In case you’re just tuning in: Perhat Khaliq’s a Uyghur rock musician from Urumqi in western China. He and his band Qetiq have been combining traditional folk melodies and rock, playing around the world, rather memorably wowing judges at the reality TV show the Voice of China in 2014.
If you wanna read more about his history, click on this South China Morning Post article. Because we’re not gonna be focussing on the man: we’re gonna be talking about the event.
First off, YES. This is a pretty great show. It’s a short set, maybe just over an hour if you don’t count the absurdly long curtain call (the German drummer insisted on beating a tattoo over everything from his cymbals to the floor to the speakers to a recycling bin just off stage). But it’s tight: every song counts, the mood shifts from joyous to sorrowful, from solo to duet to chorus, from ancient folk to stuff Perhat wrote just last year.
Perhat himself is an oddly sexy mofo: yeah, he’s botak with a dadbod, but the way he half-closes his eyes with the intensity of the emotion of whatever he’s singing, how he carries the weight of eternity in his songs and then swings his guitar around with the swagger of a cocky twenty-one year-old—that’s yum.
And his voice—he growls his songs, especially those he’s written himself, which are less melodic and almost, I dunno, not rap, maybe Sprachstimme? I’ve heard he’s influenced by Bob Dylan, but there’s a whole bunch of cultural influences going on which I don’t know.
Qetiq: Mukaddas Mijit (piano and dance), Abulsalam Abilimit (Percussion), Pazilet Tusun (vocals), Joachim Dölker (drums), Perhat Khaliq (vocals and guitar), Erjan Baysahal (guitars, vocals and dumbura), Mehmut Muhemmet (tambur, satar), Jawlan Jassur (bass)
Which brings me to the Uyghur language. As soon as Qetiq begins crooning his famous Dola Muqam, it feels like there’s something magical in the air. Maybe I’m exoticising the language (which isn’t even all that alien to me, because I’ve been studying Turkish), but it was these songs that struck me far more than his Mandarin songs.
And cultural vocabulary of the lyrics! Shall the name of a man with good deeds ever die down? Of a man of evil, no-one ever asks the thereabouts. I am the sound of the samovar. I am the geese flying over the desert. Even songs about collective industry in factories! It’s epic, and you don’t get lines like that in any kind of pop music today. But you get it here.
And there’s so much love, as Keng Sen later said. Perhat actually has his wife Pazilet come up on stage with him and they sing duets together. I went over the river of Tarim saying goodbye to my lover. The lover is me, I am whipped 80 times over. The face of my lover has granted me burns, and by kissing it, burns again. And at one point Perhat's translator/ethnomusicologist/keyboardist Mukadas Mijit gets up and begins dancing (something akin to Middle Eastern bellydance, perhaps, with none of the trappings?), and Pazilet dances with her...
There’s part of me that still feels this whole business of having Qetiq play in Victoria Theatre is super-boozhy—they should be on Fort Canning Green or the outdoor stage at the Esplanade at least, melting everyone’s faces off.
But a world music festival wouldn’t have bothered to translate his lyrics. They wouldn’t have us thinking about the cultural politics of trying to reinvent traditional music, of redeeming the identity of the Uyghurs in a time when so many Han Chinese associate them with terrorism. And really, the $45 cover-all ticket for this avant-garde arts festival is cheaper than tickets for most outdoor music festivals, so we're juxtaposing him with all the other works from regions of conflict that are on show (Newsha Tavakolian's I Know Why the Rebel Sings and Rabih Mroué's Riding on a Cloud, f'rinstance).
And the audience was bloody diverse. I went on opening night, and besides the standard arts glitterati, there were Perhat's mainland Chinese fans, musicians with their hulking double bass cases in tow, curious students, Japanese salarymen, even a blind woman who'd come with her guide dog...
So yeah, this was a democratic little thingumajig. I wish I'd brought my boyfriend, who would've really dug the Kazakh throat-singing (please don't question his kinks). And who's to say Perhat can't return to Singapore for a world music festival sometime?
Speaking of world music—I couldn't help but be think, as he began a song dedicated to his guitar (You never blamed me for breaking all your strings!) about the strange historical journey that took place in order for him to be rocking out as he does now. Lutes were invented in ancient Mesopotamia, which became the Muslim world in medieval times—hence the Persian barat and the Arab oud. The Moors brought them to Spain, where they became guitars.
And of course, the Spaniards invaded the Americas and began importing enslaved Africans to work on their land. And in the 20th century, the descendants of these Africans transformed the guitar—both acoustic and electric—into a tool for expressing hope and rebellion through popular music, ultimately conquering the world and inspiring someone in this little spot of Western China to play this instrument together with the dumbura and the tambur and the satar.
But of course, it's the same forces of world history that are endangering traditional Uyghur culture. Perhat specifically makes the decision to address the audience in Uyghur at the beginning, leaving us bamboozled until Mukaddas steps in to translate him into English. He apologises that he doesn't speak English—and I'm wondering if he chose not to speak Mandarin out of habit (he's been touring Europe, after all) or out of resistance to the world's largest native language. Although he does punctuate his songs with a "thank you xie xie", to the extent that I don't know how to say "thank you" in Uyghur yet...
(Turns out it's رەخمەت سىزگە / Räxmät sızgä.)
But they're the same forces that made it possible, when we clamoured for an encore to his set, for him to do his Voice of China breakout song How Can You Let Me Be So Sad? / 你怎么舍得我难过 and to have a whole lot of the audience already know the words, singing along with him in the chorus...
Globalisation, man. We learn to speak each other's words. But how do we save our memory of our own?