Diaspora Mourns Passing of Beloved Uyghur Vocalist Mahmut Sulayman

2020.11.30
Diaspora Mourns Passing of Beloved Uyghur Vocalist Mahmut Sulayman Mahmut Sulayman in a stylized and undated photo.
RFA

Mahmut Sulayman, a beloved Uyghur vocalist and composer, has died at the age of 52, prompting an outpouring of grief from members of the diaspora who lamented the loss of a world-class artist that trained many young singers and musicians.

Sulayman died on Nov. 23, reportedly from complications related to heart disease—a condition he suffered from for years, according to friends.

Photos shared widely by Uyghurs around the world on social media appeared to show different aspects of Sulayman’s funeral and burial, many of which marked departures from conventional funerary practices for Muslims.

According to the images, the number of people who took part in prayers was very small compared to what would have been expected for such a beloved public figure. Moreover, his body was covered not in a white shroud but in what appeared to be a heavy green-and-yellow tablecloth.

Many of his Uyghur fans in China, who took to WeChat and other social media channels to express their shock over his passing, also appeared unable to fully express their grief, as they altered common phrases containing religious expressions, presumably so as not to be seen as “religious.”

Sulayman was born in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi), in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in 1968 and began studying dance at the Xinjiang Arts Institute in 1981. After his graduation in 1985, he took a job as a dancer in the Kashgar Arts Troupe, where he also performed music on the side. In 1990 he formed a band called Riwayet (legend), with whom he put out such hit albums as “Riwayet,” “Salam Dostlar” (Salam, friends), and “Yultuzum” (My star)—each of which reportedly sold more than 500,000 copies.

Many of the songs he wrote and performed in the 2000s, including “Meylimu” (Is that ok?), “Mejnuntal,” “Guli Rena,” “Erkek” (Man), “Kelmemsen bahar” (Spring, won’t you come?), “Bu chush emes” (This is not a dream), and “Uch Keche” (Three nights), were widely loved among Uyghur audiences.

‘Eloquent and humble’

Muhtar Janbaz, who founded the European Uyghur Ensemble in 2019, and Ezer Enver, a member of that ensemble, both knew Sulayman personally from their earlier music careers in the XUAR. Both men shared public posts about the singer upon hearing of his death.

Janbaz, who is currently living in Sweden, told RFA’s Uyghur Service he got to know Sulayman when the artist was transferred to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Arts Troupe from the Kashgar Arts Troupe. Janbaz and Sulayman both were under the tutelage of fellow singers in the ensemble such as Abdurehim Heyit, a singer-songwriter-dutarist who has a reputation as one of the greatest living Uyghur musicians.

“The impression that Mahmut left on me was that he was a man of few words but very eloquent and humble, very humble,” he said.

“People really respected him from an intellectual standpoint. He called Abdurehim Heyit his ‘master’ [back in the late 1990s].”

According to Janbaz, it was Sulayman’s natural talent with musical composition and his sense of responsibility to his craft that endeared him and his music to the Uyghur people.

“You could just see it in his face, the light that shone from it. That’s why he is a symbol of Uyghur music to the Uyghur people,” he said.

“He took the arts very seriously. He never rushed his compositions, and he put out songs that are impossible to forget … Mahmut Sulayman expressed the conscience and the honor of the Uyghur people, and their very roots, through his song. To call him a singer of conscience would be insufficient.”

Local ‘flavor’

Sulayman tested into the Shanghai Music Conservatory in 2005 and spent several years there studying musical composition, while continuing to release songs that gained wide acclaim, including an album titled “Seghinmidingmu?” (Did you miss me?), which was released in 2006.

Enver, who got to know Sulayman when they were both living and studying in Shanghai, identified himself as an apprentice of the deceased singer-songwriter, whom he referred to repeatedly as “master” in an interview.

“He was an artist who was not only talented but had also achieved a very high level of artistic knowledge and skill. I was very shocked and grief-stricken when I heard the news of his death,” Enver said.

Enver said he was impressed that Sulayman, who had already achieved fame, continued studying for several more years well into his career “because he wanted to learn more.”

“We saw each other regularly, as the school [where he was studying] was close to ours. We played music together on occasion, and I learned a lot from him,” he said.

“What most impressed me about him was that he was very modest and humble, and that he loved music so much. In the times when we were together at social gatherings, he didn’t play or sing a lot himself but instead gave other people chances to do so. He would give honest feedback and encourage us. As a singer he sang with such skill, and in the local ‘flavor.’”

According to Enver, Sulayman’s compositions and style of singing was what endeared him so much to Uyghur audiences.

“It’s so mournful, the kind of thing that rends people’s hearts,” he said. “Truly, he earned the respect of the Uyghur people with some of his songs.”

In addition to his extensive canon of recorded music, Sulayman served as a coach on the first season of the Voice of the Silk Road, which was filmed in 2014 and 2015. He also made appearances on the show I am a Singer, which reached audiences outside China in October 2020.

Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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