In 1965, Bob Dylan offended folk purists by rocking the Newport Folk Festival. In China’s western province of Xinjiang, Perhat Khaliq is generating a similar stir by electrifying the folk music of his Uighur people.
Over the last two years in China, Perhat has risen from obscurity to the cusp of international stardom. In 2014, he had a breakout performance on “The Voice of China,” the country’s version of “American Idol.” He now is in the midst of a 19-city tour in China, with a Beijing performance scheduled for Sept. 19. This week, the Dutch Prince Claus Foundation named Perhat as one of its 2015 laureates, praising him for “breathing new life into traditional Uighur forms.”
Yet in Perhat’s hometown of Urumqi, not everyone is embracing his success. This is the capital city of Xinjiang, where Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese have clashed for centuries. Many Uighurs see the Chinese as colonizers intent on subsuming their culture, and thus are highly protective of their artistic traditions.
Perhat Khaliq refuses to be shackled by either Uighur orthodoxy or the demands of Chinese pop culture.
Perhat, who grew up listening to Dylan, acknowledges that some Uighur musicians have criticized him for his rock versions of traditional folk songs. But he said he refuses to be shackled by either Uighur orthodoxy or the demands of Chinese pop culture.
“What is the meaning of my music? For what do I sing?” the 33-year-old band leader said in a recent interview near Urumqi. “I think I try to take the great music and add my own way of expressing it. I want to take this music and use it to touch people’s hearts.”
Perhat grew up in a factory area of Urumqi, where his father worked as an electrical welder and his mother labored in a plastics plant. Perhat taught himself to play guitar when he was 6. By 13, he was spending his evenings hanging outside of bars, listening to the live music that filtered from the smoky interiors.
With gray-green eyes and a shaved head, Perhat bears a resemblance to 1980s British rocker Joe Jackson, but his deep, passionate voice has more in common with that of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. In his songs, Perhat uses these growly vocal cords to tell stories of heartbreak and perseverance.
When Perhat was 20, his elder brother Sadik died of a lung disease. Illnesses struck down his father two years later and his mother five years after that.
It was Sadik’s memory that inspired Perhat last year to appear on “The Voice of China” and perform a Chinese-language song – “How can you let me be so sad?” Normally this song is performed with a lover in mind. Said Perhat: “I was thinking of my brother.”
One of Perhat’s signature songs is “Dolan Muqam,” a variation on the rhythmic folk songs that are at the heart of Uighur culture. Muqams are thought to date back to the first Turkic people, who traveled the Silk Road thousands of years ago.
In Perhat’s version, he starts the song slowly, with his gravely voice projecting the opening lines, “Allah! Shall the name of a man with good deeds ever die down?”
Then, halfway through the song, the band kicks in and jacks up the tempo, with Perhat singing lyrics that examines the “unbearable pain of love” and a yearning for peace and safety.
One of Perhat’s big breaks came in 2010, when he and his band, Qetiq, were playing in an Urumqi bar. In those bar-band days, Perhat would mix Uighur music with cover songs by Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd, Dylan and other early influences. On this night, Qetiq played “Dolan Muqam,” and Michael Dreyer was in the audience.
When Perhat started to sing ‘Dolan,’ it blew my mind.
Michael Dreyer, music promoter
Dreyer, the founder of the Morgenland Festival in Osnabruck, Germany, travels widely in the Middle East and Asia in pursuit of up-and-coming, authentic musicians. He was visiting Urumqi at the urging of Mukaddas Mijit, a Uighur musicologist and filmmaker who has known Perhat since childhood.
“When Perhat started to sing ‘Dolan,’ it blew my mind,” recalled Dreyer in an interview from Germany. The two spent several days together “feeling like brothers,” he said, even though the two could not easily communicate without Mukaddas’ translation help.
Dreyer soon started making arrangements for Perhat and Qetiq to travel to Osnabruck. It initially was a nightmare of red tape. The Chinese government often rejects passports for Uighurs, fearing they may flee China to join resistance groups. German immigration officials also balked, since some in Qetiq had no visible source of income.
In the end, Perhat and a few bandmates were able to travel to Osnabruck, but others in Qetiq had to stay behind.
During that first visit to Osnabruck, Perhat played with musicians from several countries, while recording the tracks for his first album, “Qetiq: Rock from the Taklamakan Desert,” released in 2013.
In a video that Mukaddas produced and released this month, Perhat can be seen talking about the freedom he felt during that first visit to the Morgenland festival.
“In Osnabruck I can play as I like without feeling oppressed. In Urumqi, it can be stressful. I feel restrained when playing there,” he says in the video, which is titled “Qetiq: The Discovery of Perhat Khaliq.”
Like many Chinese and Uighur artists, Perhat struggles with how to express himself in a land that does not permit free expression.
It is not for money or fame I make music. I just want to touch people.
When McClatchy approached an intermediary in July about interviewing Perhat, the request was quickly granted, but only on the condition that Perhat not be asked about politics.
Said Dreyer: “He’s well aware that one quote published anywhere could be the end of him.”
Even so, it is clear that Perhat has little interest in being anyone’s tool. Outside of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities work to portray Uighurs as mostly happy people, living harmoniously with Han Chinese. Musicians are encouraged to join government associations that promote such messages.
Perhat has declined to do so. “I don’t like the nature of my music to be changed,” he said.
Perhat is also ambivalent about the fame he is achieving. To escape from Urumqi during the summer, he and his family rent a house in the mountains south of the city. There they have chickens and dogs and a plastic wading pool where their kids can splash around. One of Perhat’s favorite getaways is to take his guitar into the hills, where he camps and writes songs.
Last winter, police in Urumqi invited Perhat to visit a jail and play for the inmates. For the occasion, he said, he wrote a special song. It involves how people take the sky and stars for granted, except when they can no longer see them.
One line in the song goes like this: “If you ever get out of this cage/ Kiss the earth/ Dig a hole and bury your bad deeds in it / Then look up at the sky.”
According to Perhat, when he finished the song, about half the inmates in the jail were in tears.
By all accounts, Perhat was initially cool to the idea of competing on “The Voice of China,” the most popular show of its kind nationwide.
“I had to beg him for two or three years to do it,” said Dreyer.
Finally, Perhat relented.
On the TV show, the judges sit in high-backed chairs with their backs to a contestant, only turning around when a performer impresses them. As a video of Perhat’s audition shows, three of the four judges were quickly wowed.
Over the last year, netizens have viewed that video more than 415 million times. It also led to Perhat appearing in other videos, including one – as part of the competition – with Wang Feng, a Chinese pop star and judge on the show.
During his current China tour, Perhat is scheduled to visit 19 cities. He’s then scheduled in November to perform in Europe, where he’s expected to record his second album, and possibly his third. The plan, he said, is to record one in Uighur and another in Chinese.
Perhat said he’s never had ambitions of rock glory. He said he constantly tells himself and his bandmates to live in the here and -now.
“It is not for money or fame I make music,” he said. “I don’t want to conquer everything. . . . I just want to touch people – to give them a very comfortable feeling when they hear my music.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misquoted Michael Dreyer in his comment, “When Perhat started to sing ‘Dolan,’ it blew my mind.”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth