It was a gamble -- Nazarkhan was already a popular singer in her native Uzbekistan, but virtually unknown abroad. But the gamble quickly paid off.
"I was by myself, with my friend and my instrument, of course -- the doutar [a string instrument] -- and I met the guys from WOMAD. They just asked me, 'Can you do some performance, because one of the artists was sick and he didn't come to WOMAD?' So I said, 'Yes, of course I will do it.' But afterwards I was a bit afraid, because I was not ready, I was just alone. Of course I had my songs, but I didn't have [a band] behind me. Afterwards we found musicians at the bar, we drank a cup of tea and talked with other musicians. Some of them agreed [to play]...all of them were popular and famous people. We just did some rehearsal, about 15 minutes. After that we were ready and the next day we did a program of about 40 minutes. I think it was a good performance because the people did not know about me, but after one or two songs there were lots of people around me and they danced and shouted and clapped. I was happy," Nazarkhan said.
Nazarkhan didn't just impress the ordinary festivalgoers. Also in the crowd that night was Peter Gabriel, the singer-songwriter who has helped launch the international careers of several world music stars.
"At that time I didn't know him exactly," she says. "After the performance he came backstage and introduced himself and invited me to his Real World Records studio, which is in Bath. The next day we went to the studio of Real World and they asked me [about] an album for Real World. [After] our discussion we came to Tashkent and talked and talked about it, and one year later we did a recording with a famous producer from France, Hector Zazou, who was really the right person for me and that project. He's really strange, a crazy person, but I like people like this," she said.
The result was last year's "Yol Bolsin," an album in which Nazarkhan blends traditional Uzbek music with modern, pop-inspired elements.
"It was very important to do some fresh, natural -- but not unusual -- album. That's why we did the recording in Uzbekistan, using all live folk instruments and voice. Hector -- I don't think he was really happy because he did many mixings and we just discussed about some sounds about how it could be. Afterwards, he went to Paris to do some mixing with his electronic sounds, some guitar and some other Western instruments. For me it's really important to do something else, not just pop or folk music, that's why we decided to do a mix of those two styles, folk and modern."
"Yol Bolsin" has brought Nazarkhan to the attention of a whole new audience. Critics have heaped praise on her, describing her voice as "soaring" and "unforgettable." Audiences also appreciate her colorful stage presence, with Nazarkhan dressed in the flowing robes of national Uzbek folk attire.
There are plenty of admirers in Tashkent, too. One young fan says, "Most of all, I like the song Sevara sings about her homeland. In it she shows all the aspects, the essence, of the motherland."
"What makes her different is the meaning in her songs," says another Uzbek woman. "Also how she behaves, [and] I like the way she dresses. That's what distinguishes her from others. Her music is more national, too. It's good that she takes national songs and gives them a modern sound."
"She is different from other young singers," says a male fan. "Even though she only appeared a few years ago, the name of Nazarkhan is known, not only in Uzbekistan but also abroad. That's good -- not everyone can achieve that."
Now Nazarkhan has been shortlisted for two BBC world music awards, with the winners to be announced next week. She's been nominated in the "Asian" and "newcomer" categories. She says she's happy that another female Uzbek singer, Munadjat Yulchieva, has been nominated, too.
"I'm really happy it's not just me [but] another artist too, from Uzbekistan especially. I hope there will be more and more popular artists from here."
Later this year, Nazarkhan will be performing around the U.K. and other European countries, including an appearance at the Barcelona Forum 2004 cultural festival. And there are also plans for a new record for international release.
"My next step will be a new album, I'm just planning it," she says. "I hope it will be ready this year, 2004. That's just my thinking about it, I will go to England and we will think about my next project."
(Adolat Najimova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and colleagues in the Tashkent bureau contributed to this report.)
("Yol Bolsin" can be found at: