You are here
You are here

Badakhshan Ensemble: Song and dance from the Pamir Mountains

Badakhshan Ensemble: Song and dance from the Pamir Mountains

The Badakhshan Ensemble takes its name from the mountainous region - poetically known in Persian as Bam-i Dunya, the “Roof of the World” - that comprises the sparsely populated eastern half of Tajikistan and northeast Afghanistan. There, nestled in a series of riverine valleys that descend from the Pamir Mountains to the Panj River, the boundary line between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, are scores of small settlements whose inhabitants have cultivated a vibrant tradition of devotional song, dance, and contemplative instrumental music.

Badakhshani music and dance represent a distinct cultural practice within Central Asia that has been shaped by the combined forces of geography, history, language, and religion. In Tajik Badakhshan, where the majestic Pamirs reach heights only slightly lower than those of the Himalayas, rugged terrain has impeded contact between Pamiri peoples and inhabitants of other regions of Central Asia. One consequence of cultural isolation has been the preservation of so-called Pamiri languages, which belong to the Eastern Iranian family of languages but are distinct from Persian and are not used in a literary form.


Image icon akmi-24480.jpg
Badakhshan Ensemble at Bab Madina, Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, Morocco.
AKDN / Sabine Châtel
Orally composed folksong texts in Pamiri languages such as Shughni and Rushani are common in Badakhshan, but the literary texts typically set to music in spiritual songs are drawn from classical Persian or modern Tajik, an eastern dialect of Persian. Oral and literary poetry have merged to a certain extent, and poems by classical poets such as Rumi, Hafiz, and Hilali are often transmitted orally in forms that diverge from written sources, if, indeed, written sources exist. Many poems attributed to the great poets, in particular Rumi, are almost certainly apocrypha. The Badakhshan Ensemble was the brainchild of Soheba Davlatshoeva (b. 1970), a vivacious singer and dancer who grew up in a small village on the Ghund River, fifty miles from Khoroq, Badakhshan’s capital and, with a population of around 50,000, its largest town. “We created the ensemble ourselves,” Soheba recounted proudly. “It’s not a state-sponsored group. We were students in the Institute of Arts in Dushanbe Tajikistan’s capital] at the end of the 1980s. We finished one semester there, and then in the winter of 1990, the Institute closed because of the conflict that grew into Tajikistan’s Civil War. We had to leave Dushanbe and return to Badakhshan. Half the city of Dushanbe left.” Eventually, Soheba and other ensemble members regrouped under the umbrella of the regional drama theater in Khoroq, where they played music for theatrical productions and gave concerts. Their music-making extended beyond the theater, and at many events they were joined by Jonboz Dushanbiev, a charismatic ghijak (spike fiddle) player a generation older than Soheba and her cohort, with a broad knowledge of Badakhshani music, poetry, and musical instrument-building.


Image icon akmi-sahiba_davlatshaeva.jpg
Sahiba Davlatshaeva.
The Badakhshan Ensemble’s repertory encompasses a variety of musical styles and genres, and each corresponds to one of the distinct social roles that the Ensemble fills in its own community. The most typical of these roles is to provide music for wedding festivities. “We don’t perform folklore at weddings,” Soheba said matter-offactly. “If we did, no one would hire us. What people want to listen and dance to is pop music.” The pop music Soheba had in mind is a local variety that combines the unmistakable melodic intervals, piercing vocal timbres, and loping rhythms of Badakhshani songs with the accompaniment of synthesizer, bass guitar, and electrified Pamiri instruments (an example appears on the accompanying DVD). Such hybrid pop music exists in myriad local forms throughout the former USSR and is rooted in older styles of tradition-based popular song that developed during the Soviet era. Several of these traditional favorites, “Ay Pari” (Oh Fairy, track 2) and “Lolazorume” (Tulip Garden, track 4), are performed on this CD. Another of the Badakhshan Ensemble’s community roles is to perform devotional songs at a variety of ritualized events. These include allnight gatherings following the death of a community member, weekly Thursday evening and Friday prayer meetings, and celebrations linked to Nawruz (traditional New Year) and Ramadan. Many if not most Badakhshanis are Shia Ismaili Muslims, and the Ismaili spiritual and devotional tradition has had a strong and abiding influence on Pamiri expressive culture. Ismaili communities have existed in the Pamir Mountains for close to a millennium.


Image icon akmi-250053.jpg
Badakhshani music and dance represent a distinct cultural practice within Central Asia that has been shaped by the combined forces of geography, history, language, and religion.
AKDN / Sebastian Schutyser
Badakhshani Ismailis attribute the founding of these communities to Nasir Khusraw (b. 1004) a Persian theologian, philosopher, traveler, and poet who brought Ismaili teachings to Central Asia from Fatimid Egypt in the middle of the eleventh century. Ismaili religious thought emphasizes a balance between the exterior, literal meaning of sacred scriptures and religious commandments (zâhir) and their esoteric or inner meaning (bâtin), which illuminates eternal spiritual truths (haqâ‘iq). Such a vision of Islam, common to other esoteric traditions, such as Sufism, finds expression in broader cultural forms that are often located in the vernacular and draw on local musical genres and styles. Among the Badakhshani Ismailis, spiritual concerts featuring sung poetry austerely accompanied on stringed instruments and frame drum (daf) serve as one route toward the inner - toward the soul - and the illumination of spiritual truths. This performance genre is called maddoh (also transliterated as maddâh, madâh, madh) - literally, “praise.” A maddoh typically offers praise to the “Family of the Prophet” (Ahl al Bayt), and in particular to Ali, the first Shia Imam, and to the current Imam, or hereditary spiritual leader, of the Ismailis, His Highness the Aga Khan. Maddoh provides a vessel for the spiritual power known as baraka, and maddoh singers, called maddohkhon, are highly esteemed in Badakhshan. Among the younger generation of maddohkhons in and around Khoroq, the most sought after is Aqnazar Alovatov (b. 1970) (see track 6). Interested from an early age in both music and poetry, Aqnazar is frequently called upon to sing at memorial gatherings and at Thursday evening prayers. “It’s normal to sing for two or three hours at these events,” Aqnazar explained. “There’s usually more than one maddohkhon - sometimes a lot of them show up, and they take turns singing. The skill of maddoh performance is in putting together texts that create a particular mood or feeling. I change the text from one performance to the next, and I try not to use texts that are used by other musicians.” Rich in mystical allegory and allusion, the metaphysical poems that singers sequence together in maddoh purify the soul of the deceased, offer succor to the bereaved, and provide ethical and spiritual guidance to the community. Another musical genre that figures prominently in the repertory of the Badakhshan Ensemble is falak - sober, lament-like songs that many Badakhshanis believe to possess healing qualities, and whose texts typically address philosophical themes. One of the meanings that falak conveys is “fate,” and the poems set to music in falak often speak of the vicissitudes of fate and the limitations of human agency. Falak is sung both by men and women, and may be performed a cappella, in free rhythm, as in the first track on the CD (“Falak-i Badakhshani”), or with instrumental accompaniment and in a regular meter, as in track 5 (“Falak”). Finally, the Badakhshan Ensemble’s repertory includes a rich variety of instrumental music that, like Badakhshani vocal genres, has a strong regional identity. Archaic dance tunes such as “Rapo” (track 7) blend the nasal, metallic timbre of the ghijak - a spike fiddle whose resonating chamber Badakhshanis often make from a tin can - with the blunt, plucking sounds of the Pamiri tanbur, a gut-stringed variant of the more common metalstringed instruments found in other parts of Central Asia, and the resonant thump of a daf - a large frame drum. Badakhshani dance focuses on graceful movements of the arms and hands that are believed to symbolize the flight of birds - an atavistic reference to Badakhshan’s animistic, pre-Islamic past. “Khâlatro Banda” (track 8) features the setâr, a fretted, long-necked lute whose multiple sympathetic strings provide a gentle drone background to the plucked melody line, creating a contemplative sound reminiscent of the Indian sitar, of which the setâr is most likely a distant ancestor. Another common instrument in Badakhshan is the fretless Pamiri rubab, whose gut strings produce a less strident sound than other kinds of rubab strung with metal strings. The distinctive rhythms that underlie Badakhshani music are expressed not only as accompaniment for stringed instruments but in ritualized drumming performed by groups of drummers, both male and female, during weddings, funerals, and other festivities. Soheba Davlatshoeva is optimistic about the survival of Badakhshan’s distinctive musical heritage. “People often come to me and ask me to teach their daughters and sons to sing,” she said. “I