The Uyghur Musical Instrument Workshop

Instrument Maker’s Workshop

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.

Uyghur Lutes and other Stringed Instruments

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).

Selection of Snakeskin-covered Rawaps

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.

Mr. Ababakri Playing a Rawap

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.

Musical Instrument Workshop

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:

Mr. Ababakri’s Card

The Color of Pomegranates

Young Man Selling Pomegranate Juice

He grabbed a pomegranate from the table next to him and flashed a shy smile my way as I approached. I nodded and a quick flash of steel followed by a skilled twist and the fruit was open. He placed half on the machine, spun the wheel and a few seconds later blood-red juice flowed from it’s silver jaws into my glass. The scent was light but complex and the taste, sweet and tart and almost unbearably delicious. This was nothing like the bottled juice full of citric acid or sugar that one finds in US markets, this was Isfandiyar’s nectar, a wonderful treat!

Domesticated in Mesopotamia by the third millenium BCE (and possibly well before), pomegranates have also been recovered from later Bronze Age archaeological sites in Israel and Cyprus. The Egyptians had orchards full of pomegranate trees by the time of Hatshepsut’s rule (1479-1458 BCE), and the Phoenicians were an important force in spreading the fruit across North Africa and into Southern Europe as their seaward empire grew. The spread north and eastward was across the ancient network of land and maritime trade routes we have come to call the Silk Road.

As the fruit has been traded and adopted, many cultivars have been selected for that vary in fruit and seed color, sweetness, acidity, and astringency. The fruits themselves vary in color from a creamy off-white, to yellow, to the familiar shades of pink and red to a dark, to an almost-black purple. Seeds (sometimes called arils) also vary in color from crimson to a clearish-white color.

Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity and even death and rebirth. They have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Think on that as you anticipate the fruit of this year’s harvest. Above all, when they finally arrive, drink a fresh glass of juice and know the taste of heaven. (Words and photo of a Young Man Selling Pomegranate Juice by Laura Kelley).

Kashgar Naan

Fresh-baked bread.  Three simple words that conjure up a host of wonderful sensations. The aroma of the bread. How it rises and turns first a golden, then a tawny color as it bakes.  The crackle of the crust and the feel of the warm bread on your hands as you tear off a piece.  The soft texture in your mouth . . . and the flavor!  It’s earthy, a bit sour and sweet at the same time, a little savory. . . Nothing beats it (well, almost nothing, anyway).

Now imagine you are in far-western China and you are experiencing all of these sensations, but you are in a small café on a dusty sideroad to the Karakorum Highway.  Welcome to my world.  But, it gets better.  On the table there is a small bowl of black tea brewed to perfection with fragrant rosepetals floating on the surface.  Plates are piled high with a pilaf of rice and lamb joints with julienned carrots or perhaps some lagman noodles with vegetables.  You sit on an ornate wool carpet of crimson and white design around a low, square table and chat with your dining companions or just silently enjoy the wonderful meal in front of you.

Milling with the sounds and sites of this dusty town (Opal, China) is the unmistakable aroma of freshly made bread.  Next to the café, a husband and wife team are busy making the next order of naan to sell at their stall and to sell to nearby restaurants.

Making naan: Rolling out the dough

The woman pounds and rolls out the balls of dough into plate-size flatbreads.  The dough is usually a plain naan like the recipe below, but it could also have lamb fat worked into the dough or minced onions or even ground seeds like fennel for mildly spiced bread.  Most of the time a durham wheat flour is used, but the Uzbekis sometimes use a chickpea flour as well.  After she has formed the naan, she stamps spiral designs on them with her chekish or stamper.  The stamper, although utilitarian, is a work of art unto itself.  It is handmade by the local craftsman of hardwood decorated with marquetry inlay.  The metal teeth are hand-sharpened and easily double as a defensive weapon in close combat.  When she is done, she hands the bread to her husband, or piles them nearby.

Making naan: Topping and Placing bread in the oven.

He puts sesame seeds and a bit of salt on the bread and tamps it down lightly.  The toppings for bread can be diverse, sesame and poppy are probably the most commonly seen, although on the most recent trip to China, I encountered naan with pounded peanuts on top at a vendor near the Turpan train station.  In Uzbekistan they like onions with fennel or anise seed, in Afghanistan the toppings are probably going to be caraway or black cumin or sesame – so the flavor can vary quite a bit.  The husband sizes and shapes the bread by placing it on the outside of a mold or clean pan and then slaps the bread onto the wall of the tandoor-style oven.  The natural moisture of the bread adheres it to the wall.

In a few minutes – given the high temperature of the oven – they are done, he stacks them to cool or sells them hot to eagerly waiting customers.

This is how much of the world eats.  Flatbread and tea with or without some sort of dairy in it (from a cow, sheep, horse or yak), or flatbread with bits of roasted fat-tailed mutton  or other meat or sweetbread wrapped inside.  Simple, delicious and nutritious.

Naan baking in the oven

The recipe below will help you get into the flatbread groove.  Others are available in The Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1 and more will be included in the second volume of the book. (Words, photos and recipe by Laura Kelley).

Kashgar Naan

Similar to many Uzbek recipes, this flatbread is baked in a stone tandoor, the stove of the region, which is sometimes buried in the ground. As with naan and bread recipes from Volume 1 of The Silk Road Gourmet, it is possible to use an all-metal wok turned upside down in the oven as a surface to “slap” dough on. Likewise, one can use the recommended method of baking on ungreased baking sheets for a delicious taste of Kashgar.

1 ½ cups warm water
1 package dry, active yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame and poppy seeds (or other topping)

1. Mix warm water, yeast, and sugar together and set aside to activate for about 10 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of flour to the yeast mixture, mix well, and set aside for another 5 minutes.

