China: Sanubar Tursun, voice of the Uyghurs, missing presumed detained in Xinjiang’s internment camps

28 November 2019
Uyghur singer Sanubar Tursun was due to perform in France in February, but she hasn't been seen in months.
Photo: Sanubar Tursun / courtesy Rachel Harris


28 November 2019


Uyghur singer Sanubar Tursun was booked to perform at a ceremony organised on 4 November by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, reported France 24.

It was expressed on Twitter that Tursun did not appear at the event.

8 February 2019

Uyghur singer Sanubar Tursun was booked to perform in France this weekend, but she hasn’t been seen in months.

According to France 3 news, her scheduled shows in Nantes, Angers and Rennes were cancelled in November 2018 after she encountered difficulties leaving China. 

Sanubar’s long-time friend and collaborator Rachel Harris writes about her concern for the missing artist.

The following article was written and researched by Rachel Harris, teacher of ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, and leader of the Leverhulme research project Sounding Islam in China. The views expressed and research presented in this blog are those of the writer and not of Freemuse.

In 2017, China began to construct a huge network of detention camps in its northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Over a million indigenous Uyghur and Kazakhs are currently detained in them without trial. China depicts these camps as benign “vocational training centres”, but testimonies reveal a brutal regime of political indoctrination and self-criticism sessions, over-crowded conditions, inadequate food, and physical torture.

China depicts these measures as necessary to counter Islamic extremism, but the huge numbers involved, and the detention of many cultural leaders—writers and poets, academics and publishers, singers and comedians—suggest that the camps are designed to break down inmates’ cultural and religious identity and remould them as secular and patriotic Chinese citizens. Uyghurs in exile are now calling the situation a case of cultural genocide.

Sanubar Tursun — an iconic singer and a Uyghur national symbol

Sanubar Tursun released the first of a series of albums in 2000, and for over a decade her voice filled the town bazaars and rang out from local taxis and long-distance buses right across the Uyghur region. She highlighted traditional instruments in her recordings, and she herself played the dutar long-necked lute. She drew on the authentic style of the region’s folk song and muqam traditions, but infusing her performance with a rare sophistication and finesses. She was also a composer and wrote a large body of original songs in the traditional style. She was an iconic singer and a Uyghur national symbol.

For Uyghurs, Sanubar’s songs expressed feelings that couldn’t be said aloud. She took great care in selecting her lyrics, often setting the words of contemporary poets. She was always cautious, and tried not to push the limits set by the authorities, but she wanted her songs to speak to her audience, to her people. She understood her power over them, and was immensely proud of her concerts in rural areas, which drew audiences of thousands.

Worldwide fame

Sanubar’s influence was not confined to the Uyghur region. She gave solo concerts in Turkey, Europe, and the US. She was sponsored by the Aga Khan Music Initiative and worked with top artists from neighbouring regions. She performed at the Konya Mystic Music Festival, and released a CD with the Italian Felmay label, titled Hope (Arzu). Her songs have been adapted for performance by the Kronos Quartet. She teamed up with the Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, and toured in China and internationally. Her celebrity was cemented by a season as judge on the Xinjiang Voice of the Silk Road talent show.

In 2016, as the political situation in Xinjiang began to harden, she began to turn down invitations to perform abroad, and cut off contact with friends and colleagues outside China. For Uyghurs, all kinds of foreign connections were now suspect. In December 2018 news began to circulate of her detention, and a possible five-year sentence. The news came amidst a wave of reports on the detention of prominent artists, singers and comedians. In line with the government policy of secrecy and denial, there has been no formal charge, not even an announcement of her detention.

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