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In the Shrine of the Heart: Popular Classics from Bukhara and Beyond

In the Shrine of the Heart: Popular Classics from Bukhara and Beyond
Our songs - they don’t grow old!” exclaimed Nodira Pirmatova, the affable young alto from  Tashkent, Uzbekistan, whose haunting performance of “Galdir” (Fool of God) opens In the Shrine of the Heart. “They’re passed along from one generation to the next, and younger singers perform them as if they were new - with a different voice and fresh passion. When you listen to one of these classics, it’s always as if you’re hearing it for the first time.”

The songs Nodira described with such ardor comprise an extensive repertoire of popular classic music created by generations of talented singer-songwriters. These songs, recorded in intimate performances by some of Uzbekistan’s and Tajikistan’s finest singers, are the focus of the present compilation.


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Vol.7: "In the Shrine of the Heart": Popular Classics from Bukhara and Beyond. Sher-Dor medressa, dancing in courtyard, Uzbekistan.
AKDN / Sebastian Schutyser

In the early Soviet era, when Russian and European models of music and musical life were imported into Central Asia with the aim of “improving” local culture, Western musical terms and concepts were also appropriated. Among them was the concept of “composer,” translated into Uzbek and Tajik by the neologisms bastakor (Uzbek and Tajik) and ahangsoz or taronasoz (Tajik). These terms were applied both to artists who wrote music using conventional Western notation and to traditional singer-songwriters who composed orally and memorized their songs. Music produced by bastakors has ranged in compositional form and style from indigenous/traditional to innovative/experimental, the latter typically melding European and local musical instruments and sensibilities to create various kinds of hybrid music. Diverse directions and tendencies in the art of bastakors, called bastakorlik, continue to coexist in the music of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Unlike contemporary singer-songwriters in the West, who typically write both music and lyrics, either alone or with a collaborator, most bastakors compose only melodies. For lyrics, they draw on a vast corpus of classical poetry - ghazals, rubo’iyot, mukhammas, and other forms of verse written in Persian and a variety of Turkic languages and dialects between the 10th and 20th centuries (ghazals have also been written in Arabic, Urdu, and other languages, including English). Classical poems share a common system of verse meters, each with its own metrical pattern analogous, for example, to iambic pentameter or hexameter in English. The art of bastakorlik involves not only composing melodies but matching the metrical and rhythmic characteristics of melodies to the metrical pattern of lyrics. No less important in the choice of lyrics is the affect of a poem - the particular experience of feelings and emotion that the words produce. Bastakors aim to move their listeners with the lyrical beauty and imagery of ghazals and rubo’iyot written by famous poets. The typical theme is unrequited love and the pain of separation from a beloved. The heartrending passions and anxieties embodied in such poems can be understood on one level as representing human feelings, but the poems can also be read as mystical allegories in which the figure of the beloved alludes to the invisible presence of the divine. By singing the texts of classical poems to newly composed melodies, bastakors render the poems - and their lyrical affirmation of the value of faith, devotion, and humility - instantly contemporary.

Not all the songs on In the Shrine of the Heart feature classical lyrics set to new melodies. Old melodies may also be set to newly written lyrics. Traditional folk tunes offer a rich melodic source for poet-lyricists, and have been widely appropriated. During the Soviet era, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, older songs were sanitized by replacing allegorical spiritual texts with poems whose content was unmistakably earthly and, in many cases, overtly patriotic. Some of these texts remain popular, particularly among older listeners.

While Soviet-era song lyrics commonly represented politically mandated bowdlerizations, older forms of lyrical spirituality did not entirely disappear. For example, a leading Uzbek poet of the 1920s and 1930s, Abdulhamit Chulpon, wrote the somber lines that Nodira Pirmatova sings to the melody of “Galdir” (track 1), a popular folk song:

I was born with a dutar, I’m an old fool of God. Together with my dutar, I always burn with fire. I’m a friend of the unfortunate ones whose hearts suffer. I get no pleasure from seeing those who are self-satisfied and don’t know misfortune.… You won’t free yourself from the fire of sorrow until you cry the tears of these strings.…

Chulpon’s literary activities led to his conviction for “nationalism” and his execution, in 1938, as an enemy of the people at the height of the Great Terror launched by Stalin. Beginning in the 1950s, Chulpon’s reputation was restored, and his text for “Galdir” is often sung in place of the older folk lyrics.

