Aiyiti (right) plays one of his musical instruments with his apprentice in Aiyiti’s house. Photo: Liu Xin/GT

Every time Aiyiti Yiming plays his hand made Dutar, his youngest daughter dances along to the music. It’s a scene that always backs memories of Aiyiti playing the instrument with his departed father.

“I learned how to make these musical instruments from my father when I was 15 years old, and he learned the skills from my grandfather. I earn a living from making these instruments, and I love the music,” Aiyiti said.

Aiyiti was born in 1954 in Jiayi village, Xinhe county in Aksu Prefecture, Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. 

“Jiayi” means “residents living along the road” in Uyghur, as all the houses in this village were built along the main road. One village tale tells of a musician called Shayifu Banlihe. Hundreds of birds would fly around him when he played his instrument, and passers-by would also be mesmerized by his music.

There are more than 106 households in the village that make musical instruments of ethnic groups, including the Dutar, Surnay, Qushtar, Tambur, Rawab and Dombra.

Because of his skill, Aiyiti stood out among them. He was named an inheritor of an intangible cultural heritage for making musical instruments of ethnic groups in Xinjiang in 2008, and has trained more than 80 apprentices in Xinhe county.

Hands-on

Visitors to Aiyiti’s house can see two rooms that have been converted into workshops, one for making musical instruments and one for displaying the completed ones. In one workshop, there are piles of wood and half-finished instrument parts, some resembling a large spoon. 

Aiyiti pointed to one of the spoon-like pieces of wood and explained, “This is the Dutar, which is made of mulberry wood. We need to use a special chisel to make the wood into an oval-like shape on one side and make the other side hollow.” 

The other parts of the Dutar include crooked wooden chips that cover the outside of the oval-like body, a long “handle” for the strings, and ornamental decorations for the musical instrument.

Half-completed Dutars in Aiyiti’s workshop Photo: Liu Xin/GT

“It takes dozens of days to complete a Dutar. Take the one which I sell for 30,000 yuan ($4,472), for example. The ornaments on it were made of high-quality ram’s horn and snakeskin. It takes a year to finish making three such Dutar,” Aiyiti said.

It used to take a longer time to make one instrument, as materials were hard to find. “The strings of the Dutar were made of ram’s intestines. I bought intestines and put them into salty water for about three days. And then by using a stick with two holes on each side, I stretched them again and again to make it as thin and soft as it needed to be,” Aiyiti said.

Thanks to industrial advances, there is now no need to go to such lengths to produce strings. Aiyiti said that he can now buy the different strings he needs from markets that can guarantee their quality.

But he insists on making the other parts of different musical instruments by hand, and asks all his apprentices to do the same. “Making musical instruments is a craft that needs to be carried forward to the next generation,” he said.

Path out of poverty

Many households in Jiayi village are considered poverty-stricken families. 

Aiyiti now has more than 10 apprentices learning how to make these instruments with him in his workshops. Many of them are from poverty-stricken families.

Aiyiti’s family also lived a very restricted life when his business selling handmade instruments was not doing well previously. But his circumstances improved after he was named an inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage for making musical instruments of ethnic groups.

Now, the income from his workshops is about 30,000 yuan a month, and his son has opened a shop in Xinhe county selling handmade instruments. 

“I give more than 500 yuan to newcomers a month and offer a monthly salary of 4,000 to 5,000 yuan to apprentices who are more skillful. And we give them free meals,” Aiyiti said.

Aihmeti Rouzi is one of Aiyiti’s apprentices. “My family has no land. But now I am supporting my four-member family by making musical instruments,” he said.

For many families in Jiayi village, making musical instruments has become a way out of poverty. 

One of Aiyiti’s apprentices uses a chisel to make a Dutar. Photo: Liu Xin/GT

Back in May, 2014, the county government approved the establishment of an incubation base for developing businesses related to traditional musical instruments for ethnic groups, offering free training and preferential policies to local residents who make musical instruments and work in the tourism industry, according to Aksu Daily. 

As many cultures in Xinhe county have been identified as intangible heritages, including the craft of making traditional musical instruments, the county government has put forward policies on developing and preserving this heritage. For example, it encourages skilled craftsman like Aiyiti to train apprentices, giving 150,000 yuan in financial support every year.

Other measures include sending apprentices who perform particularly well to study in art academies in Xinjiang, according to the release from Xinhe government. 

Aiyiti said that his wish for the future is to do his best to train good apprentices and pass his skills to the next generation.

“With the full support of different parties in society, I hope more people can learn the beauty of making and playing the musical instruments of different ethnic groups,” he said.
Newspaper headline: Living with music