PRAGUE, October 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- An audience of a few hundred people in a Prague theater -- hungry to learn more about the rich musical heritages of Central Asia and Afghanistan -- warmly received the performance of Afghan singer and harmonium player Assadullah Saifi on the night of October 19.
Film And Music
The occasion was a festival called "Music On Film -- Film on Music." The five-day event features more than 100 films about music from around the world as well as live musical performances. The program on October 19 focused on music from Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Festival organizer Keith Jones attributes the enthusiasm of the audience to the exotic nature of the music and to outstanding musicianship.
"There's also a political side underlying this -- that people want to know more, especially in Europe, about the Islamic world," he said. "[They want to know more] about secular cultures from Islamic countries because they are sort of attacked in the media with unfair stereotypes. And a lot of people are searching for stories that lie underneath the headlines and underneath what is just on the surface. And so Central Asian music has attracted relatively strong support within a certain community which is interested in world music and international cultures generally."
The festival's Asian focus included three films by Uzbek director Saodat Ismailova.
The film "Revitalizing Shashmaqam, Court Music of Central Asia" offers a glimpse into "shashmaqam" -- one of the primary styles of ancient court music that flourished in Silk Road cities of Central Asia like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent.
"Homayun Sakhi: The Art Of The Afghan Rubab" is a detailed portrait of the life and work of a master of Afghan traditional music.
Sakhi, the subject of the film, fled his native Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. But he developed a new musical style while living in exile in Pakistan. Eventually he moved to Fremont, California, a small American town that has a large population of Afghan expatriates.
border=0>Allamourad Rakhimov performing on his Turkmen instrument (RFE/RL)Ismailova's "Tengir-Too: Mountain Music Of Kyrgyzstan," depicted the relationship between the Kyrgyz people, their traditional music, and the landscape. One musician appearing in that film, Bakyt Chytyrbaev, attended the Prague screening. After the film, Chytyrbaev performed for the audience on a bowed instrument called a Kyl-Kyiak.
Chytyrbaev told RFE/RL after his performance that European audiences appear eager to learn more about his style of music, which is derived from Shamanism.
"When I am here in Europe I feel that European audiences are ready to listen to and accept this music," he said. "I know that Central Asian music is not well known here. I believe this kind of music deserves to be known in the West."
The audience for the live music performances on October 19 included independent television director Simon Broughton. He is the editor of "Songlines," a magazine dedicated to world music. He also coedited the book "The Rough Guide To World Music."
Gaining In Popularity
Broughton told RFE/RL that Central Asian songs are not the most popular of the traditional music that is marketed in the West under the category of "World Music." But he says traditional music from Central Asia is making inroads into the global music market.
"There are areas of the world where the musical interest is much stronger," he said. "I mean, Cuban music somehow captures people's imagination. The music of West Africa seems to be very dominant at the moment. But within the Asian region, I think Central Asia is attracting some attention. There is certainly more to-ing and fro-ing between Central Asia and the West."
Broughton says one reason Central Asian music is exotic for European audiences is the fact that it was isolated for so long during the Soviet era.
"Certainly since the Central Asian countries achieved independence in 1991 there's been a real emphasis on the music," he said. "And the music has become much better promoted, or much more available in the West -- both as a result of Western interest and Western companies going there and releasing things, but also the countries themselves being able to promote their own music."
Four films are being screened at the festival in Prague this week that were produced by Broughton. He has traveled extensively in the Islamic world to produce award-winning documentaries like "Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music Of Islam" and "Breaking The Silence: Music In Afghanistan."
At The Crossroads
"There's been a lot of interest in Afghan music, partly because of the Taliban and the severity of the Taliban ban on music," he said. "The Taliban basically forbade any sort of music except [musically] unaccompanied chants and songs in praise of the Taliban. As a result of that, there's been a curiosity to the music of Afghanistan. And actually, Afghan music is quite appealing to a Western audience. It's there at the crossroads. There [are] influences from Iran, from Persia, from Central Asia, and from the Indian subcontinent. And all of those things meet in Afghanistan."
Audience members less familiar with Central Asian music also found similarities to Western music. Among them was Heath Hanlin, a classically trained musician from New York.
"I was really interested in the rhythms and the precision of the playing -- particularly on the stringed instruments," he said. "Northern European progressive rock from the 1970s was reminiscent of that, I think it would be fair to say."
Another festivalgoer who closely studied the performance techniques of the Central Asian artists was Joel Tait, a native of Somerset, England, who is studying percussion.
"Yeah, it's exotic," he said. "I study drumming here, actually, in Prague. So I was really interested to come along and see what the musicians from that region had to offer. We got a great look because there were the films from the region, and then a whole load of musicians from different countries in Central Asia, and then a jam [session] between Western musicians and Eastern. It was great fun. It was a great vibe just to see everyone together. I've not been lucky enough to see enough stuff like this."
CENTRAL EUROPE MEETS CENTRAL ASIA: A Prague-based festival featuring nearly 100 films about music from around the world placed a spotlight on the musical culture of Central Asia -- still one of the world's best-kept secrets. Films gave a glimpse into the lives of musicians in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was on hand for a live musical performance.