Turning in to tradition

Left: American tourists are surprised by the range at the Fifth-Generation Successor Instrument Store, in Kashgar. It makes and stocks not only Uygur instruments but also those of various ethnic groups in Central Asia.

Right: The world's biggest dutar and rawap come from the Fifth-Generation Successor Instrument Store. Mamatmin Aisajan, the family's second eldest brother, says they will break more world records in the future.

When Swedish Sinologist Gunnar Jarring visited Kashgar in 1930, he saw masses of people of different ethnicities and wealthy merchants riding horseback. As dusk fell, he heard faint music resonating from one of the houses - then from another, and another, and another.

The Swede was hearing dutar (two-stringed lute) being plucked as the residents of the city sang Uygur folk songs.

As the evening became darker and darker, the alleyway filled with smoke and the smells of nighttime.

Kashgar is a very different city today. But there is one alley that is still saturated with the feel of olden times. And all along Usteng Boyi Street, the same melodies that intrigued Jarring more than 70 years ago still linger in the evening air.

For centuries, craftsmen along this street have been fashioning their wares and passing along the traditional arts of Xinjiang, making Usteng Boyi a nationally famous street. Pottery, musical instruments, locally woven clothing, gold and silver jewelry - all sorts of goods from the autonomous region can be found here.

On a sunny afternoon, I was wandering among the density of stores and workshops lining Usteng Boyi Street. Housed in small bungalows, these shops have perhaps been here for hundreds of years.

I entered one of the shops from which music emanated. The store was stocked with a plethora of instruments, many of which I didn't know the names of. They lined the shelves, tables and even the floor of the place.


Left: "That's my grandfather. This is my father. We are the fifth generation of instrument makers in our family," says the first brother Mamat Tursun as he stands in front of the family's archives.

Right: Many musicians throughout Xinjiang come to the Fifth-Generation Successor Instrument Store to look for instruments.

The making of Uygur, Tajik and Uzbek instruments, such as dutar and rawap (a high-pitch plucked instrument), requires exceptionally sophisticated techniques, and only experienced craftsmen can make them well.

Historically, the crafting and sale of musical instruments was a family business. So, instrument-making techniques were passed down through generations according to bloodlines.

Accordingly, Mamat's father, brothers and students built all of the instruments in the shop I visited. Mamat said that his great-great-grandfather began making instruments, and he was the fifth-generation successor of the trade. Accordingly, the store is called the Fifth-Generation Successor Instrument Store.

In Mamat's shop, I came up a very large hand drum, inside of which 50 smaller hand drums were situated like nesting dolls. The diameter of a standard-sized hand drum is 45 centimeters, while the diameter of this one was 190 centimeters. Mamat said that this hand drum, perhaps the world's biggest, was fashioned from cowhide. While he hasn't yet applied to the Guinness World Records, he has already received several invitations to exhibit the drum.

There were about 1,000 instruments in this "Fifth-Generation Successor Instrument Store", and the craftsmen can justifiably be proud of many of them. The world's biggest Uygur instruments - a 5-meter-long dutar and a 3.7-meter-long rawap - were both built there.

The backyard of the store is a workshop for making instruments, where you could see wood from mulberry and Chinese parasol trees being fashioned into fine musical instruments by a team of busy craftsmen.

All of the store's instruments are handmade, and many of the production procedures are complicated and time-consuming.

"It takes more than a month to make a rawap of the best quality. We use mulberry wood, ox bones and ox horns, and the pattern is inlaid rather than painted," says Mamat. "It can't be made with machines, so we must rely on our hands to make instruments."


Mamatmin Irxat, the family's third eldest brother, is skilled at painting the instruments. Photos by Shi Shusen

Mamat shared with us the family lore surrounding their entry into the musical instrument-making business.

"My grandfather told me that when he was in Almaty, he learned how to make the dutar by peeping into a craftsman's door. When he came back to Kashgar, he found we has able make them himself," he says.

Mamat started studying with his grandfather and father at age 12. He often used his vacation time to study both the making and playing of instruments with his family.

In 1988, Mamat's grandfather died at the age of 99. Before him, most craftsmen who made instruments did not play them, and most players could not make the instruments. Mamat's father followed in his father's footsteps, being among the few who could both play and make these instruments. And the apple didn't fall far from the tree with Mamat, who is also multilingual.

"In 1991, the boss of Shenzhen's 'Splendid China' Theme Park came here to buy instruments," he says. "Then, he invited me work in their 'ethnic culture village'. When I came back in 1993, I had learned to speak putonghua (standard Chinese), Japanese and English. Together with my native tongue - Uygur - I can now speak four languages," he says.

As Xinjiang's tourism industry has boomed over the last few years, Uygur instruments have become increasingly popular with both domestic and foreign tourists.

Mamat's instruments have been purchased by tourists from Japan, the United States, Canada and Germany - and his knowledge of various languages helped him a lot in making these sales.

Kashgar is a city with deep cultural traditions along the ancient Silk Road. And today, its people are welcoming friends from all over the world to experience their unique culture.

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