Askar Grey Wolf: songs from the old Silk Road

August 18, 2009
Article from:The Australian

The band Askar Grey Wolf conjures up the romantic and egalitarian spirit of China's far west, pointing to a more harmonious time in the region, writes Madeleine O'Dea

It was the autumn of 1994 and I was in Beijing, on my way to the far western province of Xinjiang to film a story for the ABC's Foreign Correspondent program.

There were rumours of trouble with the Turkic-speaking people of the region, but our interest ran deeper than current affairs. Xinjiang, little visited back then, was at the heart of the old Silk Road, a historic crossing point of cultures stretching back over a thousand years. Chinese, Indian and Persian traders had passed through its desert oases, while its rugged mountain passes had led them into Central Asia and on to Europe. What could it be like today?

In Beijing, a Sinologist friend told me if I really wanted to know what Xinjiang was like, I should see a band called Grey Wolf. It was playing at the capital's first live music venue, a place called Poacher's.

And so one night I found myself jammed against a stage mesmerised by lead singer Askar, wild-haired and charismatic, who serenaded us with songs of deserts and mountains, wolves and wild spaces and beautiful Russian girls who broke your heart. The music was rock, but there was something else. It would be a few years before Askar added Xinjiang's traditional instruments to his line-up, but the feel of those ancient rhythms was already there. The notes rolled off the band's guitars in melodies that spoke of the Silk Road and all its way stations from Persia to Spain.

And in the crowd, among the rest of us bopping and vogueing, were the Xinjiang-born dancers, the men almost courtly as they spun and bowed to their partners, the women's arms gracefully, sinuously held aloft.

Askar Grey Wolf went on to become the first world music band in China. Blending electric guitar riffs with the tones of Xinjiang's strings, the graceful, long-necked tambur and the plaintive ghijak, the eight musicians, five Uighur and three Han Chinese, created a new kind of music that surged with the energy of China's multi-layered culture.

Last month I took the long flight across the plains of north China and the snow-capped Tian Shan range to Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital. On the eve of Askar Grey Wolf's first Australian tour, I wanted to talk to Askar about the journey that had made him one of China's most distinctive musical voices.

I arrived in Urumqi just two weeks after the bloody ethnic riots that erupted there on July5. My hotel near the old Uighur bazaar overlooked the barracks of the People's Armed Police, China's internal security paramilitary force. The courtyard was a parking lot for military lorries and white-painted personnel carriers decked with slogans about ethnic harmony. I woke each morning to the crash of boots and shouted orders.

In the streets near the Grand Bazaar, the epicentre of the riots, truckloads of troops rolled by behind Perspex riot shields, staring out into the street. At each corner of the main square stood armed squads of police. Camouflaged beach umbrellas shaded them from the central Asian sun.

I walked past two young girls kneeling in the main square, a picture of a young man -- their missing brother? -- displayed on the rug in front of them. The bazaar, usually alive with people bargaining over everything from dried apricots to reindeer horn, was almost empty. "Buy something! Buy something!" a spice-seller pleaded as I walked by.

I visit Askar at home, the apartment full of the children of his extended family watching a dubbed version of The Truman Show. The usual outdoor pursuits of summer had been abandoned: people felt safer inside. What I had planned to be an enjoyable talk about his career begins uneasily, both of us unable to escape the pall of recent events.

As we talk, Askar and I drink tea from bowls in the Uighur way. A dish of almond kernels threaded on string is placed between us beside a plate of glistening green raisins.

Askar grew up with the sounds of traditional Xinjiang music all around him. His parents were from the fabled oasis towns of Kashgar and Hotan, and so he was comfortable with the tambur and the ghijak, and knew how to play the frame drum they call the dap. At family gatherings these were the instruments people picked up to play.

But as Askar entered his teens, a different kind of music was coming to get him. In 1978 Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared the Open Door Policy, and what came through the door was disco.

Before long Askar was making a name for himself in the dance halls of Urumqi. A traditional part of Xinjiang life, the dance halls had played host to western innovations such as the waltz before, but disco took them by storm. Soon Askar was famous for his moves, a kind of Xinjiang John Travolta.

Local entrepreneurs saw the potential in this handsome young man, the first in Urumqi's history to grow his hair long. They asked him to join the city's first rock band. He knew the guitar, which had made its way into Xinjiang from the Soviet Union, but the organisers were looking for a drummer. Could he play? Of course, he lied, thinking that the dap was a universal qualification. Faced with a five-drum set and high hat, he soon had to come clean, but he was in the front door and on the way to mastering rock'n'roll.

By the early 1990s Askar was a star in Xinjiang, but Beijing was the rock capital, so he headed east. It was there, he tells me, that he began to seriously study the traditional instruments of Xinjiang: far from home his own culture seemed more interesting and more precious. By the time Askar Grey Wolf was invited to perform at the 1996 Asia International Pop Festival in Japan he was ready to show off his new line-up: three guitars, dap, tambur, ghijak, keyboards and drums. Amplifying their effect was another of the band's innovations. Askar's wife Dilbar had trained as a traditional dancer; when she wasn't providing back-up vocals, she gave a dazzling masterclass in the beauties of Xinjiang dance.

By 2001 the band's single Blessing was in China's version of the top 10 and it was the support act for the Three Tenors at their Forbidden City concert in Beijing. Askar had become a songwriter who could capture the romance of China's far west, whose music carried the rhythms of its ancient places. In one, Those Who Embrace the Sun, he conjures the brilliant skies and vistas of his homeland: "You are the sun and I am the sun. We are the people closest to the sun."

More recently, he has explored the theme of environmental loss, something that cuts deep anywhere in China, but especially so in Xinjiang. We talk about Tears of Kashgar, his lament for the vanishing beauties of his home town. Originally he called it Rainbow for the incident that inspired it, when his Beijing-reared son revealed that he had never seen this simple natural wonder.

"It made me think of so many of the things that I could see easily when I was young," he says. "And also of how harmonious things were back then. It was never a question of people being Uighur or Han; everyone got on because everyone's life was the same."

Unspoken between us is the reality of modern Xinjiang, where economic development sharpens divisions while the idyllic beauty of the old oasis towns gives way to high rise and glitz. Unspoken also is the tragedy then unfolding in Kashgar: the bulldozing of the ancient parts of the Silk Road city in the name of progress, an event that Western media often cite as a secondary cause of the unrest in the region.

I probe these themes with him, but he gently cuts me off. "I believe in peace," he says, "and in Australia, I'll talk about what I know best: my music." Perhaps, too, he will talk about Those Who Embrace the Sun. It could have been written for us.

Askar Grey Wolf plays the Darwin Festival on August 29 and the University of Sydney on September 4.