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Central Asia: Specialist Record Companies Introducing Region's Music To Wider Audience

Central Asian music is still relatively unknown in the West. It's also not widely available, unless you know where to look. But a number of small, specialist record labels are doing their best to bring the music to a wider audience.

Prague, 10 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It's not often you hear Kazakh musicians such as Raushan Orazbaeva on Western radio stations.

But Orazbaeva's track "Akku" has been getting a bit more airplay in recent months, since it was included on the new CD "The Rough Guide to the Music of Central Asia."

The CD, released in February, was complied by Simon Broughton, a British authority on world music.

"What the 'Rough Guide' is about is giving people a first taste of the sounds [in Central Asia]," Broughton says. "It's really a first step."

The disc includes everything from traditional music to pop. (For a sample, click here.)

The guide is one of the latest records bringing Central Asian music to what Broughton says is a growing Western audience.

"It's certainly becoming more popular," Broughton says. "It's part of a wider trend in which people are becoming much more open about the music they want to listen to. People are curious about music from other parts of the world, particularly these areas which for many years have been under wraps. Obviously, there's more travel to the region. So this combination of people traveling, more openness generally to other forms of music, has meant that there's been a bit of a boom in terms of music from Central Asia over the last 10 years. There's been a lot of CDs brought out, both traditional and contemporary."

To be sure, Central Asian music is not on the shelves of the average record shop in the West. And the CDs that are available, like the "Rough Guide," are often compilations of various artists.
Central Asian music is not on the shelves of the average record shop in the West. And the CDs that are available, like the "Rough Guide," are often compilations of various artists.

But interested listeners can also find recordings by individual artists or ensembles -- mainly produced by small or specialist record companies.

Ocora of France has perhaps the biggest catalogue of mainly traditional music. Other companies include Face of Switzerland, Italy's Felmay, or Real World in the United Kingdom. The U.S. label Imagina features several Uzbek artists.

And in Germany, Blue Flame records signed Uzbek star Yulduz Usmanova in the early 1990s, shortly after its CEO sat on the jury of a regional music festival.

Blue Flame now represents Uzbek singers Nasiba and Mokhira, as well as Tajik performer Oleg Fesov. (For a sample of Yulduz Usmanova's music, click here.)

Company CEO Friedemann Leinert says records by these artists sell across Europe, the United States and East Asia -- and that they have a certain exotic appeal to Western audiences.

"There are some artists who are coming over and playing like Western groups. That's not so interesting," Leinert says. "But if they're coming like Yulduz is performing, with dancers, with percussionists, with original clothes and everything, transporting her tradition to the Western countries, that's very interesting for the people."

Usmanova is one Central Asian star who has made an impact in the West. Sevara Nazarkhan is another. She signed a record deal after turning up unannounced at an English music festival and impressing a top producer.

But not everyone has such luck or perseverance.

Leinert -- who has a talent scout in the region -- has some advice for musicians with international ambitions: Use traditional instruments, stay close to your own culture, and steer clear of Western-style music.

Broughton suggests sending demo tapes (music samples) to companies like the World Music Network that produced his "Rough Guide," but he adds: "One of the things I felt, because I listened to a lot of music to compile the CD, is a lot of it was technically quite badly recorded. And there is a problem with rather formulaic drum machines and synthesizers and things, which certainly don't particularly appeal to a Western market. For success outside the region, I think on the whole it tends to be the more acoustic stuff, the real instruments, [fewer] drum machines, less reverb (echoing), [fewer] keyboards. That makes it much more likely that people are going to take an interest."