The Great Twelve Muqam

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The Great Twelve Muqam

Aziz Isa
This post was updated on .
The Great Twelve Muqam


Known as the "mother of Uyghur music," the Twelve Muqam has a long history.
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 Uyghur-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 pieces 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. Others are drawn from folk poetry, especially the popular tale of the lovers Gharip and Sanam.

The music of other ethnic groups is no match for the gigantic and neatly arranged system of the Twelve Muqam. 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. The whole set of the Twelve Muqam consists of 360 different melodies and takes over 24 hours to play in full.

While Muqam is a musical form that has spread in Islamic areas throughout the world, the Twelve Muqam carries distinct Uyghur characteristics. What is significant about its compilation is that Amannisahan did not borrow material from the wealthy and fully developed Arabian and Persian repertoires. Instead, she exploited the rich resources of Uyghur folk music spread out in the wide area in the north and south of the Tangri Tagh - Heavenly Mountains. As a result, the Twelve Muqam is especially distinct due to its strong Uyghur flavor.

Since its spread among the Uyghurs, the Twelve Muqam has played an inseparable role in the people's lives. They dance to the accompaniment of Twelve Muqam and sing songs and ballads to its melodies.

The Muqam are usually performed by a small ensemble of singers, led by the lead singer (the Muqamchi), accompanied by plucked or bowed lutes and a dap frame drum; they may also be played in instrumental form by kettle drum and shawm bands. Playing the Muqam is not reserved to an exclusive group of professional musicians; historically it was performed in folk contexts as well as in the courts of local kings.

Men and women, beggars and respected religious men may practice this tradition, and the Muqam are often referred to in terms of a spiritual, even physical need. Listening to the Muqam can still serve a religious and meditative function, especially in the context of Xinjiang's great religious festivals.

In 1956, Muqam master Turdi Ahun working with other assistants, took great pains to record most of the vocal melodies and librettos of the Twelve Muqam on tape. They also recorded the music by hand. Their efforts paved the way for the renaissance of this cultural tradition. In 1960, two volumes of Twelve Muqam sung by Turdi Ahun were published. The oral cultural heritage was finally secured in the form of its first publication.

Over the past two decades, local regional cultural institutions have sponsored seminars, supported research projects, and published a number of books with the Twelve Muqam as the focal theme. Over the past four years, 7,000 performers -- many of them Uyghurs -- have participated in the national key publication project. Their concerted efforts have resulted in the release of CDs, VCDs, and DVDs of the Twelve Muqam of Uyghur.

Structure of Twelve Muqam

The Twelve Muqam each consist of suites of fixed melodic sequences and order. To sing a complete Muqam takes around two hours. Each of the Twelve Muqam is structured as follows:

Muqaddima (introduction) --

sung solo in free meter. Themes dwell on human suffering and religious feeling. The lyrics are attributed the great Central Asian poets.

Chong naghma (great music) -- a suite of named pieces in varying set rhythms. Each sung piece is followed by an instrumental ornamented version, marghul. The chong naghma is the longest and most complex section of the Muqam. Of the Muqam performed today only about half possess the full complement of eight pieces in the chong naghma and work is ongoing to restore, or more often re-create, the missing pieces.

Dastan (narrative songs) --

each Muqam contains several dastan in different rhythms. Again each dastan is followed by an instrumental marghul. The lyrics are drawn from sections of folk narrative songs and relate the stories of famous lovers. The melodic range of the dastan is particularly wide.

Mashrap (gathering) --

several faster sung pieces in 2/4 or sometimes 7/8 rhythms, consisting of folk love poetry. This section of the Muqam is for dancing. Usually the lyrics of the first mashrap are attributed to a famous poet.

Each Muqam is distinguished by its dominant melodic patterns and modal characteristics, with some featuring the use of a principal and a secondary mode. Modulation is a major feature of the Twelve Muqam.

The development of melodic material is an attractive feature of the Muqam. Typically a single theme develops over the course of several phrases, tracing an arc moving from low to high to low pitch, then transposing into the secondary mode.

The Twelve Muqam works are found around southern Xinjiang, and also in the Ili valley although only the muqaddima and dastan sections are now performed in Ili. The vocal style here has absorbed much of the local flavor, and the preferred instruments are the plucked lutes tambür and dutar, the chang hammer dulcimer, and the violin, while the dap-frame drum is rarely used. The other three regional Muqam are distinct from the Twelve Muqam in structure.

The Turpan Muqam, of which nine have been creditably collected, each consist of a suite (set of musical compositions) in six named sections: Each of the Turpan Muqam generally corresponds to one mode, and each is about thirty minutes in length.

Although no information on its historical transmission is currently available, musically there is much to link the Turpan Muqam to the chong naghma of the Twelve Muqam. While the section names differ, there is correspondence in overall structure, rhythmic cycles, and melodic material. The preferred instrument for the Turpan Muqam is the sitar bowed lute, plus the tambür, dutar, chang, and dap frame drum accompanying voices. The Turpan Muqam are also played in an instrumental version on the combination.

Although it is common practice now to refer to the Qumul Muqam, the use of term Muqam here is recent. The Qumul Muqam take the form of suites of local folksongs, varying in length between eight and twenty-two songs, with a free rhythm muqaddima at their head. Nineteen suites have been collected and published as the Qumul Muqam. Each suite bears an Arab or Persian name, some of which are similar to the Twelve Muqam. Musically, however, there is little to link the Qumul tradition to the Twelve Muqam.

Nevertheless, Qumul folk musicians still use the local names, thus the Qumul Rak Muqam is popularly known as Sayrang Bulbulum (Sing, My Nightingale). The Qumul Muqam has a strong pentatonic (five notes) base. The main instrument for the Qumul Muqam is the Qumul ghijak accompanied by the Qumul rawap, chang, and dap.

Tangritagh Majmuasi Publication©
Adopted by the Uyghur Culture & History Studies Group - 2010

11 May at 11:12 · Delete Post

London Uyghur Ensemble