Aken performer preserves Xinjiang's traditional music

Jarhnu Wuhas, a 56-year-old Kazakh, is an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent.

The artist, known for his husky voice, lives in Xinyuan county under Ili Kazakh autonomous prefecture, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Although an introvert at heart, Jarhnu turns into a different person when he performs with his traditional musical instrument tamboura.

"I forget all the bad times I went through when I perform Aken Aytes," he describes.

Aken Aytes, or Aken Songs, is a folk art form popular among the Kazakh ethnic group, in which the performer improvises a song while playing the tamboura. The performer is also called an Aken, which means "poet" in Kazakh, as the lyrics are always beautiful, humorous or inspiring.

Being an Aken is a challenging job as the art is usually performed in a sing-off, where two Akens exchange lyrics in an antiphonal style. To have the best performance, an Aken must have a rich knowledge of culture, history, and even the latest government policies. Most importantly, they have to respond fast and outwit the opponent until they're lost for words.

Jarhnu began his Aken career in 1982, when the then 18-year-old made it all the way to the final stage of a local Aken Aytes contest.

Akens spend a lot of time on the road traveling from place to place. "You may not live an opulent lifestyle as an Aken, but the respect and honor you gain from it make up for the challenges that come with the profession," Jarhnu reveals.

During an Aken Aytes contest in 1999, his rival Aken made a joke of Jarhnu's husky voice calling it, "the sound of a tractor plowing in the soil."

But, Jarhun had a quick comeback, which was applauded by the crowds, "Yes, I'm a tractor, a tractor plowing in the poems' soil."

Xinjiang's rapid development has inspired his lyrics. Jarhnu, who reads newspapers and watches the news on TV every day, keeps updated with the latest events and policies. The lyrics have shifted from the lifestyles of different tribes to local social and economic development.

After the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) broke out, Jarhnu, who now also works for the local government's cultural affairs center, turned epidemic prevention and control tips into Aken songs and has shared them on social media. The artist has created over 400 poems in the past three decades.

"Aken Songs should reflect the times we live in and serve as inspiration for the people," said Jarhnu.

Aken Aytes was added to the national intangible cultural heritage list in China in 2006. Xinjiang, home to many ethnic Kazakhs in the country, organizes various contests to help preserve and promote the traditional art each year. Several local colleges also set up special classes to nurture Aken talents. Jarhnu is a regular lecturer for these classes and is planning to publish three books regarding the art.

None of his three children have followed in his footsteps, but Jarhnu has more than 10 apprentices he can teach instead.

"The art is in good hands here."