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Guzel Sayfullina

Guzel Sayfullina

Kazan State Conservatory


Despite the huge distance that separates the territory populated by the Volga Tatars from Central Asia, their culture bears witness to the strong impact of various traditions that are by origin Central Asian. Different aspects of this influence have been studied by historians and philologists, whereas in the field of music this subject has only been touched upon in the context of other studies.

Given the paucity of specialised studies on Tatar music’s cultural links to Central Asia, research into the traditional Tatar musical lexicon has gained additional importance. This lexicon has preserved evidence of musical phenomena of the past, which have undergone a significant evolution in actual music practice. To a great extent, the changes were due to the integration of Tatars into Russian culture from the middle of the 16th century onwards and especially during the Soviet period when, in order to build a new culture, traditions of the past were neglected and deliberately destroyed.

Current Tatar musical vocabulary reflects phenomena of modern, significantly Europeanized culture. Its main concepts relating to daily musical practice are expressed in commonly used words, while the specific terminology is borrowed from European languages. This is accepted by most people as a given, and only a few individuals realise that prior to the 20th century there was another lexicon shaped by different aesthetics. Most important for its existence and development, as is typical of Turkic-Islamic societies, was the use of three languages (Turkic, Arabic and Persian) and the Arabic alphabet, common among Muslim peoples.

The main characteristic of this lexicon is the diversity of its content. Covering various aspects of musical practice, it includes definitions of sound, musical instruments, performance, composition, categories of aesthetic evaluation etc. One can judge its richness from the multiple definitions of “melody”: ähäng, awaz, älhan, ghina, lähen, mäqam, näwa, näghmä, saz, täghani, tänaghghim, tärännem. Nowadays in the Tatar language only the words köy, mong, and the Russian term melodiya (мелодия) are used. Another example of the richness of the old musical vocabulary is the terminology denoting “style”: vädjhe, öslub, tariq, tariz, isul, räwesh.

With regard to music practice, it is worth mentioning the traditional names of the stringed instruments: dumbra, qubiz, qil qubiz, qunqau, öchqil, chaganä, chishtä, yataghan. A number of instruments are related to the classical musical traditions of the Islamic East: gud, barbat, dutar, qanun, gidjak, kämäncha, räbab, saz, tanbur, tar, chang. Not all of these instrument names were equally common among the Tatars. However, whether as designations of instruments current in contemporary music practice, or as “traces” of formerly used instruments in written sources, these names have formed a ‘language’ which was ‘spoken’ up to the beginning of the 20th century. An example of this is found in a 1920 dictionary where the Russian word for violin—skripka (скрипка)—is still translated as käman and räbab (Rakhmankulov and Karam 1920:534), while at that time the European violin was already deeply embedded in Tatar life.

A significant part of traditional Tatar musical nomenclature consists of scholarly terms, which provide evidence of the Tatar Muslims’ involvement in general processes of conceptualising music in the Islamic East. It is known that Tatars were familiar with a number of classical works on music in Arabic and Persian, such as those by al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Abdurahman Jami. Today, it is difficult to judge whether the Tatars developed an independent tradition of scholarship on music. Currently known are the works of thinkers from the 18th to 20th century, such as Utiz-Imani, Nurlati-Bulghari, Mardjani, Nasiri, Ghabashi and Kildebaki, where the subject of music is discussed in the context of other themes. In these and other writings we find terms interpreted according to the concepts of Middle Eastern scholarship on music. These include categories of sound, pitch, rhythm, melody, elements of musical instruments etc.

A relevant example is the interpretation of terms relating to the concept of “music”: alhan, ghina, musika/musiqyi, ghilme musika, musika sänghate. For a long period of time, the principal terms used for denoting “practical” (ghamali) music (as opposed to the science of music) were alhan and ghina. Ghina, furthermore, referred to vocal music and singing. As for the terms musika/musiqyi,understanding of these gradually changed towards the 20th century. Earlier, they were used according to their interpretation in Arabic-Persian culture, in particular referring to music as a field of science. A Tatar dictionary of 1911 reads: “Musiqyi is a science, relating to a study of laws and rules with respect to different melodies and songs” (Zhanturin 1911:414). In the 20th century, however, the term musika/muzika started to be applied to phenomena of music practice, replacing the earlier definitions of “practical music”. In the process of re-interpretation, it adopted the meaning of singing, melody, playing a musical instrument and even a musical instrument itself. Thus, in the 1920 dictionary the term garmonica is glossed as qul musikasi – a manual musical instrument (ibid.:98).

As new musical definitions were established in the Tatar language, some old terms disappeared or were re-interpreted. A case in point is the category of maqam. Having been used by Tatars in its traditional connotations up to the 20th century, it then came to be used mostly as a synonym for “melody”, specifically, for the recitation of the Qur’an. Thus, in the 1911 dictionary maqam, in its musical connotation, is glossed as köy, mong, uqu köye, jirlau köye, that is, tune, melody, melody for recitation, melody for singing.

Within the context of Qur’anic recitation, the classical Middle Eastern maqams were still heard among Tatars at the beginning of the 20th century, being brought in by those Muslims who made the hajj or studied in the medreses of Central Asia. Among the Tatars, though, they acquired new names: “Egyptian maqam”, “Syrian maqam” etc., which suggests that Tatars recognized their specific musical styles, locating them geographically. These were the so-called “maqams of educated mullahs”, while the melodies to which ordinary Muslims recited the Qur’an were called “milli (folk) maqams”. The latter represented the local musical traditions, characterised by anhemitonic-pentatonic structures. Certain well-known local maqams were identified with specific schools of recitation (Kizlau, Shaymurza). Thanks to religious ritual, and unlike many other musical categories of Middle Eastern origin, maqam as a category has been preserved in Tatar culture until today.

Examples of the Tatar maqam - surahs from the Qur’an recited by Tatar women:

Al-Fatiha, Kazan, 2001

Al-Baqara, (beginning), a village in Tatarstan, 1994  


Rakhmankulov, S. and Karam, A. 1920. Polnyi russko-tatarskii slovar’ (Comprehensive Russian-Tatar Dictionary). Kazan: ‘Asr.

Zhanturin, Salimgerei. 1911. Lughat (Dictionary). Ufa: Shariq.