"Central Asian music is regarded still as a kind of exotica by a lot of people [in the West]. There's a sense that it is important for our culture to know more about it within the larger context of Islamic culture and civilization -- which people in the United States well understand is crucial knowledge for us to have as a nation. But it really hasn't penetrated too much down to the level of learning about music."
Levin explains that within the United States, in those rare cases where Central Asia music is sold commercially, it usually is thrown together with completely unrelated music from other cultures in a marketing category called "World Music."
"That's really a kind of potpourri of everything outside the standard pop or classical traditions of North America and Europe," he said. "In other words, you have African music and Latin American music, eastern Asia and the music of the world of Islam."
But Levin notes that even when Islamic music is grouped into its own category for commercial sale in the west, traditional music from Central Asia is difficult to find: "Most often, [the Islamic music category] draws on the Middle East, on Egypt, on Lebanon, on North Africa, on Morocco. Not so much Central Asia. One of the problems is there is just not a lot of information written about this music in English. So we need very much to have materials that include recordings that involve a kind of curator process -- where you're not just presenting the music, but you're explaining to people what it means for those in the countries where this music is performed. What its social role is. Why it is important."
It was the need to fill that vacuum of knowledge in the West that inspired Levin to write a highly praised book on Central Asian music in 1999 called "The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia." He also has helped to compile the Central Asian music in a two-CD set in 2002 on the Smithsonian Folkways label called "The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan."
Levin tells RFE/RL that the Central Asian Anthology project is conceived as a more focused collection that aims to provide a foundation for serious study of Central Asian music: "The anthology is certainly a step in the right direction. There is no substitute for being there. Of course, the best is to go and have first-hand exposure. But if you can't do that, then the next best thing is to have access to really good performances and to have explanations about that music. And that's what we are trying to package in the anthology. That material, we hope, is going to be sufficient to create a bedrock of information that is really a starting point. And we hope that people will go on [educating themselves about this music] from there."
"Islamization in Central Asia had a much stronger effect in urban areas -- particularly in the area in trans-Oxania [the region between Central Asia’s two main rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya] -- as opposed to the nomadic parts of Central Asia where pastoralists preserved a kind of ancient animism -- belief in spirits. Those beliefs still persist. There's a kind of underlay. Even in the Islamized parts of Central Asia, you can find Shamanism -- people who appeal to spirits to heal or help or purify or bring rain. All sorts of practices that are really older than Islam."
"There's one kind of music that the sedentary people -- the Uzbeks and the Tajiks and the Afghans -- are going to like a lot. But they're not going to like the nomad music very much. And vice versa. They really don't cross back and forth a lot."
Levin is a senior consultant on music programs under the umbrella of the Aga Khan Development Network. It is a non-governmental group that aims to foster economic, social and cultural development in Muslim countries around he world:
"Within the area of cultural development, one of the projects is this Aga Khan Music Initiative. And our goal is to help reanimate and revitalize musical traditions in Central Asia and help musicians in those countries transmit them to the next generation so that they can be perpetuated. We do this by sponsoring a series of community and grass-roots music centers in which traditional master musicians pass on these repertories. We tour the musicians and we document them. So this collaboration with the Smithsonian is a very central part of our work."
Indeed, the goals of the Aga Khan Music Initiative fall precisely within the mission of the Smithsonian Folkways label -- to document the entire world of sound from traditional, ethnic and contemporary music to poetry and spoken word in numerous languages.