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Central Asia: Western Students Get First Chance To Study Region's Music

  • Ron Synovitz

Prague, 3 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- There are few Western universities where students can learn about the musical traditions of Central Asia. But at the University of London, within the Department of Music in the School of Oriental and African Studies, a new course has begun for ethnomusicology students focusing on the social meaning of music in Central Asia.

Taught by Razia Sultanova, a native of Uzbekistan, the course takes students through musical traditions from Ghengis Khan in the 12th century to Tamerlane in the 15th century and Babur in the 16th century. They also learn about the impact of Soviet rule on the traditional music of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and northern Afghanistan, and about contemporary music from the region.

Sultanova's course is, for now, unique in the West -- making her a pioneer among a handful of such specialists in Western academia.

But Sultanova said she expects the uniqueness of her course to change soon because interest among Westerners is growing.

"So far it's the only course which is covering the whole area [of Central Asia]," Sultanova said. "But I think these kinds of programs will be offered more often in the future. Not only in England, but most probably in America or in France, because there are some other researchers. They work on Central Asian music, producing a great number of articles, books, and CDs. Later, this course most probably will be taught at many different universities."

Sultanova said the main reason few Westerners know about Central Asian music today is that Western ethnomusicologists were not allowed to research such traditions within the former Soviet republics during the communist era.

She said it is ironic that the official sanctioning of folk music by communist authorities from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan helped keep the music alive in people's hearts. But by forcing musicians to perform at state events with obligatory attendance -- even forcing some performers to insert political lyrics into ancient folk songs -- the music sometimes had an artificial spirit.
The official sanctioning of folk music by communist authorities from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan helped keep the music alive in people's hearts.

Today, however, Sultanova said that many young people across Central Asia are reclaiming the original "soul" of their traditional music as they incorporate it into their own unique forms of popular music.

"Young people from Central Asia solved this problem amongst themselves by creating a great amount of pop groups," Sultanova said. "If you speak to people from Kazakhstan, asking them about popular music, immediately they would tell you the names of their popular groups, like Roksonaki or Ulutau. Young people from Tajikistan would tell you the name of Davlatmand or Shams and other groups."

In Uzbekistan, Sultanova said that pop stars like Yulduz Usmanova have created a kind of "ethno-crossover fusion" by mixing traditional Uzbek folklore -- with its Turkish, Persian, and Central Asian influences -- together with elements of Western rock and dance music.

"Certainly in Uzbekistan, everybody will mention Yulduz Usmanova -- the pop queen in Uzbek music, or Sevara Nazarkhan -- our rising star, the princess of Uzbek pop music," Sultanova said. "We have Kambargan, [a Kyrgyz group] and Aygemal Ilyasova [in Turkmenistan]. Here songs are mixing folk tradition and pop traditions. We have also world-acknowledged singers like Munojat Yulchieva and a great number of instrumentalists. They work on classical traditional music. But they know how to fit properly the sounds of classical music in the demands of our daily lives today."

"Popular music is very rich in Central Asia. And these young groups are everywhere," Sultanova said. "Not only from the capitals like Tashkent, Dushanbe, or Ashgabat. But many groups are appearing from provincial cities -- some villages. Which means young people still have this soul, this thirst, for developing their traditional cultural roots and education within the style of pop culture."