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Turkmenistan (Fails To) Mark Greatest Musical Son's 70th Birthday

Nury Halmammedov
Nury Halmammedov
The melancholy strains of "Broken Life" provide a window into the understated existence of one of the Turkmen nation's greatest sons.

Its composer, Nury Halmamedov, shares the kind of humble beginnings long celebrated by a more exalted Turkmen icon.

Halmamedov grew up in orphanages and shared classes with Saparmurat Niyazov, who went on to rule the country for more than 20 years as "Turkmenbashi," leader of all Turkmen.

Halmamedov, who died in 1983, would have been 70 years old today. But he remains alive in the hearts and music of the Turkmen people.

Halmamedov strived to bring traditional Turkmen music into the mainstream by mixing it with European symphonic strains. His effort is credited with giving new life and meaning to Turkmen music.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva says Halmamedov remains admired because he was "able to show the beauty of the Turkmen land through his masterfully created music."

Pushing Traditional Boundaries

Before Halmamedov began composing, the performance of Turkmen melodies was confined to national musical instruments, notably the dutar, a two-stringed lute. Halmamedov introduced Turkmen music to a global audience by adapting traditional music for symphonic orchestras. He also wrote music for the opera, ballet, and musicals based on Turkmen lyrics.

His score for the historic Soviet film "Shukur Bagshy" brought the composer instant fame at the age of 22.

"Shukur Bagshy" tells the story of a 19th-century Turkmen musician whose brother was kidnapped and arrested by a rival tribe in Iran. The musician refuses his compatriots' offer to declare war against the rival tribe, and commits himself to freeing his brother nonviolently. Brandishing only his dutar, he enters a music contest in the enemy's land and, in a climactic scene (see below), his music ultimately wins over the Iranian tribe. His brother is set free in a display of gratitude to the musician.

Both the movie and its music are considered masterpieces of Turkmen art and culture.

Halmamedov went on to compose music for many other films, documentaries, and animated shorts. His scores accompany more than 10 Turkmen films, including "The Decisive Step," "Kechpelek," and "Mukhtumquli," which today are recognized as the nation's modern classics.
Halmamedov also wrote music to accompany a number of Russian, German, and Japanese poems. The 19-century romantic poets Heinrich Heine and Sergey Esenin were among his personal favorites.

In a rare compliment given to a competing contemporary personality, Turkmenbashi himself praised Halmamedov in 2004 as a "priceless jewel" of Turkmen culture.

"I saw how he worked on 'Kechpelek,'" Niyazov said. "All through the night and day, he would play music like crazy until he found the exact musical note. It is not a melody that was created in five minutes."

"Obviously, he didn't need anything, neither titles nor money," Niyazov said of his former classmate and fellow orphan, whom he would honor as "Turkmenistan's National Artist" in 1991, the first year of Turkmenistan's independence.

'Gifted Rebel'

As a 9-year-old boy, Halmamedov was first introduced to the piano at a school in the capital, Ashgabat, and his teacher quickly recognized the youngster's exceptional talent. Halmamedov penned his first composition at the age of 19, as a student at the prestigious Moscow State Conservatory.

In 1979, Halmamedov was declared a "Meritorious Artist of Turkmenistan," a prestigious Soviet-era title. But Halmamedov didn't live to see most of the titles and awards he would receive, including the Makhtumquli State Award and the State Prize of the USSR. Halmamedov died in his prime in 1983, at the age of 43.

In an interview provided to Turkmen media, his former conservatory professor, Anatoly Aleksandrov, said Halmamedov was regarded as a disobedient rebel during his student years.

Aleksandrov said teachers would complain to the head of the school about Halmamedov's "troublemaking." However, his professor recalls, Halmamedov would get away with his mischievous behavior because the director was too smitten by the "exceptionally gifted" student's creations to punish him.

Rim Hasanov, a composer and music critic, calls Halmamedov's music "different from others."

"It was something new, and it was great," Hasanov says.

No Place For Classics?

It is ironic that in a country whose calendar is filled with state celebrations -- from the president's birthday to national Melon Day -- the anniversary of Halmamedov's birth is not officially commemorated.

The composer's admirers are left to mark the day privately.

In Daina, the western Turkmen village where Halmamedov was born and lived until his impoverished family was forced to give him up for adoption, a handful of artists, friends, and relatives gathered to celebrate his life and achievements.

RFE/RL's Yazlieva laments that the official oversight means that "the younger generation knows little about him."

"I think it is because of the fact that cultural values in Turkmenistan are replaced by something else," Yazlieva says, "which creates obstacles for professional art."

She says that these days in Turkmenistan, "hardly anyone gets any education about classics."

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this story
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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