The Music of China's Nomads

he overnight bus races through the Dzungarian Basin, crossing the desert of northern Xinjiang before arriving in the fertile foothills of the Altai Mountains -- the most northerly section of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. This nook of territory with a population of just over half a million is wedged between Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It is about as far away as you can get from Beijing and still be in China. It’s also a place where the Communist Party’s reach is barely felt, and where Kazakhs comprise a majority of the population.

The area’s relative isolation means that Kazakh culture here has remained strong and the music has remained very traditional, with little or no influence from Uighur or Han Chinese musical traditions. The sounds of the Altai region borrow more from nearby Mongolia, in particular from the tradition of Khomooi, or throat singing. Russian influences are also felt to a lesser degree.

Over the past two decades, the Altai region has experienced rapid and profound economic changes. Incomes have risen, and the area has witnessed a ten-fold increase in urban population. Throughout the boom, there has been a steady influx of Han Chinese. As the Altai Prefecture continues to develop, these changes clearly are impacting the region’s traditional culture.

This photo slideshow explores how musicians in Altai are responding to changing economic and social conditions. The official response is framed by the Altai Regional Song and Dance Troupe, in which ethnic minority traditions are reinterpreted, keeping Beijing’s priorities in mind. Some individual performers also have chosen to adapt their sounds in order to cater to the tastes of increasingly numerous Han Chinese tourists. But some purists remain, people who cling to the most traditional methods of the Altai region, such as the old zhetper style of playing the Dömbra.

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