this morning, playing sapaya [wood or horn percussion sticks set with metal rings]. We brought him to the Muqam Ensemble to see what he could do, but he was all mixed up, he played a bit of Chābayyat then followed into Ushshaq.

She goes on to give a diachronic analysis of renditions of the muqaddime preludes:

If there is any vestige of an improvised tradition in the Twelve Muqam, then it would be these muqäddimä sections, which are structured like an exploration of the mode.

As she notes,

Traditionally the lead vocalist would accompany himself, but specialisation in professional training has meant that these roles are separated in the troupes.

Sensibly, she gives reductive outline transcriptions, rather than the etic versions of other publications; indeed, I favour this method for traditional Han Chinese melody. Despite the importance of notation for the canonisation project, among Uyghur performers its influence is limited.

In orchestration too, Harris notes the contrast between folk and professional ideals, citing Ted Levin on the Bukharan Shash Maqām—the “limpid filigree” of the traditional small ensemble versus the “bloated heterophony” of the large-scale professional versions.

The muqaddime
In my post Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham I gave a little introduction to free-tempo preludes around the world. The Uyghur muqaddime are most wonderful accompanied by the resonant satar long-necked bowed lute. I am particularly entranced by the intense muqaddime of Özhal muqam—perhaps because of its tonal variety, with new scales, featuring a flat 7th and sharp 4th, introduced gradually. Here’s a 1997 recording:

My afflicted soul heads towards the Valley of Insanity
I hope this already wretched life of mine will break
The gravedigger who ignores the candle of my tomb
Will surely have his house and rags burnt by its sparks
Do not ask where I go—I have no choice
I have surrendered choice to the hands of Destiny
The rose-coloured tears have dried up, leaving but a withered face
The tyranny of Fate has exchanged my spring with autumn
My people, together with my beloved, gave me much trouble
What will become of me if I resolve to leave them behind?
Anyone’s chest will ache for my condition, when they see
My face smeared with blood from the broken pieces of my bosom
Peace is impossible until one abandons the world
Nawai, burn my existence, and deliver me
Way, derdim ah!

Abdulla Mäjnun was especially devoted to Chahargah muqam, said to be for the ashiq (CD #7, which he played with tears running down his cheeks). But all the muqaddime are exquisite—here’s a transcription of Nawa, from the climax (äwäj): [3]


Chapter 6 explores the impact of canonisation, not least the inclusion of the “Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam” in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) since 2005. She discusses the impact at grass-roots level of efforts to “rescue” local traditions:

To what extent had these efforts established hegemony over local practices? Had rural musicians adopted the officially promoted repertoire or were they maintaining local traditions, and how did these traditions relate to the official repertoire? What plans had been drawn up as part of the UNESCO plan, and how were they being put into action?

Among the local traditions, the “raw, macho sounds” of the Dolan muqam were now elevated to become a folk counterpart to the official professional version. But other local folk styles were fragile and perishable; and as in other parts of the world, any official promotion played little part in their evolution. Harris describes the impact of the independent recording industry, finding the cassettes of performers like Abliz Shakir more significant an influence than those of the official troupes:

The failure of the Muqam Ensemble to capture the popular imagination lies in a combination of aesthetic and political considerations. Firstly the state-run ensemble is arguably too closely associated with the Chinese regime for their performances to be popularly adopted as Uyghur nationalist icons. Secondly, amateur musicians were deterred by the complexity of the chong näghmä section, and by the heavy orchestral-choral arrangements. In fact these aesthetic and political considerations are inseparable, as the ensemble aesthetic—one which is modelled on transnational models of canonic, national traditions—is itself representative of the state. Abliz Shakir’s recordings, released through the independent recording industry and sold on stalls in the bazaars, signalling another kind of authenticity in their performance style, and perhaps aided by the performer’s own ambivalent relationship with the authorities, achieved a far greater popularity.

She notes

concerns about the possibility of negative impact following the UNESCO bid, with local muqam traditions becoming increasingly commercialised and exploited in Xinjiang’s exploding tourism market.

She illustrates the complexities of local activity with a vivid description of a village mäshräp festivity. Indeed, the mäshräp always made an implausible candidate for the ICH: having been commodified by the state it has recently been coopted into the sinister form of the “mäshräp to tackle religious extremism“. [4]

In conclusion Harris comments:

If the few surviving local traditions of Twelve Muqam, which are all too lacking the glamour and musical sophistication of the recorded versions recorded by star performers, are to be locally revived and maintained then they must somehow achieve greater relevance to local musicians and audiences.

