Central Asian blend
LIVE: London Uyghur, Ensemble
Friday 06 February 2009 Printable Email CAPTIVATING: The Uyghur Ensemble.
BRIGITTE ISTIM discovers the evocative sound of Uyghur, a remote Chinese region at the end of the antient Silk Road.
Rahima Mahmut came to Britain with the pragmatic aim of studying waste management at Preston University.
Nine years on, she is often to be found holding the stage as she performs Uyghur songs from her homeland, a vast region of mountains and desert at the eastern end of the famous Silk Road. Politically, the area is now part of China, the Xinjiang autonomous region.
Rahima is lead singer with the London Uyghur Ensemble, a collection of musicians determined to perform and promote the music and culture of the central Asian Uyghur people.
Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and have a long and extraordinary history. They were noted as scribes and translators in Genghis Khan's court.
Here in 21st century Britain, the Uyghur Ensemble have brought their music to a variety of venues, including the Sidmouth folk festival and London's Diaspora Music Village.
Last week, they performed at the Horseshoe pub, a small, friendly venue in Clerkenwell.
The concert was a collection of samples intended to give a glimpse of the range of Uyghur music.
Traditional songs, often about beautiful women, and dance music featured alongside extracts from the Twelve Muqams.
The Muqams lie at the heart of Uyghur classical music and consist of "suites" or arrangements that include sung poetry and stories and dance and instrumental sections. Uyghurs are Muslim and much of the Muqam music and poetry is linked to Sufi traditions and rituals.
Rahima is a tiny woman, a dark-haired beauty with sculptural cheek bones and a commanding stage presence.
Her voice is hypnotic but far from monotonous, she moves from high to low notes, forceful to soft within a single breath.
Sometimes her voice seems to hover in the air like a bird of prey, at others it falls to a whisper, rather as though she has just swallowed the words she sang with such power only seconds before.
Rahima is accompanied by a dap drum and a trio of stringed instruments - a dutar and tambur, which are both varieties of lute, and a ghijak, a type of fiddle played with a bow.
The dap, played by Rustam Saliev, looks like a tambourine or perhaps one of those large central Asian flatbreads. In Rustam's hands it produces a light, dappled beat, the auditory equivalent of sun on water.
Rachel Harris, a founder member of the Ensemble, plays the dutar and has written extensively about Uyghur music.
She described the thriving "cassette culture" in Xinjiang. Cassettes are a relatively cheap way of recording and distributing music. They can help to preserve and promote regional traditions that might otherwise be overwhelmed by the international music industry.
For Rahima, who comes from a long line of musicians, spontaneity is one of the most vital elements of Uyghur music.
"I like to react to the music as it unfolds. The conservatoires in China give performers a very thorough training, but sometimes the results can be too formal and rigid. Every performance is and should be unique."
The Uyghur Ensemble are an eclectic group of diverse talents - Stephen Jones, who plays the ghijak, is a professional violinist in his other life.
Do catch a concert by this group if you can - they play some of the most unusual and unknown music to be heard in Britain today.
The group's next concert is on February 17 2009 at 7pm in the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre, School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H
On the internet
London Uyghur Ensemble http://www.uyghurensemble.co.uk
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