In a world of mass production and consumption, it is wonderful from time to time to appreciate the beauty and increasing rarity of hand-crafted goods. One of the ways that I was recently able to do so was during a visit to a Uyghur musical instrument workshop in Kashgar. There I found a variety of instruments crafted from mulberry or apricot wood that, in addition to being functional, were works of art – true masterpieces of inlay and marquetry.
A selection of fretted and unfretted lutes and other stringed instruments hung from the walls and ceiling, bodhran-like daf drums in stacks on the floor. In the rear of the store is a large, magnificent rawap or rabab decorated with snakeskin, bone and horn, and the bowed kushtars with carved birds perched lightly on the top of the neck where scrolls are positioned on western violin-like instruments. Reeds, pipes and painted and inlaid camel gourds were scattered on the central tables of the store. A treasure-trove of Uyghur musical culture all under one roof.
For the most part, many Uyghur musical instruments are related to Central and Western Asian instruments with some even having counterparts in the Levant and on the Arabian Peninsula. Some scholarly work suggests that some of these instruments even arose from Mesopotamian instruments and the history of their use is several millenia old.
In the lute-like class, there is the tanbur which is a long-necked fretted lute with a pear-shaped resonator of mulberry wood and a thin, graceful walnut neck. The tanbur has fourteen frets tuned in a semi-tempered chromatic scale and five metal strings attached in three courses to a bridge. The dutar is made from separate ribs of mulberry wood glued together with often a narrow half round strip on the outside of the joins. Its flat front has no soundholes. Its long thin neck has movable frets usually tuned in a half-diatonic scale. It has two strings and is strummed or plucked with the fingers of the right hand. The khushtar is a stringed instrument that resembles a viola that has 4 strings tuned G, D, A, E. It is played upright, often while balanced on the knee and bowed with the right hand while the left works the frets. The setar is a lute with four (sometimes three) strings and a large and variable number of movable frets (sometimes as many as 25 -27).
For me, the most visually stunning of the instruments is the rawap. It has a rounded base made of a single piece of mulberry wood that is usually covered with snakeskin. In the case of this instrument workshop, python skin imported from Burma was the most commonly used skin. In addition to the snakeskin, the horns just above the junction of base and neck are characteristic. Today these are usually constructed of marqueted bone, but one or two examples in the shop had old-school horns on them. Both the base and neck are often inlaid with intricate designs. These instruments have three strings laid in three courses and are usually played with a plectrum on the right hand.
The most special part of the visit was to meet the shop owner, Mr. Muhammad Emin Ababakri, who is a fifth generation Uyghur musical instrument craftsman, and to get a brief tour of the workshop where all of his remarkable creations are made. Made by hand, by himself and by the other craftsmen he employs. I got to view several stages of instrument construction from honing the neck of a lute to tuning a newly made dutar and making sure the tone was of good enough quality’s to sell in Mr. Ababakri’s shop. You’ll find no plastic or nylon on his instruments, all of his frets are made from viscera or silk, and no plastic in the inlay, only bone, horn and wood – the finest traditional materials for the most beautiful instruments.
Alas, I left the shop empty-handed, because the instruments are dear even by western standards, but I will fondly remember the trip and may even write back to see if a rawap can be shipped to the US someday. (Words and photos by Laura Kelley. For those wishing to contact Mr. Ababakri, his card is scanned beneath the Uyghur musical samples.)
This first example Uyghur music is of a musician named Envar playing the dutar and singing:
This next you-tube video is great (if a bit cheesy with the musicians on a rotating lazy-susan) because it showcases several instruments and shows basically how they are played and sound. I also like the traditional riff rendered on a modern cello: