Celebrating Uyghur Women in Music on 3.8 (Part 2 of 2)

In the first episode of Season 1 of the Voice of the Silk Road there is a brief and poignant exchange (starting around 1:22:48) between contestant Subhinur Hékim and coach Nurnisa Abbas.* Subhinur has told the three male judges that she loves their music but does not want to be on their teams in the televised singing competition, and then comes to Nurnisa, the one female judge on the first season, and hints that she wants to be in her group for the fact that Nurnisa is a woman and she, a girl. And then she asks a question: why has Nurnisa only ever released only one album, when Subhinur was young, and then none after that? Nurnisa fumbles a bit, admitting that this wasn’t a question she expected to be asked, and she begins to suggest that to be a woman—ayal digen uqum, she says several times over, or “the concept of ‘woman'”—brings with it a special set of expectations that make a career as a singer hard. It’s not easy to put out an album every few years like it is for a man, she says. To be a woman is difficult. 

The exchange is not all that eloquent, and Nurnisa ends it with a slightly over-the-top gesture, standing up and thanking all the hard-working women singers she knows and has worked with throughout her career. There were so many more things she could have said but didn’t—perhaps because they didn’t come to mind, or because there was no time for them, or because she felt they wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about onstage. But what Nurnisa didn’t explictly say seems fairly evident: to be a woman is difficult, and to be simultaneously a good woman and a successful, prolific singer is even moreso.** Remember: It’s not easy to put out an album every few years like it is for a man. To be a woman is difficult.

In my March 8 post, I hinted at the idea that Uyghur musicians—and men in general—are often able to lead public lives and have very successful, visible careers in ways that women are not. Much of this has to do, I think, with a broad and sweeping set of social expectations that spells out very specific, gendered roles for Uyghur men and women, encapsulated in a notion that the work of men is “outside,” while the work of women is “inside,” or in the home. Marriage, preferably early, is important; to look after a husband is paramount; having kids, or “leaving descendants,” is prized; and the domestic work of keeping house, on the “inside,” is a woman’s job. This is what it means to be a good woman.

How do women figure out being all of that and a successful singer? Some women singers—including a couple on this list—have skirted the issue completely by foregoing marriage, almost unheard of in this society, in order to pursue their careers. Some have not yet married, either because they’re too young (as is clearly Berna’s case) or because they want to delay it, but most likely will someday. Others have already married and had children, disappearing from the stage for years at a time. Some of them deal with abusive husbands who strike and belittle them. And they continue to make great music, forging their way through life as both women and singers.

Izzet Ilyas ئىززەت ئىلياس

Izzet Ilyas is an Ürümchi native and actress in the Xinjiang Opera Troupe. She graduated from the acting major at the Central Theatre Conservatory in Beijing in the 1980s and has performed in Japan, Taiwan, and the former Soviet Union. She gained a following as a singer in the 1990s and still appears onstage today, including in the championship round of Season 1 of the Voice of the Silk Road.

Here’s a recent recording of her “Quyash Qizi” (Daughter of the sun):

And a much older recording, recognizable as such by the accompaniment track, of “Urghusun Naxsham” (May my song spring out):


Nurnisa Abbas نۇرنىسا ئابباس

Nurnisa Abbas, a graduate of the opera major at the Xinjiang Arts Institute, is a singer in the Ürümchi-based Circus Troupe. She has long been performing pop music on Xinjiang stages and was thrust into a major spotlight when she served as a coach on the first season of the Voice of the Silk Road in 2014–15.  Nurnisa is once again a coach on Season 2 of the show.

Here is “Nepret” (Scorn), the lyrics of which are from a poem by Chimen’gül Awut, a brilliant and highly revered poet who also happens to be a woman:

And a link to a collection of videos a YouTube user created, starting from some of Nurnisa’s much older songs, immediately identifiable as such by the midi backing:


Pasha Ishan پاشا ئىشان

Ghulja native Pasha Ishan was, remarkably, given a position in the Ghulja City Arts Troupe in 1952, when she was just 12 years old. She is one of the most beloved and respected singers of the folk repertoire among Uyghurs. In her long career she has performed all over China and the world, earning herself the nickname “Tengritagh Bulbuli” (Nightingale of the Tengritagh, or Tianshan).