tell them that when I have time and a place to teach, I’ll take them. I’m planning to build a house, and on the first floor, to have a small classroom. There are a lot of good older musicians just sitting at home, and they could also be attracted to teach. The kind of music we play and sing has been performed in the Pamir Mountains for a thousand years. My goal is to ensure that future generations of talented musicians will know this music, and perform it with all their soul and heart.” TRACK NOTES Falak-i Badakhshani Text: Unattributed Music: Traditional Vocal solo: Soheba Davlatshoeva This powerful a cappella performance illustrates the drawn-out, forcefully delivered, intricately ornamented melodic style typical of the falak genre. The melody itself unfolds entirely within the interval of a whole tone (for example, do-re) and consists of three pitches that form two adjacent semitones (approximately g-g#-a in absolute pitch). “The text is a popular rubai [quatrain],” said Soheba. “I listened to a lot of our old singers and they always sang this at funerals, and I started to sing it myself. I learned it all by ear. You could sing the text at weddings if you used a different melody.” The world is like a passageway with two gates, Oh, every day in this passageway there comes a different group of people, I thought, I should go see the sights of this world! And I learned that the sights of the world are constantly changing. I didn’t see any kindness in this world, and my life passed, As I was biting my finger regretting that, my life passed. The world is like a garden, and I am like the morning breeze, As I just blew through it one morning, my life passed. In this ever-changing world, what will remain of us? Just a good name will remain from you and me. If I sow the seeds of eternity in the ground, Even then, good will be good and bad will be bad. Ay Pari (Oh Fairy) Text: Qadiri Music: Author unknown According to Soheba Davlatshoeva, “Ay Pari” was first performed in the 1950s by the Pamir Ethnographic Ensemble, a Dushanbe-based state-sponsored group that composed, arranged, and performed many songs that remain popular in Badakhshan today. “Everyone sings ‘Ay Pari,’” said Soheba. “It’s performed in concerts, at weddings, and in theater productions. A well-known Tajik musician, Daler Nazar, turned it into a pop tune. We took our arrangement from other musicians who worked in the theater before us. The poet whose ghazal is used for the lyrics was a Badakhshani from Afghanistan, but none of us in the ensemble know when he lived.” Oh fairy, flirtatious tyrant, how long will you torture me, my love? I am left without feathers or wings, how long will you torture me, my love? From the torment of longing for you, I became a wandering dervish, how long will you torture me, my love? From your love, Qadir moans like a nightingale in the orchard I finished this tale, how long will you torture me, my love? Zohidi Pokizasirisht (Pious Ascetic) Text: Hafiz Music: Mukhtor Muborakqadamov (composed in 2000) Vocal solo: Aqnazar Alovatov Mukhtor Muborakqadamov, who plays setâr in the Badakhshan Ensemble, set this well-known poem of Hafiz to a melody that he composed himself. “It’s popular among both old and young people in Khoroq,” said Mukhtor. “Young people here read Hafiz. They study his poetry in school, and also read him on their own. Older people know the text by heart. We perform the song a lot in our concerts and at weddings. You can accompany it with a synthesizer, but it’s better in a folk style.” (An elegant translation by Gertrude Bell of the full poem is reproduced in Hafiz: The Mystic Poets as “No Reproach for the Drunkard” [see bibliography].) Do not reproach the wrongdoers, oh you, my good fellow So that the sins of others will not be written upon you. Whether I am good or bad, go worry about yourself, In the end, each person reaps what he sows. Everyone seeks the Beloved, whether drunk or sober, Every place is a house of love, whether a mosque or a temple. Lolazorume (Tulip Garden) Music and text: Unattributed “This song was written before the Revolution,” said Soheba. “The text tells the story of a girl who is on her way to fetch water and, lingering in a tulip garden, is spotted by three horsemen who gallop up, sweep her into the saddle, and kidnap her. These kinds of abductions were common before the establishment of Soviet power in Tajikistan. In those times, if a local ruler saw a pretty girl whom he wanted, he’d send his soldiers after her. For that reason, girls tried not to show themselves. I learned this song from Gharibsulton Khudoyârbekova. She worked in the theater and was a great performer of traditional Pamiri dance. When she turned 80, she asked me to sing ‘Lolazorume’ for her.” Falak Text: Rubai (anonymous); ghazal (Rumi); ghazal (Hafiz) Music: