I lived in the far west of China in Xinjiang from 2006 to 2010, and I was captivated by the musical heritage of the Uyghur people. Much of their history and entertainment revolve around gatherings of song and dance, and their most popular instrument is a stringed lute known as the rawap.
The stringed instrument is usually made from the wood of a mulberry tree at a length of no more than 3 feet. The most distinctive features, however, are the snakeskin face and the “goat horns” that serve no other purpose than to decorate the round, pear-shaped body. Similar instruments exist in neighboring countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and even within various regions of Xinjiang, slightly different forms of the instrument are produced including the Kashgar rawap, Khotan rawap and Dolan rawap.
After listening to a local musician perform on a rawap, it’s tempting for modern guitar players – including me – to pick it up and think we could play. Adding to this notion of simplicity is the fact that of the 5 strings you’ll find on most rawaps, only the bottom pair are used to produce melody. The remaining 3 are known as “sympathetic” strings because they essentially sing along with the melody without changing tone.
I picked up my first rawap in Kashgar, the old caravan outpost on the western tip of Xinjiang. Following along with a seasoned local player, my left hand moved effortlessly along the fret board, free to worry about only a single pair of identical strings. For most guitar players, left hand positioning on six different strings is difficult to master, but not so for the rawap.
In contrast, my right strumming hand was having a terrible time keeping up with my local counterpart. Movement took place at the wrist, not the elbow, and the back and forth motion was two to three times the speed I was used to. The style reminded me more of playing a mandolin than a guitar, with the exception that the three sympathetic strings were only periodically struck to resonate with the melody as opposed to being strummed at all times.
I quickly decided to pick up a small drum and let the local musician play the rawap properly. Despite what seems like a limited range of notes, the instrument somehow filled the room with a rich sound that conjured up images of a time when Xinjiang was inhabited primarily by herders, merchants and traveling caravans.
Back in the regional capital of Urumqi the local bazaar is buzzing with people, many of them tourist. Stall after stall displays local nuts, fabrics, knives, art and every other imaginable tourist souvenir people would want to buy. In virtually every single shop and stall, however, there hangs a distinctive instrument with 5 strings, a snakeskin face and two goat horns. It’s a symbol of the region, its people, and the history that makes Xinjiang – and the Silk Road – so special.
Josh Summers edits the blog Far West China.
More on the rawap:
Oyqa: Uyghur musical instrument
London Uyghur Ensemble: Music of the Uyghurs
Far West China: Uyghur Man Plays the Rawap
Stacey Irvin: Photographs of the Uighurs
Sina video: Rawap
Youtube: Music of Celebration & Uyghur Rawap (performed by Dawut Awut), Devran Alimjan Ghopur play Rawap, Uyghur Caplima Rawap, Instrumental Uyghur Music (Mining Rawabim)