Here is a performance of “Ana Méhri” (A mother’s love):

“Tagh Suliri” (Mountain waters):

Peride Mamut پەرىدە مامۇت

Peride Mamut, native of Kashgar, trained for an advanced degree in vocal studies at the Shanghai Conservatory. She shines the most, in my opinion, when she sings and plays the dutar, the two-stringed lute that she learned to play from one of her older brothers. She tends to play medleys of shox (playful) songs from the Kashgar repertoire and has a distinctive style that includes using the dutar as a percussion instrument. Her music videos provide a glimpse into the heavily gendered social worlds of Uyghur adults.

Here she is playing and singing a medley that begins with “Oynay Dep Keldim” (I came to play) and moves to a song known sometimes as “Ayropilanlar Kéliwatidu” (The airplanes are coming):

Below is another medley of folksongs, which the uploader has simply titled “Essalam” (the first part of the Arabic greeting meaning “peace be upon you”) but is actually a collection of three songs, “Essalam,” “Könglüm Xush” (My soul is happy), and “Oynasun” (Let them play):

Senuber Tursun سەنۇبەر تۇرسۇن

Senuber Tursun is one of the most famous, world-renowned of all Uyghur singers, male and female alike, largely thanks to her collaboration with the Aga Khan Foundation Music Initiative. A native of Ghulja, she is one of many children from her family who grew up to become professional musicians (here she is playing with her older brother, the late tembur master Nurmuhemmet Tursun). Senuber does it all, writing her own songs and performing from the classical and folk repertoires on dutar and voice. For the past few years she has been studying for an advanced degree in composition at the Shanghai Conservatory.

Here is her “Köngülgä Nesihet” (Advice for the soul), which includes the always-haunting line “Belkim tashlar bir küni / sen yaqturghan kishiler séni” (They might someday abandon you / the people whom you love):

Here are selections from the Chebbiyat muqam suite, but with different lyrics than that which is sung by the muqam ensemble and taught at institutes such as the Xinjiang Arts Institute (and thus different from what Ayshigül Muhemmed performed in the video from Part 1 of this post):

And for good measure, here’s a third video showcasing her dutar playing in collaboration with pipa player Wu Man at a 2015 concert in Brussels. The piece starts with the muqeddime (introduction) to Chebbiyat and also includes a lovely song from the Ghulja folk repertoire, with that distinctive Ili style, around 20:50:

Zulpiye Kurash زۇلپىيە كۈرەش

Zulpiye, an up-and-coming singer who hails from Khotän and now lives in Ürümchi, is probably the least known of the singers on this list. Her appearance at this year’s Qurban Héyt Sen’et Kéchiliki (a holiday gala in celebration of Eid al-Adha) gave her some exposure that is boosting her performance career. She performs regularly at restaurants and night clubs around Ürümchi with her husband, Alim Abdulla, whose A Studios does the arranging and audio-video production for a number of performers.

Here’s “Texi” (And still . . .), my favorite of Zulpiye’s songs; there’s a pleasant easy-ness and lightness to the way she sings:


“Qizghinmen” (I am passionate), a Uyghur-language version of an Uzbek folksong, which Zulpiye performed at a concert at Saba, the educational center run by pop singer Möminjan Ablikim:


*A note on transliteration: I have transliterated personal names and words from Uyghur using the system outlined in ULY (Uyghur Latin Yéziqi, or Uyghur Latin Script). There is a remarkable inconsistency in the transliteration of Uyghur into Latin script, and so be aware that there are many possible spellings of all these names and words.

**Another issue I’m exploring in research and hope to write about someday is the different place that Uyghur women singers and musicians occupy in repertoires. While they often sing about the same kinds of topics as men—love, mother, father, and so forth—the songs they sing often lack the emotional and climactic high points that are so important to much of Uyghur music. Emotional restraint is especially important for the woman singer, who is also discouraged from using too much vibrato because it “doesn’t suit” the female voice. There are also entire classes of instruments that women are told they cannot learn to play because they’re “too male” or require “too much strength” (meanwhile, no one talks about any instruments that men aren’t allowed to play).

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