Unattributed Vocal solo: Olucha Mualibshoev Falak - the broad generic designation for lament-like songs with philosophical texts - is divided into a number of sub-styles. Ghijak player Jonboz Dushanbiev described this one, performed in a high vocal register by Olucha Mualibshoev, as an example of falak-e sûzi: a falak of spiritual suffering. The text is a composite of three poems: the first a folk rubai (quatrain) whose author is unknown; the second, a ghazal attributed to Rumi; and the third, a ghazal of Hafiz. The Rumi text, which describes an experience of mystical ecstasy in which the poet loses awareness of his own being, appears in a different musical-poetic genre, ghazalkhânî - “singing of ghazals” - on the compact disc Religious Music from Badakhshan (see discography). The juxtaposition of the straightforwardly secular and nationalistic rubai with the mystical language of the ghazals exemplifies the diverse social forces that shape contemporary expressive culture in Badakhshan. Rubai (anonymous) I’m so fortunate to have this homeland I’ve been given, Flowers from the orchard, I’ve been given, I believe in it, and I wouldn’t exchange it for a hundred worlds, The love of the homeland I’ve been given. Ghazal (Rumi) Oh, let’s say who am I, I am not myself, my self is not mine. I am hosting this life in my body, I am not myself, my self is not mine. Ignite the fire of love, and burn all wisdom, The darkness of night is transformed to the lightness of day, I am not myself, my self is not mine. I am the Beloved’s white falcon, the shadow of his willow, I’m expecting the hope He offers me, I am not me, my self is not mine. And then Shams* comes into my life and makes me aware of myself, He told me to talk about goodness and badness, I am not me, my self is not mine. * For his pen-name (takhallus), Rumi used the name of his spiritual mentor, Shams-i Tabrizî. Ghazal (Hafiz) When my beloved takes a glass in her hand, all idols shatter before her, I’m floating like a fish in the sea, hoping to fall into the net of my beloved, I fell at the feet of the Beloved, hoping to be pulled up by the hand, Whoever sees my Beloved’s intoxicating eyes would wish to be arrested for inebriation. Happy is the soul that, like Hafiz’s, drinks the eternal wine of love. Maddoh (Praise) Text: Hafiz, Rumi, Nasir Khusraw, anonymous Music: Traditional, arr. Aqnazar Alovatov This 16-minute maddoh is an abridged version of what would typically be a much longer performance. The performer is free to choose the individual poems whose texts he will sing (maddoh is always performed by men), but the performance itself follows standard formal conventions. The maddoh begins with an unattributed ghazal (poem composed according to a metrical scheme of long and short syllables whose form consists of rhymed couplets that share a refrain) sung softly in free rhythm to the spare accompaniment of a Pamiri rubab. This introduction sets a contemplative mood and draws listeners into the text: Greetings, oh most precious jewel from the river of generosity, Greetings, most pure flower from the eternal desert, Greetings, oh one who is the descendent of Adam, Whose pure radiance no angel worshipped. I will send you a hundred salaams with every breath, oh generous of the most generous, If I catch even the merest scent of an answer to a hundred of my salaams. Next (at 1:32) comes a ghazal attributed to Hafiz, but surely apocryphal, also set in free rhythm and accompanied only by rubab: Oh God, every creature is worshiping you all the time, You made all of them aware of your kindness, You save the lost souls of penitents, Your beggars are kings and clerics, You will grant them greatness and wealth. At 6:06, a ghazal attributed to Nasir Khusraw, the great pir, or saint, of the Badakhshani Ismailis, marks a transition to a metrical rhythm articulated by the daf in a slow 6/8 meter (zarb). The solo rubab is joined by a second rubab and a setâr, creating a thicker texture in the instrumental accompaniment. Nobody knows how and in what state human beings come into existence, And how they will leave it. In a word, it’s like trying to identify a tree that hasn’t yet borne fruit, You have to see the fruit before you know what kind of tree it is. About people whose deeds and acts are well-liked, Do not dare to ask their origins. A fourth ghazal begins at 9:16, this one by Ghiyâsî (d. 1767–68), a Badakhshani poet whose verse is still popular among local performers and listeners. The poetic transition is marked by a change in the vocal texture: Aqnazar’s solo vocal is replaced by responsorial singing in which he alternates verses with Ghulomsho and Olucha. About bravery, ask the one who tore down the gate of Khaybar,* About the secret of generosity, ask the master of Qambar.