The People's Republic of China is inordinately proud of its multi-ethnic composition, and the richness of the folk traditions it encompasses, but that doesn't stop it bearing down heavily on any group it deems to be stepping out of line. And this goes particularly for the oasis-dwellers on its north-western flank in Xinjiang.
But the music to be found there is unusually interesting, as befits a region where Arabic, Turkish, and Persian influences mingle with influences from Russia, and where the culture of the Orient was brought west via the historic Silk Road.
Half of Xinjiang's population is Uighur, a Turkic people whose Muslim religion has in no way hindered their musical inventiveness. Until recently, their towns were accessible only via camel caravans, and their complex and codified muqam music consequently remained unsullied by outside influences - until the coming of Chairman Mao. But since muqam answered the Uighurs' spiritual needs, they went on performing it clandestinely, as one old folk singer attested: "During the Cultural Revolution I was forbidden to sing the muqam, and I could feel it building up inside me with great heat. Finally I got on my donkey and rode into the desert. I rode until I was far away from all people, then I started to sing. I sang all the muqam I knew, and then I went back. If I had not done this, I would have become ill."
There are two CDs on the market which give a vivid taste of this historic musical culture. Chine: Xinjiang; La Route de la Soie (Playasound PS65087) is a superb collection of field recordings from the 1980s, reflecting many forms of musical sophistication.
Aziz Niyaz, who is one of the singers on The Uyghur Musicians from Xinjiang (CDORBD 098), spent three months in hospital after being beaten for plying his trade, but that only stiffened his resolve; as he's illiterate, his son teaches him the ancient lyrics. To listen to him singing a sad muqam, accompanied by the tawny resonance of the bowed lute known as the satar, is to sense the strength of the whole Uighur tradition.