But as she stresses, the canonised Twelve Muqam are only one aspect of the whole muqam tradition, elements of which may be found in a wide range of Uyghur musicking. Or rather could be found, until 2016.

Among the scholars whom Harris cites is the Han-Chinese Zhou Ji (1943–2008), who by the 1980s was the leading figure in Uyghur music research. A native of Jiangsu province, in the critical times of 1959, aged 16, he set off to Xinjiang in response to the state’s call to “support the frontier regions”. He remained based there for the rest of his life; from 1985 he was employed at the Xinjiang Arts Research Unit in Urumchi, which he went on to lead. Thoroughly immersed in Uyghur culture (not least its drinking culture), Zhou Ji was highly regarded in the Uyghur musical world. [5] Chief editor of the Xinjiang volumes of the Anthology, he took the folk ritual life of the Uyghurs seriously—note his major 1999 book on Islamic ritual music of the Uyghurs—[6] and even studied female ritual specialists and their repertoires. While he was inevitably involved with official promotions such as the ICH, Harris notes that he dared to publicly voice a number of criticisms concerning the canonisation project.

Zhou Ji

Zhou Ji with Uyghur musicians.

But it was Uyghurs who formed the core of researchers before and since the Cultural Revolution. More recently, scholars such as the anthropologist Rahilä Dawut—also supported within the academic apparatus of the Chinese state—furthered scholarly work.


Rahilä Dawut.

The current devastation
Harris’s book was published in 2009, at a time when Uyghur cultural life was still much in evidence despite growing restrictions since 9/11; Uyghur, Chinese, and foreign scholars were still able to do fieldwork. Apart from local traditions such as shrine festivals and pilgrimages, the state (for all its ideological motives) was still actively promoting Uyghur culture.

And then, from 2016, came the repression—in which musicians like Sanubar Tursun and academics like Rahilä Dawut are among innumerable casualties. The ruthless current assault is being diligently documented in the media, such as

As centuries of magnificent lyrics are erased, sporadic official performances set to secular Chinese texts now reduces the muqam to flagrant propaganda, mere political rituals of loyalty to a Han nationalist vision of the Chinese state.

I used to think that such demonstrations of state power were tangential to folk life, but in the current plight of the Uyghurs, with the whole culture—architecture, religious life, clothing, hair styles, food, language—being purged, little else may remain.

Despite all the difficulties of maintaining Uyghur culture since 1949, and the political tensions that state performers, and Uyghur and Chinese scholars, had to negotiate, the scene before 2016 now seems almost unimaginable. Both urban and rural, folk and academic life, even the state-sanctioned versions of Uyghur culture, have been decimated.

The current campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture is an affront to humanity.


[1] For her numerous other publications, see, with further material under Note also Nathan Light, Intimate heritage: creating Uyghur song in Xinjiang (2008). Among many recordings, note the 2-CD set of local folk groups by Jean During and Sabine Trebinjac, Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïgoure (1990).

[2] See also Chuen-Fung Wong, “The value of missing tunes: scholarship on Uyghur minority music in northwest China”, Fontes Artis Musicae 56.3 (2009).

[3] For a complete version of the Özhal suite, click here (for the jarring exoticised visuals, “an imagined idyll of the past”, see Harris, pp.91–2). Since I never got to master its muqaddime with the London-based singer Rahime Mahmut—my attempts to learn the satar being even more inept than my limited abilities on ghijak—I was happy to hear her performing it (with ud!) at the 2019 Muslim news awards for excellence (from 10.38). Abdulla Mäjnun plays the Nawa muqaddime on the CD, #6; for another version, click here; and for the complete suite, here.

[4] See Rachel Harris, ” ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang”, in Roberts and Bovingdon (eds), “Develop the West”: Chinese state development and Uyghur cultural resilience, adaptation, and cooptation in Xinjiang (2018).

[5] Tributes, mainly from Chinese musicologists, are assembled in a commemorative volume edited by Tian Qing 田青, Mukamu weini songxing: Zhou Ji jinian wenji 木卡姆为你送行:周吉纪念文集 (2009).

[6] Zhongguo Xinjiang Weiwuerzu Yisilanjiaode liyi yinyue 中国新疆维吾尔族伊斯兰教礼仪音乐—a title that could not be published today; it’s still visible online in the PRC, though no longer for order.