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World: Central Asian, Iranian Recordings Compete For 'World Music' Grammy

Duduk master Djivan Gasparyan (Courtesy Photo) February 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The 49th Grammy Awards ceremonies are a forum for the U.S. music industry to highlight its top stars with awards like "Best New Artist" and "Album of the Year." Many of the 108 categories focus on the most popular Western music -- pop, hip-hop, rap, rock, rhythm and blues, jazz, and classical.

But most traditional music from outside North America and Europe is grouped into a Western marketing category known as "World Music." Thus Central Asian "maqam" is competing in the same category as a South African gospel choir, classical Hindustani musicians, a Scandinavian-styled trio, and a live recording of Iranian and Armenian masters.

It was September of 2003 when Iranian lute virtuoso Hossein Alizadeh teamed up with Armenian duduk master Djivan Gasparyan for a live outdoor concert at Tehran's Niavaran Palace.

Persian And Armenian

This year, a recording of that show is one of five Grammy Award nominees for "Best Traditional World Music Album." It is being marketed in the west under the title "Endless Vision: Persian and Armenian Songs."

Alizadeh is a renowned composer and a master of the "tar." He also is a master of other traditional instruments in the Persian lute family. But ironically, the Tehran concert that earned him and Gasparyan a Grammy nomination was far from traditional.

Instead of the Iranian tar, Alizadeh plays a new kind of Iranian lute called a "shurangiz" -- an instrument that he has helped design.

Meanwhile, Alizadeh's collaborations with Gasparyan explore new artistic territory by blending classical Persian music and poetry with Armenian and Azeri melodies and lyrics sung by Gasparyan.

Iranian lute virtuoso Hossein Alizadeh

Two women -- Afsaneh Rasaei and Khourshid Biabani -- also sing as part of Alizadeh's otherwise all-male Hamavayan Ensemble.

And Gasparyan adds his instrumental mastery on the duduk -- a cylindrical wooden flute made from the root of an apricot tree.

Born in the the village of Solag near Yerevan, Gasparyan was honored in 1973 by the Armenian government with the title of "People's Artist of Armenia." But he is perhaps best known in the West for his performances on major motion-picture soundtracks like "Gladiator" and Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ."

Reviving 'Shashmaqam'

Another Grammy nominee this year for "Best Traditional World Music Album" is a project that documents attempts by Tajik and Uzbek musicians to revive "shashmaqam" -- a style of court music that flourished centuries ago in Central Asia.

The album is called "Invisible Face Of The Beloved: Classical Music of the Tajiks and Uzbeks." It is part of a project by the Agha Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia that has been distributed by the Smithsonian Folkways label.

Documentary filmmaker and Central Asian music expert Simon Broughton says Shashmaqam is gaining popularity among Westerners. But he says listeners must be educated about the music to appreciate its depth.

"Within the Asian region, I think Central Asia is attracting some attention," Broughton says. "They've got to work a little bit in bringing their music across. There are aspects of Central Asian music, like the Sashmaqam tradition -- the classical music tradition of Bukhara and Samarkand -- which is a very erudite tradition. It is one that you really do need to get accustomed to in order to find your way through it."

Educating Western listeners is exactly what the Grammy-nominated album attempts to do with its detailed, 44-page booklet and documentary film on a bonus DVD.

The music on the album is performed by students from the Academy of Maqam in Dushanbe. Abduvali Abdurashidov, the school's founder and director, explains the history of the music.

"Maqam was performed at the court of the ruling emirs," Abdurashidov says. "Generation after generation, for hundreds of years, it was transmitted from master to disciple. It went through many changes on the way to acquiring its present form. Maqam music doesn't have a composer. Its composer is the people."

'Seeking To Achieve Truth'

Abdurashidov says that when he opened the music academy in 2003, it was modeled on ideals of Islamic learning that are even older than Shashmaqam. Those standards make the study of music inseparable from the study of poetry, rhythmic verse, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.

Academy of Maqam is trying to revive shashmaqam

"Our maqams have a meaning that is mystical and Sufi," Abdurashidov says. "Maqam seeks to achieve truth. This perfection is an aim. We have to go through hundreds of levels and difficulties to reach it. In a maqam, these levels are represented by various stages of musical development. It is like a person's movement toward spiritual perfection. A feeling that grows little by little toward a culmination. And it arrives at the 'awj' -- the highest culmination. It is a moment when the meaning of poetry and music arrives at a supreme point and bursts through to create a particular spiritual state."

The students at the academy have delved deeply into the relation between poetry and musical rhythm -- studying the tuning, the structure of maqam compositions, and the overall form of the song cycles. In this way, Abdurashidov says, the students are able to perform Sashmaqam in a way that hasn't been done since the 19th century.

The three other albums nominated for "Best Traditional World Music Album" feature music from Asia, Africa, and Europe.

"Hambo In The Snow" features a Washington-based trio that styles its performances after ancient Scandinavian music.

"Blessed" is an album from South Africa performed by the Soweto Gospel Choir.

"Golden Strings of The Sarode" is a collection of Hindustani classical music performed by Aashish Khan on Sarode and Zakir Hussain on tabla.

In Tune With Central Asia

In Tune With Central Asia

Music On Film, Film On Music

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.


View a short RFE/RL video presentation of the event (about 90 seconds). RealVideo