The music of bastakors is performed in a variety of regional styles and genres, in different languages and dialects, by female as well as male singers, and with different formations of instrumental accompaniment as well as a cappella. Instrumental versions of songs and short pieces composed specifically for a solo instrument are also part of the bastakor tradition, and are included in the performance styles surveyed on In the Shrine of the Heart.

These days, the best-known bastakor music in Uzbekistan is rooted in two distinct geo-cultural regions: Khorezm, in the northwest, and the Ferghana Valley, in the east. The proximity of the Ferghana Valley to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital and largest city, has led to a hybrid Ferghana-Tashkent musical style, masterfully represented on the CD by Nodira Pirmatova and Mahmudjon Tojibaev. Both Nodira and Mahmudjon sing energetic examples of katta ashula, a traditionally a cappella vocal genre closely identified with the Ferghana Valley that has served as a popular  compositional medium for bastakors (tracks 9 and 15). Once performed at gatherings of Sufis - adherents of a mystical tradition within Islam whose ritual practices frequently include music and chant that aim to help bring listeners closer to an experience of divine presence - katta ashula has in more recent times become popular in a secular context at outdoor festivities. In addition to “Galdir,” sung traditionally by women, Nodira performs two pieces drawn from the classical art song suites known as maqom. Maqom traditions in Central Asia are regional variants of a broader domain of professional music cultivated in old urban centers of Islamic culture extending from North Africa to western China. “Ufor-i Iroq” (track 14) belongs to the Shashmaqom, associated with the city of Bukhara, and “Chargoh” (track 5) belongs to the so-called Tashkent- Ferghana maqom, a collection of small song cycles created by bastakors whose names have been lost. Nodira, who is bilingual in Uzbek and Tajik (the eastern dialect of Persian spoken in Tajikistan), sings “Ufor-i Iroq” in Tajik.

Not far from Tashkent, astride the banks of the Syr Darya, the river that meanders through the  intensively cultivated Ferghana Valley westward to the Aral Sea, is the ancient city of Khujand, another traditional center of bastakorlik. One of Khujand’s bestknown bastakors was Sodir Khan Baba Sharifov (d. 1933), who composed “Dilhiroj” (Tormented Heart) on a text of Hafez, the great 14th-century Persian poet whose lyrical verse has been set to music through the centuries by myriad composers and singers. On the CD, “Dilhiroj” (track 10) is passionately performed by Nasiba Omonboeva, who also hails from Khujand and, like Nodira, is bilingual in Tajik and Uzbek.
 West of Tashkent, Khujand, and the Ferghana Valley, across the desolate sands of the Kara Kum Desert are the oasis cities of Khiva and Urgench - both principal cultural centers of Khorezm.

Among the ancient and medieval place names associated with Central and West Asia - Sogdia, Bactria, Scythia, Khazaria, Khorezm - Khorezm alone survives as a modern cultural entity. Once a large territory that covered parts of present-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and the so-called Sovereign Republic of Qaraqalpakstan within Uzbekistan, Khorezm presently constitutes an administrative region of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

Khorezmians have long been identified with distinctive traditions of language and oral literature  (Khorezmi is a dialect of Uzbek), festivity and celebration, music and dance. Perhaps it is the extremes of the region’s continental climate - harsh winters and scorching-hot summers - that have molded the Khorezmian temperament and, with it, the extroverted and powerfully intense forms of traditional
 art for which Khiva and Khorezm are renowned among Central Asians.

One of Khorezm’s best-known connoisseurs of music and poetry was the long-reigning ruler of the Khorezm Khanate, Said Muhammad Rahim Khan, popularly known as Feruz II, whose reign extended from 1864 to 1910. Feruz wrote poetry, played the dutar and tanbur, and loved classical music. His verse provides the lyrics of “Muqaddima,” the stately classical song performed by Farhod Davletov, a vivacious singer who is one of Khorezm’s finest performers of maqom (track 7). Farhod also performs another popular Khorezmian classic, “Feruz” (track 12), which enshrines the Khan’s name in the title.

In “Khosh Parda Suvora” (track 3) Farhod illustrates a genre of spiritual song unique to Khorezm. Suvoras, like maqoms, are song cycles composed by bastakors of the past whose identities are no longer known. Poets have fared better - partly, perhaps, because in the classical ghazal, authors customarily included their name in the penultimate line. Some bastakors, however, have composed songs based on lyrics of unknown provenance. An example is the popular song performed by Farhod Davletov, “Ranoni Gördim” (I Saw Rano) (track 2), composed by Khorezmian bastakor Komiljon Ataniyazov (1917–1975).

Dilbarjan Bekturdyeva illustrates still another form of Khorezmian vocal art: songs traditionally sung by and for women by female performers called khalfas. In Khorezm, the term khalfa (from Arabic khalifa, rendered in English as “caliph,” literally “deputy,” “vicegerent,” or “apprentice”), refers to women who perform religious, ceremonial, and musical functions for other women at occasions such as bridal showers, engagement parties, celebrations of childbirth, and weddings. Dilbarjan sings a song popular among khalfas and their female audiences, “Birallaim” (My Only God), composed by Ojiza khalfa (1901–1951) (track 6).

In both Khorezm and the Tashkent–Ferghana Valley region, instrumental music has developed alongside vocal music as a compositional and performance art. Some singers are also outstanding instrumentalists, but instrumental music has attracted its own cadre of virtuosic specialists who arrange and perform instrumental versions of songs, or compose pieces specifically for their instrument. Foremost among such innovators are composer-performers on the Uzbek-Tajik dutar, one of many varieties of two-stringed long-necked lutes that exist throughout Central Asia. The dutar’s simplicity of construction belies the complexity of its performance techniques. These techniques are amply demonstrated by the dutar virtuosos on this CD, Shuhrat Razzaqov, from Khorezm, and Sirojiddin Juraev, who plays in the tradition of the Ferghana–Tashkent 1 9 style. Solo dutar pieces performed by both men serve as interludes between longer vocal melodies. Dutar also appears together with tar and doyra in a quartet that plays “Peshrev-i Dugoh” (track 11), a lively instrumental prelude from the Khorezmian maqom repertoire.

The popular classic songs composed by bastakors of the 19th and 20th centuries remain a respected if increasingly marginalized element of musical life in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in our own time. Even in lighter genres, the classical lyrical style of bastakors cannot compete against the juggernaut of contemporary pop modeled on Russian, European, and American bands, and of singer-songwriters who compose their own melodies and lyrics in standard pop formats and perform them to the accompaniment of amplified instruments liberally processed with digital effects. Yet Nodira Pirmatova’s paean to old songs and their abiding rejuvenation by younger singers offers reason to hope that the old popular classics will not disappear. Mahmudjon Tojibaev underscored Nodira’s optimism: “Globalization of course acts on tradition,” said Mahmudjon in a wide-ranging discussion that followed the recording session for In the Shrine of the Heart. “But a lot of young people are studying at the conservatory [in Tashkent] in the traditional singing department. In Communist times, you could count on your fingers the number of people who studied traditional music. Now there’s a large contingent, and among them are some fine musicians. If they continue to find inspiration, I  firmly believe that our traditions will not die.”

The Artists (In Their Own Words)
 The following autobiographical sketches are drawn from interviews and conversations that took place during the recording session for In the Shrine of the Heart. Themes that recur are the importance of early exposure to traditional music, the crucial nurturing role of teachers, and a commitment to serving the calling of musician with moral rectitude and a sense of higher purpose beyond the advancement of one’s own career.

Nodira Pirmatova

“I’m the youngest of seven children - six girls and a boy - and we all have a passion and talent for music. We didn’t go to music schools; everything we learned was at home. My father was my first teacher. He didn’t study music formally, but he’s a good singer, and we always had musical guests and visitors - singers, instrumentalists, and devotees of traditional music. Later I went to a music college in Khujand, and then to the conservatory in Tashkent. For vocal music, my ustad was Saodat Qabulova, originally from Margilan, a city in the Ferghana Valley. She taught me about breath control, poetic rhythm, clear speech. Ensemble singing was taught by the great ustad from Andijan, Fattahhon Mamadaliev. And I was very lucky to be able to spend time with Halima Nasyrova. She was one of the greatest female traditional singers. She used to sing in the opera as well. When you say “ustad,” it doesn’t just mean a music teacher. They teach you more than that: how to love music, how to understand and feel it, how to appreciate local culture and its human qualities. I miss my ustads. I am grateful to them for what they gave me, and the best way to show my appreciation is to sing the songs they transmitted to me. First and foremost they wanted their disciples to be honest people. Our music is a type of music that demands honesty and cleanliness. They used to say that we have to respect the spirits of our ustads when we sing, so we should be clean in our deeds.”

Farhod Davletov

“My mother’s father was a mullah and a musician. When I was a kid, we often went to his place, and I grew up surrounded by music. I think that music should be transmitted through blood. I didn’t study music at a university or conservatory, but I was very interested, and went to see some ustads. Then in 1980 I went to Tashkent to study in the Institute of Culture, and stayed there five years. In 1985 I took part in the state maqom contest, and won it. The same year, I won another prestigious competition. It was a turning point for me. I had always liked traditional music, but after winning the awards, I began paying more attention to classics, and maqoms. And I became a disciple of Ruzimet Jumaniyazov. He was a great ustad, and I learned a lot from him. Now I have many disciples myself. They discover me from recordings and come and ask me to teach them.

“Among young people in our country, pop music is very popular. I like pop music myself, and listen to it with musical pleasure. There are some good singers in pop, but they shouldn’t forget about our own songs. These songs, especially maqoms, have an educational value, if you’re able to listen attentively. They teach how to respect elders, how to be more concentrated, and not waste time. The poetry of maqoms is difficult. It’s from high-level, sophisticated poets, but if you just listen, it will nourish your heart, and give you peace and confidence. It’s not about religion, but about belief. When someone is praying beautifully, you are touched, and it can even bring tears to your eyes. Singing is the same. When it comes from the heart, it will move listeners. And when there are understanding listeners, singers have much  more pleasure and inspiration, and the music turns out well.”

Mahmudjon Tojibaev

“I was born in the village of Qairaghach,in Kuva Region of the Ferghana Valley. It wasn’t different from other villages, except that there were very talented musicians in our neighborhood. My mother’s father was a well-known singer in the Ferghana Valley. He didn’t consider singing a profession, but he used to sing religious songs, accompanying himself on the tanbur. He had disciples, and one of them, Eganberdi Mamatov, became my teacher. I liked his way of singing, and I started getting closer to him. I used to go to his place and help with housework just to be able to hear him sing. He was not indifferent to me, and used to take me with him to various weddings where he was performing.

Though he considered himself an amateur singer, I now realize that his talent was actually greater than any present-day professional musician.

“My father was good at horsemanship, and once, when I was four years old, he won a radio set. We didn’t have electricity - the radio worked on batteries - and on that radio I first heard the voice of Jurakhon Sultanov, Kamiljon Otaniazov, Mahmudjon Uzakov. I would listen to the radio, and when these masters came on and sang, I felt as if I’d entered another world. Other children didn’t have the same reaction, but I was touched, and that was the beginning of my desire to become a musician. Later I came to Tashkent to study at the conservatory, and after graduation, I was invited to work in the Shashmaqom Ensemble of the State Radio, and I’ve worked there for 16 years. In 2000, I was invited to teach at the Uzbekistan State Conservatory, and since then, I’ve taught singing in the department of traditional music.

“After 1991, when our doors opened to the world, all of world music came to us - Chinese, Iranian, Turkish, European. Everyone welcomes these new sounds and influences warmly, but after the initial excitement, people began to understand that, while they recognize the value of these other musics, the music they most cherish is their own.”

Dilbarjan Bekturdyeva

“It’s thanks to my father that I became interested in music. He’s a musician and singer, and I think music was transmitted to me through his blood. At music school and music college, I studied dutar. I took up the art of khalfas - khalfachilik - as a hobby. Nobody guided me in singing that style, but I listened to Ojiza khalfa, whom we younger khalfas consider our ustad. She was blind, but she trained a lot of khalfa singers and taught them songs. Now I teach dutar and vocal music at Urgench State University. My life is busy - I teach from morning until late afternoon, and then perform at weddings in the evening. I love music and singing, and if I go even a day or two without singing, it feels strange.  Though pop music has a big influence nowadays, traditional music won’t be forgotten. Our people still love listening to traditional music, and something that has lived through so many centuries will live long.”

Nasiba Omonboeva

“I was born in Khujand, in Soghd Region. My father and mother are workers. There were never   musicians in our family, but my brother and I were interested in music, and we went to music school. After finishing school, I went on to music college and university, where my ustad was Jurabek Nabiev, a famous singer. He taught me a lot about Shashmaqom. Later I went to Dushanbe and studied Shashmaqom with Abduvali Abdurashidov at the Academy of Maqom [an intensive four-year  program sponsored by the Aga Khan Music Initiative devoted to historically informed Shashmaqom performance]. I sing Shashmaqom in the Ferghana style, since I’m from there and studied there. In the Ferghana style, you feel freer. The maqoms are short, but they express a lot of passion and emotional pain. Bukharan maqoms have less feeling but more rules - you shouldn’t depart from the mode, you can’t break the rhythm, you have to stay within the aruz (verse meters), and so on. In the Ferghana style, you’re free to break these rules.”

Sirojiddin Juraev

“Both my father and grandfather played the dutar, and my first ustad was my father. When I was a very little boy, my father sent me to the local music school. Later I studied at the music college in Khujand and at Khujand University, where my ustad was Sultonali Khudaiberdiev, and after that, at the Academy of Maqom, in Dushanbe, where my ustad was Abduvali Abdurashidov. I listen a lot
 to old recordings of the great ustads, for example, Mirzaqurbon Soliev, Komiljon Jaborrov, Turgun Alimatov. When I listen to their records and hear something I really like, I try to learn those tunes. These ustads represented the Ferghana Valley style, so what I play is close to that. I was born there, grew up there, and am a child of that environment. Now I teach dutar in the National Conservatory in Dushanbe. When I feel inspired, I also compose my own music on the dutar. If you listen a lot to old records that are inspiring, there should be some impulse to compose. You can’t compose from a void. There has to be an inspiration that comes from listening to a master.”

Shuhrat Razzaqov

“I didn’t have a formal music education, but my father was interested in music, and in my house there was a rubab and a dutar. When my father came home from work, he would play a little. When he left the house to go to work, my brothers and I would take his dutar and try to play it, and that’s how I got involved in music. Later, I studied dutar at the conservatory. I’m obsessed with this instrument. I don’t know why, but its sound is always in my mind. I’m always thinking of it even when I’m sleeping or walking. It’s said that dutar is the mother instrument of music and tanbur is the father. You can play all kinds of music on the dutar - maqom, folk, epic poems, women’s music. I don’t compose, but each performance is in itself an improvisation and a work of art. You wake up in the morning and you spend the whole day with the dutar. You change the strings, clean it, and tune it - I can tune for hours and hours. There are endless discoveries with this instrument. Only you and God know where they will lead. I can’t imagine my life without the dutar.”