From his exile in Sweden the Uyghur composer, musician and poet Kurash Sultan was like an ambassador to the Uyghurs – the indigenous people in East Turkistan in north-western China. He died 47 years old from a heart stroke on 29 October 2006.
– by Freemuse 

Uyghur composer died in exile Kurash Sultan

Kurash Sultan was invited to speak at the 3rd Freemuse World Conference in Istanbul on 25 November 2006. He was a famous Uyghur artist who sang and wrote countless songs and poems on the freedom of his homeland, East Turkistan, where the Uyghurs are struggling to keep their language and their culture. For that same reason he has been imprisoned and tortured by the authorities, many of his songs were banned in East Turkistan, and he had to escape the country. He was buried in Sweden on 1 November 2006.

Kurash Sultan (also known as Kuresh Kusen, Kurash Kusan or Koresh Kosen) was born in 1959 in the capital city Urumchi of Xinjiang – a region which Uyghurs often refer to as East Turkistan. “Xinjiang” means “New Frontier” and is the Han Chinese name for the autonomous region. In the 1980’s Kurash Sultan worked as a music teacher, and studied music conducting. In 1992-1995 he worked an editor of Xinjiang Art, a magazine published by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s Writers Union.

In 1987, he worked on getting a music ensemble together, and in the next five years they presented their music show more than 1,000 times all around East Turkistan / Xinjiang. More than five million people attended it. Kurash Sultan was awarded 11 times, prizes which he received from all around China and East Turkistan / Xinjiang. His cassette tape ‘Hesret’ (“Affliction”) and ‘Échinish’ (“Sorrow”) was the most sold cassette in the market.

In 1993 the Xinjiang Autonomous Regions Party warned him that he would be arrested if he continued making music like this. In 1996 his art work ‘Erkek Su’ got him into trouble with the authorities, and he had flee to Turkey. In Turkey he published four albums, and in 1996 he travelled to Central Asia to give them some publicity. In central Asia he and a group of friends organised the Meshrep Event, which shocked the Chinese government. Under strong Chinese diplomatic pressure the Kyrgyz KGB arrested him in 1998. After nine months in jail, in 1999, he received help from the UN to come Sweden and become a political refugee.

Kurash was deputy chairman and chairman of World Uygur Youth Congress, and recently he was elected Chief Auditor of World Uygur Congress. He had just started working as a music scholar at the Culture Department of Eskilstuna Municipality in Sweden. He attended more than 10 music festivals around Europe, and released the CD ‘Uyghur folk song’ in 2002 and ‘Tunes of Kuchar’ and ‘Wake Up Turkistan 5’ (Songs for Freedom) in 2004.

A long way from his homeland, the singer Sultan Kurash is a potent voice for the plight of the Uyghur people “DON’T SELL YOUR LAND!” Sultan Kurash’s voice is so powerful you can hear it echoing from one end of the Taklamakan Desert to the other..

The sound has even reached Beijing: China has banned Kurash’s music, confiscated his sound equipment, annulled his business licence, placed him under house arrest and driven him out of his own land. All to no avail: His songs live on. “For 50 years, nobody was allowed to sing what we Uyghurs have in our hearts,” says Kurash. “I am the first.”

Kurash is sitting in his apartment in the quiet town of Eskilstuna in Sweden, which granted him asylum in 1999. His road from the deserts of Central Asia to this former steel town has been long and tortuous. In 1996, he left China for Turkey on a fake passport. A year later, he arrived in the Central Asian country of Kirgyzstan carrying 10,000 cassette tapes of his music that he hoped to smuggle into Xinjiang. There the police arrested him and threw him into jail. They offered no explanation; Kurash blames Beijing. Nine months later he was suddenly released, and given 20 days to leave Kirgyzstan. The local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees arranged for his passage to Sweden.

The son of a farmer, Kurash trained in Uyghur folk music at the Academy of Performing Arts in Urumqi, capital of the traditional Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang in northwest China. After graduating in 1988, he spent the next five years touring the length and breadth of Xinjiang, or East Turkistan as he calls it, singing and playing the dutar, a long-necked lute.

That experience, says Kurash, opened his eyes to Beijing’s oppression of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs. “We became deeply aware that the life of the common Uyghur was very bitter,”the singer says. “Before then, we hadn’t left the big cities. We had only watched TV, and we had believed what we had seen.” Kurash was particularly struck by the situation of Uyghur cotton farmers. While the world market price for cotton was about $1,000 a tonne, he says, the Uyghur farmers were being forced to sell their produce to the state for just $70 a tonne. The need to fill state quotas left many Uyghur farmers teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.When land-hungry Han Chinese from the overpopulated coastal provinces offered to buy their land, many Uyghurs decided to call it quits and sell. Official Chinese figures show that between 1949 and 1992, the Uyghur population of Xinjiang fell from 8.5 million Uyghurs to 7.3 million (the 2000 census showed 8.4 million Uyghurs living in China). In the same period, the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang grew from 290,000 to 5 million. It’s no surprise that Don’t Sell Your Land, Kurash’s best-known political song, struck such a chord in the hearts of his fellow Uyghurs.

In 1993, the authorities decided that Sultan Kurash had become a political agitator, and attempted to silence him. His equipment was confiscated, his music was banned and he was placed under constant surveillance. But unlike Rebiya Kadeer, the prominent Uyghur businesswoman who in 2001 was jailed for eight years-later reduced to seven-for mailing two local newspapers to her husband abroad, Kurash managed to outsmart his shadows and leave the country.

In the years since, Kurash has gone on fighting to highlight the Uyghurs’ plight. Earlier this year, he was elected to a post in the newly formed World Uyghur Congress, which united the two main exile organizations. Its chairman is Erkin Alptekin, who has condemned sporadic acts of violence by Uyghur extremists since the 1990s.

But it is music that remains Kurash’s main calling. In Eskilstuna, where he lives with his wife, his son and his mother, he keeps close contact with other Uyghur dissidents living in the country while developing ties with Sweden’s folk-music community. In May, he was appointed as a salaried “national composer” by the Swedish government. His new home town has sponsored a CD with his own music, and he has performed his people’s music at folk-music festivals around Europe. As one Uyghur refugee says of Kurash, “In our eyes, he is invaluable.”


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