Upper Egypt on the Silk Road

Sherif Sonbol , Monday 9 Sep 2019

On a recent trip to the Silk Road, writes Sherif Sonbol, I ended up having a musical reeducation.

It was thanks in part to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which President Xi Jinping unveiled in October 2013. It brought me Xinjiang in the west, which makes up a sixth of China’s surface area and where all 56 of the country’s ethnicities, many of them Turkic, are represented.

It was at a Uyghur dance show in the city of Kashgar, and the presenter explained that the music we were about to listen to was called Muqam. Thinking this would be a Chinese form, I was amused by the fact that it had the same name as the musical modes or maqamat – singular maqam – on which eastern, including Arabic music is based. I was therefore astonished when I ended up hearing the perfectly familiar sound of Upper Egyptian music.

Confused, I called an old friend: George Boushra, currently the conductor the London Philharmonic Orchestra who founded the Arabic Music Ensemble at Alexandria Opera House, and he explained to me that in Sufism the word maqam – which means “level” or “position” – refers to a psychological or spiritual state of the seeker. This, he said, is what the musical meaning is derived from, since a  tune’s “state” is determined by the scale in which it is composed.

Boushra eventually explained that the modal music played in China uses the exact same maqmat used in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world as well as Turkey, Iran and Central Asia. But such modes exist in other contexts too: Rachmaninoff used an eastern maqam, the Hijaz, in much of his music; and when the famous Egyptian ney player Mahmoud Effet reproduced an ancient Egyptian ney, he found it could play quarter tones, meaning that Pharaonic music was at least partly modal too.

The Uyghur Muqam, as Boushra astonished me by knowing, is made up of 12 maqamat known as “the mother of Uyghur music”. This music is related to Uzbek and Tajik music and dates back many centuries, but it is Amannisa Khan (1526-1560), the concubine of Abdurashid Khan, the ruler of the Yarkent Khanate of present-day Xinjiang, who is credited with collecting and preserving the 12 modes making up 360 tunes that take 20 hours to play in their entirety.

Following efforts to record, preserve and present it by Xinjiang’s government, notably in 1956, UNESCO recognised the Uyghur Muqam as part of the Intangible Heritage of the Humanity on 25 November 2005. The 30 classical songs and musical pieces transmitted by the Chinese lunar satellite Chang’e 1 also included Muqam selections.

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