The Music of China's Nomads


he search for the most traditional sounds of China’s Kazakhs starts in the bustling and sophisticated city of Urumqi, the provincial capital of western Xinjiang Province. According to China’s 2000 census, of Urumqi’s more than 2 million inhabitants, only 2.3 percent are Kazakhs. Han Chinese account for 75.3 percent of the population, while Uighurs comprise another 12.8 percent. Since July 5, Urumqi has been the scene of interethnic unrest.

Kazakhs are struggling to maintain their distinct cultural identity in Xinjiang. Not only are demographics working against them, but their traditional pastoral and nomadic ways are running hard up against the reality of urbanization. Although Kazakhs have much in common with Uighurs, including the Muslim faith and their speaking of mutually intelligible Turkic languages, their cultures nevertheless are different. And Kazakhs want to keep it that way. Having survived the trauma of China’s Cultural Revolution, some Kazakhs are taking advantage of reforms introduced in the 1980’s, and are making a spirited attempt to revive and preserve their traditions.

Music has become a main avenue for cultural revival efforts. The Kazakhs’ musical tradition centers on a two-stringed instrument, the dömbra. These days, Kazakh-language television stations, broadcasting out of Urumqi, provide almost daily concerts and shows featuring the dömbra. The instrument is also found in most Kazakh homes, regardless of whether or not it is played. Book and CD stores in central Urumqi sell the recordings and posters of dömbra-masters, along with posters of Kazakh folk heros and leaders.

The revival in popularity of the dömbra has come to symbolize the Kazakh community’s cultural struggle in Xinjiang. And since the Soviet collapse of 1991, it has also helped foster cross-border ties with ethnic kin in Kazakhstan proper.

In the following photo essay, Han Chinese ethnomusicologist, Professor Zhou Ji, a leading expert on the music of Xinjiang’s ethnic communities, discusses the importance of the dömbra in the Kazakh community. He also highlights the instrument’s role in transmitting the Kazakh community’s history.

"The Music of China's Nomads" is a production of with funding provided by the Open Society Institute.
Copyright © 2008,