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Mr. Shakeer

If the visit to the paper-maker was a sobering look at how traditional crafts are dying out, meeting Mr. Mahmood Shakeer, another of Gul’s contacts, was a much more encouraging example of someone who is successfully finding a home for traditional skills in a modern world.

Mr. Shakeer makes Uighur musical instruments in his home-based workshop, which we were lucky enough to visit.


He is not only a craftsman, but also a teacher and master musician. He proudly showed us a program from a trip to Japan he took 12 years ago with other prominent Uighur musicians. Gul kept reminding us, “He is really, really famous!” He is very much in demand as a teacher and as a performer, and frequently accompanies traditional dance troupes.

When he saw that we were truly interested in learning more, he played several of his instruments for us, including the ravap, tambor and the sitar. (Click here to listen to him playing). The songs were very melodic, played mainly in minor keys that seemed to speak to the harshness of the surrounding desert and the hardships of rural life. After playing the sitar, Mr. Shakeer softly commented [Gul translated], “Even when we Uighurs try to play lively tunes, they come out sounding sad.”

After playing a long sitar tune (click here to listen) that sounded by turns sorrowful and exhilarating, he commented, “When I play the sitar I take my heart and turn it into strings to show my feelings.” He played just snatches of tunes for us, but we could still recognize his tremendous passion and skill. Gul was clearly moved by the music -- so much so that she whipped out her sunglasses over tear-filled eyes.

Sami noted an unusual thing – the sitar has 10 strings, nine bunched close together and one set apart. Mr. Shakeer only touched his bow to the single string – but produced an abundant range of tones! Apparently the other nine strings provide tonal support for the single string – we weren’t too clear on how. Just one of the many mysteries of these very unusual instruments.
Another aural surprise was the shimmery echo of the tambor - it actually sounded electrified (click here to listen).

Turns out that the "electric" quality comes from using snakeskin on the drum. Mr. Shakeer showed us some dried skins being rehydrated for use in the shop, and offered to use one of the skins to make us a tambourine as a souvenir (since the prices for his stringed instruments were out of our range and we couldn’t play them anyway!) We enthusiastically agreed.

Gul then let us in on a surprise. On our first day in Khotan, Miranda had spied some beautiful traditional Uighuir gowns, and decided she’d like to have one made for herself as a souvenir. The dress shop Gul had guided us to the day before to have her measurements taken was owned by Mr. Shakeer! His tailors specialize in creating costumes for the traditional dance troupes that Mr. Shakeer accompanies in performance.

Mr. Shakeer was delighted to learn that we had already visited his shop, and promised to meet us there when we came by a few days later to pick up the dress and our special-order tambourine.

As we left his house, he vanished momentarily, reappearing with parting gifts for the girls – ripe, red pomegranates, a Xinjiang specialty.

Little did we know that these were the first of many pomegranate gifts to come!

First mulberry paper, then handmade instruments. What's the next traditional handicraft? You guessed it: hats!


Xinjiang chapter shortcuts: Intro Urumqi
Khotan Treasures Toy Bazaar Camel Weaving Shakeer Hats Food Costume Bowls Camel Ride
Overland Kashgar Old City Bazaar Kindergarten Rural Life Reunion

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