The Uyghurs' best-known musical form, On Ikki Muqam

Source: Global Times [17:11 March 17 2011]

The Uyghurs' best-known musical form is the On Ikki Muqam, a complex suite of twelve sections related to Uzbek and Tajik forms. These complex symphonies vary wildly between suites in the same muqam, and are built on a seven-note scale. Instruments typically include dap (a frame drum), hammered dulcimers, fiddles and lutes; performers have some space for personal embellishments, especially in the percussion. However, there is much variation on the number and kind of instruments used in the performance of a muqam. In November 2005 the Art of Uyghur Muqam was named a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

The most prestigious and well-known genre of Uygur music is the Muqam, the large-scale suites of song, instrumental and dance music. In addition to the Muqam the Uygurs maintain popular traditions of song epic tales and other forms of narrative song; suites of dance music; instrumental music; musical genres linked to the ceremonies, and a huge repertoire of folksongs which commonly dwell on the suffering of life on earth and the torments of frustrated love. Today these traditional genres compete with a lively pop music industry and the music of the professional, state-sponsored troupes.

Known as the "mother of Uygur music," the Twelve Muqam has a long history. Some scholars believe its origin can be traced back to the "Great Western Region Melody" that flourished during the Han (206BC-AD220) and Tang (618-907) dynasties and enjoyed a high popularity in Central China. 

In the mid-16th century, aided by other musicians, the imperial concubine Amannisahan of the Yarkant Kingdom, who was also an esteemed poetess and musician, devoted all her efforts to collecting and compiling Muqam music, which was then scattered across Uygur-populated areas. She finally worked out 12 grand, yet light and entertaining compositions that are now known as the Twelve Muqam.

The Twelve Muqam are large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes and instrumental sections. Some of the lyrics of the Muqam are drawn from the great Central Asian Chagatay poets. Some are drawn from folk poetry, especially the popular tale of the lovers.

Contemporary scholars refer to four distinct regional genres: the Twelve Muqam of the Kashgar-Yarkand region, the Turpan Muqam, the Qumul Muqam, and the Dolan Muqam. Strictly following the astronomical almanac, each of the Twelve Muqam is divided into three parts: Cong Naghma, Dastan, and Mashrap, each with 25-30 sub-melodies.

After the founding of new China (1949), the local government of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region made every effort possible to preserve the Twelve Muqam. The whole set of the Twelve Muqam consists of 360 different melodies and takes over 24 hours to play in full.