** If you search for the abundance of truth in the sincerity of Hafiz About its source, ask Him who gives the water of the spring of paradise. * The name of a legendary fortress whose gate was torn down by Ali, the first Shia Imam. ** Qambar was Ali’s servant, thus the master of Qambar is Ali. The concluding ghazal, by Nasir Khusraw, begins at 13:07. Here the metrical articulation of the daf returns, and the maddoh reaches a culmination. A variant of the same text appears in van den Berg’s Minstrel Poetry from the Pamir Mountains (p. 447). When you stick your hand in a burrow, think about the poison of the snake, When you put your foot on the ground, think about the sting of thorns. If you don’t know how to swim, don’t stand beside the sea, If you’d drown in the middle, think about it while you’re still on the shore. As much as you can, do not reveal the secret of your heart to a friend, Let’s assume that your friend is a friend, but be wary of a friend of a friend. Nasir Khusraw, if you’re a drinking person, then dare to be one, Drink to the bottom, but think about the morning-after. Rapo Music: Traditional Jonboz Dushanbiev, ghijak Ghulomsho Safarov, Pamiri tanbur Shodi Mabatqulov, daf “Rapo is an old dance,” explained Jonboz Dushanbiev. “The name comes from two Tajik words: rah (road) and po (foot), thus ‘foot on the road.’ It’s normally played on the ghijak - you can add other instruments, but the ghijak has to be there. Men and women both dance it, and the dancing can take different forms. The arms make swimming movements while the legs work more quickly. These days people dance rapo at weddings. It starts slow, gradually speeds up, and in the end, it’s really fast.” Khâlatro Banda (I’m a Slave of Your Mole) Music: Traditional, arr. Mukhtor Muborakqadamov Mukhtor Muborakqadamov, setâr Shodi Mabatqulov, daf This is an instrumental version of a texted song. “I heard this song performed by Qimmatshah Parpishoev, a ghijak player now in his seventies, and adapted it to the setâr,” said Mukhtor. “I use two strings to play the melody, and the other strings - there are 12 in all - are resonating strings. When it’s sung, the song has a strongly meditative feel. I like Indian music and frequently listen to it, so probably that’s why my style sounds Indian.” Jonum, Ikhtiyor Dorî (My life Is in Your Hands) and Yor-i Man (My Friend) Text and music: Traditional These two folksongs represent a genre of responsorial duet consisting of a romantic dialogue between a man and a woman. “Such songs were traditionally performed at weddings,” Soheba Davlatshoeva recounted. “One of the women would dress up in a man’s costume and sing the man’s lines, or a man dressed up in women’s clothes and sang the woman’s lines. Men and women didn’t actually sing together - what husband would allow his wife to sing with men? First the ‘man’ sings the verse and the ‘woman’ answers with the refrain line, and then they switch. At weddings these songs would be performed in a theatricalized form with movement and dance. Nowadays they’re only sung in concerts.” The text of the second song, “Yor-I Man,” is in Shughni, the principal Pamiri language. Your faultless face, My life is in your hands (refrain) I am drunk from the scent of the apple you gave me, My life is in your hands I am bound to the promise that you made, Don’t change your mind about the promise you made to me, The promise that you made to me, I will keep as well, I am a slave to your drunken eyes, My life is in your hands. I am a slave to your drunken eyes. Yor-i Man: My friend, my friend, my faithful friend, You’re from there, I’m from here, my friend, You’re an eagle, I’m a dove, my friend, You’re from there, I’m from here, my friend. We’ll bring boughs and make shade, my friend, In the shade, we’ll cry, my friend. Sabzak Medley Text: Rumi and unattributed authors Music: Nawrozshah Kulbanhusainov (“Sabzak”), Ghulomsho Safarov (“Ay Oshiqon”) Unattributed (“Masti Khumoram Boshî,” “Guli Lola”) This medley consisting of four lyrical songs in contrasting meters builds toward an emotional climax at the end. The scheme of the medley is as follows: “Sabzak” (The Dark-Skinned One): 1:00–2:05 “Masti Khumoram Boshî” (Be My Passion): 2:05–2:48 “Guli Lola” (Tulip Flower): 2:48–3:54 “Ay Oshiqon” (Oh Beloved One): 3:54–6:30 The texts of the first, second, and third songs are quatrains whose lyrical verse artfully describes the passions of love. The fourth song, “Ay Oshiqon,” is set to a ghazal attributed to Rumi. Oh lovers, Oh lovers, I am not myself, I am not myself, Of the vessel of love, I am the cup, I am the cup. My heart is screaming of happiness day and night, Like a flower on the face of the world, I am the tavern, I am the tavern. Longing for you, I will become like Majnun, I will float in my blood, And then people with wisdom will hear about that, I am a tale, I am a tale.