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AsiaCultureMusic

Remembering the Life of the Beloved Uyghur Singer Ayturghan Hesenowa

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AsiaCultureMusic

Remembering the Life of the Beloved Uyghur Singer Ayturghan Hesenowa

“The unique power in her songs comes from love—love of the motherland. She expressed her love of her motherland through her art. That is why nobody can emulate her—she was the one-and-only.”

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“The unique power in her songs comes from love—love of the motherland. She expressed her love of her motherland through her art. That is why nobody can emulate her—she was the one-and-only.”

Ayturghan Hesenowa, a prominent Uyghur vocalist and singer, has passed away in Tashkent, Uzbekistan at the age of 87. Hailed and celebrated as a cultural icon, Hesenowa sang of Uyghur independence and of her love for her homeland, which forced her into exile early on in her life.

Hesenowa was born in 1933 in Ghulja (China has attempted to rename it as Yining), in the province of Xinjiang. Discovering her love of singing at an early age, she began performing at the age of 12 – taking professional singing lessons under other famous Uyghur musicians in the 1950s when she was in her late teens.

Known for her songs that were reminiscent of the short-lived independence movements of the Uyghur states of Kashgar in 1933 and Ghulja in 1944, Hesenowa was not one to hold back on her feelings of devotion and pride when it came to Uyghur independence. Singing in Uyghur classical and folk styles, she also helped solidify and capture the beautiful essence of Uyghur culture during a time when the Chinese Communist Party was already attempting to eradicate the Uyghur peoples.

Unfortunately, her outspoken stance on Uyghur independence did not sit well with China – and facing persecution from the Chinese government, Hesenowa was forced to flee in 1962 into what was then the Soviet Union. Her lyrics were deemed political and she was accused of encouraging separatist ideology – and while many Uyghurs were proud of her ability to capture so beautifully the power of the Uyghur language and spirit of independence, she would be forced to live out the rest of her life in exile outside of her homeland of Xinjiang.

Xinjiang, the homeland of Hesenowa, has long been the contested region of Uyghur independence against Chinese aggression. Today up to 2 million Uyghur and ethnic minority Muslims are being held in concentration camps across Xinjiang province – as part of China’s own ‘war on terror’, Uyghur Muslims continue to be detained, tortured, and even killed in China’s ongoing genocide. Hesenowa, while forced to flee in the early 1960s, must have been witness to the growing persecution that has resulted in unprecedented atrocities in the region, and what is being called the largest mass incarceration of peoples since the Holocaust itself.

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Settling in Kyrgyzstan after being forced into exile, Hesenowa, however, remained highly popular both amongst Uyghurs and other Central Asians – she was even popularly invited to become the leading singer of the Uyghur Song and Dance Ensemble of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic’s Radio and Television Committee, singing alongside other cultural icons such as Sultan Memet, Qadir Razi, and Erkin Yusupov.

Releasing her first record in 1976, Hesenowa continued to grow in popularity and adoration as one of the most influential and loved Uyghur cultural icons of the century. Her song “Do You Miss Our Nation” has until today been regularly covered by local artists and remains one of the most loved songs of Uyghurs today.

Sumbat Gheniyarova, the Director of the Republican Uyghur Theater in Almaty, Kazakhstan, remembered how loved Hesenowa was not only for her singing but for her dedication to the Uyghur peoples:

Her love of her homeland was expressed in her singing, and she never would have become so well-known if the songs hadn’t come from her heart. The unique power in her songs comes from love—love of the motherland. She expressed her love of her motherland through her art. That is why nobody can emulate her—she was the one-and-only.”

Hesenowa passed away in Tashkent, Uzbekistan last Monday, at the age of 87. Her legacy and memory remain in the hearts of many Uyghurs, as an important reminder of the necessity to protect and celebrate Uyghur culture even amidst the ongoing persecution by the Chinese state.

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