2. Add remaining flour to a large mixing bowl, indent the center to form a well, and add the yeast mixture to the flour and mix well. When mixed enough to handle with your hands, knead the dough for about 5 minutes and then place it back in the bowl, cover, and let rest for 1–1 ½ hours. For softer bread, less prone to crackle, let rest an additional 20-25 minutes.

3. Punch down the dough, divide into 8 equal parts, and roll each part into a ball. Shape each ball into a circle about the size of a large dinner plate: about 8 inches in diameter and ½-inch thick. Take a fork and lightly trace lines or crisscrosses (or use a chekish (stamper) if you have one). Sprinkle with sesame and/or poppy seeds and press lightly onto surface. Place on ungreased cookie sheet or slap onto heated, all-metal wok inside a traditional oven preheated to 350°. Cook for 10 minutes and turn for even cooking. Total cooking time about 15 – 20 minutes.

Riding Down the Karakorum Highway

I arrived in Kashgar after a nearly three-day trip from DC with a layover and shower in Urumqi lasting only a few hours.  I was met at the airport by a couple of wonderful Uyghur guys from Kashgar Guide/Xinjiang Travel who whisked me straight out of the city and onto the Karakorum Highway for a bit of adventure.  Dust swirled as we sped southwest on the highway past blooming apricot trees and swaths of wheat sprouting bright green amid the sand and clay.  We stopped in Opal to buy food for a picnic and found fresh naan and lamb kebabs as well as a gorgeous seletion of fresh fruit.  We packed it all up for a lunch at Karakol Lake and started out again. We continued for a way on the dusty plain, but soon the mountains were looming up on the left. They rose higher and higher until they formed a massive snow-capped wall in front of us.

Karakorum Highway

As we began to make our way through the Karakorum Range through the Ghez River Valley, the mountains rose higher and higher until some of the peaks topped 8000 meters in height. The land around me was like a living geological textbook – with some of the best examples of uplift and water erosion I’ve ever seen. The strata in most cases can be read like a book. It is not a fertile place. It is dry and forbidding this time of the year. Many of the lakes and streams were low or dry, but I was told that was becasue the snows on the mountaintops hadn’t melted yet. Then water is plentiful and the plains flood and the rivers roar with clean water from on high. Everywhere, domesticated yaks and camels graze freely on the sparse dried vegetation they can find amongst the dry rocks and gravel.

Mighty Muztagh

We were told by some Tajik herdsmen that in this area they only make Yak dairy in September and October becasue the pasture is so poor before the melted snow comes. They leave the milk for the young at this difficult time until the young yak are fully able to graze on their own.

Herd of Grazing Yak

After we left the Ghez Valley the road turned south again and continued to rise in altitude. As we left the mountains we entered into a valley of some of the most splendidly desolate scenery I have ever seen. The Pamir foothills rose on the right. Great cloud banks moved over head casting deep shadows over the land below and my head was full of Steve Reich marimbas and the whistle of cool Spring wind.

Splendid Desolation in the Pamirs

We met a mixed group of Tajik and Kyrgyz traders camped by the roadside selling amber goods ranging from necklaces to scorpions embedded in the harded sap. The tall Kyrgyz trader haltingly told me in English that he would give me the hat off his head – so I bought it. I saw him on the return journey with a new hat, so apparently that is part of his sales routine. So many hats so few tourists.

Tajik and Kyrgyz Traders

We finally stopped for lunch at Karakol Lake and dined on the naan and kebabs as well as the most sweet small oranges I’ve ever had, and fantastic local pears. The fat from the lamb flavored the naan perfectly and the pears were crisp and sweet and juicy with firm texture and would, I think, make good cooking pears. We wanted to make Tashkorgan before dark and walked around only briefly. I was not yet adjusting well to the altitude – we were already approching 4,000 meters – so the briefest of walks was fine with me.

Yurts near Lake Karakol

Tashkorgan gets its name from the ancient Stone Fortress on the outskirts of the city. The ruined fort, which is the ancient capitol of the Tajik people, was inhabited more than 2000 years ago as part of the kingdom of Puli. The capital and surrounding encampments were at their most powerful between the 7th and the 10th Centuries ACE. Then began a period of war and decline that lasted form more than 100 years until the city was a shadow of its former self. When the Mongols conquered, the city was sacked and destroyed. Its odd though, the modern city of Tashkorgan still has a lot of Tajiks living permanently there as if standing guard over the ruins of their lost city. This population swells seasonally with the influx of other semi-nomadic Tajiks as well.

Kids in Tashkorgan

We walked around the modern city first and came upon a small market on a side street. They had the most delicious looking roasted chickens coated with chili peppers and sesame seeds – spicy and earthy at the same time. I bought several different types of chilis – each one more powerful than the next. The kids were everywhere and unlike in the States, they roamed freely through the streets. They are gorgeous and looked like they could be from anywhere in the northern hemisphere – other than China and Eastern Asia.

The Stone Fortress

My guide, Hasan, and I climbed up to the great fortress and sat on top overlooking the deserted plain below. The fort is surrounded on three sides by mountains and opens on the east to the Taklamakan desert. Turning away from the modern city which lay nearby, the rest of the landscape is today exactly as it was when the Stone Fortress was bustling with life and love and trade. Ancient ammunition still littered the ground. Now and again we spied a perfectly rounded stone a bit larger than the rest that was used with a slingshot in defense of the realm. We sat for a long time as the sun started to fade. The silence was broken only by the tittering of an eagle in the distance like an echo out of the past. (Words and photos by Laura Kelley)