Day 7 – “My soul was taking flight” Navai


07bynls.gif“My soul was taking flight” NavaiTashkent is Uzbekistan’s capital and by all accounts the busiest city in Central Asia. At first it feels very similar to Almaty, it has that Russian sprawlness about it, wide roads, an endless stream of Soviet structures surrounded by semi-shanty suburbia. Closer inspection reveals many hidden treasures. The apricot trees used in many musical instruments especially the tanbur, line up along the dusty Russian backroads and avenues, giving the place a Mediterranean feel.

The heat builds to a forbidding level by 10am and it’s best to keep out of direct sunlight, particularly in one of Tashkent’s most lively environments, Chorsu Bazar. Gary, who has traveled here before, suggested we look around. The bazar is a large market, a place where local people gather. The centre piece is a large skeletal dome at least 150ft high in the middle which envelops a vast range of spice, dairy and fruit stalls, spreading outwards in concentric circles. As we walked through here the smells of produce and sounds of multiple Uzbek ghetto blasters bellowing at distortion level seemed quite familiar. One of the first things I noticed are the women who dress in bright, traditional clothes – a far cry from the Almaty women who have adopted a relativly bland ‘chain store’ look.

07tashflt.gifThroughout the market there are stalls (often metal buckets with fruit in them), entertainers and chaikhana’s (small tables on which to sip tea). Paul was able to finally buy a belt for his decreasing waist and I was attracted by a lonely flutist, busking in a secluded corner. He was blind and gave the traditional open palm, hands over face to accept blessings whenever he felt some money land in his lap. He occasionally played a haunting Maqam-type melody and I was moved, not just by the music but by his obvious predicament. Not far from the flute player three young boys entertained.One was supplying the ‘come and see’ music on a Western snare drum beating a marching rhythm while circling the younger ones. They performed acrobatics and increasingly dangerous manoevres over broken glass and nails. I didn’t stay for the tricks they had planned for later in the act, some of the sharp implements were bigger than the boy’s themselves. Before we left the bazar I was struck by an image, a series of steps leading back up to the second level. On each side women sold bread as smoke from Shashlyk stands billowed across many brightly coloured metal ornamental stalls. This was where local people came to do their daily business, where you can eat good food for a tenth of the price of the Hamburger joints in the centre of town. Gary is right, this is the real Tashkent.

Later on that morning we ventured across town to the Museum of Applied Arts. A prosaic name for something very precious and visually stunning. It had once been the private house of a rich Russian with a taste for the traditional arts. The courtyard entrance leads up a staircase to a small hall. The hall is decorated in Islamic style with brightly painted plaster and wood carvings. Every direction is ‘candy’ for the eye. Alcoves hold vases aglow with primary tint and the marble centre piece turns out to be a perfect place for our stereo microphone. This morning we are meeting one of Uzbekistans most celebrated singers and her ensemble.07muna03.gifIn the serene calm of the hall we met Munadjat Yulchieva and her teacher and mentor Shavkat Mirzaev – if this wasn’t enough of a daunting prospect it was also to be our first encounter with the ancient Shash Maqam tradition of Central Asia.
Shash Maqam possibly dates from as far back as the Timurid dynasty, around the 15th century. It was the music of the courts and in the important centres of Bukhara, Khiva and Khokhand this repertoire flourished. The words Shash Maqam refer to the Bukharan tradition and mean six maqams (in Persian) there is also a Khivan tradition of Alti Yarim Maqam (6 and a half maqams) and from Khokand Chahar Maqam (four maqams)
The word Maqam is often translated as ‘mode’, but in fact the word has many more connotations than our ‘mode’ or ‘scale’. In this case it refers to collections of compositions ordered into cycles or suites. This represents the classical “art music” tradition of Uzbekistan.

Munadjat is one of the most popular performers in the Fergana- Tashkent style (four maqams). This school differs from the Bukharan style, it is strongly linked to the Uzbek language (as opposed to Tajik) and is sometimes referred to as ‘free maqam’.

For such a celebrity, Munadjat has taken an unconventional route to success. She was born in a small village near Andijan, and worked the feilds with the rest of her family. The story goes that she applied to the Higher Conservatoire of Music, vocal arts department, not realising that they trained opera singers. She was turned down for singing ‘out of tune’ but was heard from outside the door of the audition room by one of Uzbekistan’s most famous composers, Shavkat Mirzaev. He became her teacher and the rest, as they say, is history.

07muna04.gifIn the weeks leading up to this trip I had studied recordings of Munadjat for the purposes of research. I immediately found her voice almost absurdly moving and was soon listening to her constantly. Today’s meeting was a great opportunity to get a bit closer to the music and to find out more about its background.I am told that when Munadjat performed in London recently the audience cried and I can believe it. Besides being possessed of one of the most moving voices you have ever heard, she has an undefinable magnetism which is transfixing.
This seems to stem from a sincerity of feeling , a devotion that pervades every note and every gesture. The Uzbek and Persian texts that Munadjat sings are remarkable for the feelings of love and yearning they portray, even in English translation. These poems are classical texts written by famous Sufi poets. They cover philosophical and metaphysical themes, often using the metaphor of a lover yearning for their beloved. Through this device the poets portray the yearning for the presence of God. As Shawkat pointed out however, you need a special education to understand their poetry . The texts are multi-layered with words implying several meanings. One would need to speak several languages and have a training in Sufi philosophy and spiritual practice to plumb the depths of the meaning.

For most of us, however, the pure sound of the language has a profound effect. The music tends to be slow, creating a feeling of space and serenity. Within this timeless space the yearning of the voice is almost painful

“My beloved was to come tonight, with his face like a rose and his figure like that of a cypress-tree; but he didn’t

The whole night, sleep deserted my eyes

Full of hope, I would take a few steps on the road towards him

My soul was taking flight, but this fickle betrayer didn’t come

Bereft of his angel face, I wept and wept like a mad woman

Whoever saw me must have thought that I was a fool

Is there such a thing as a faithful suitor? If there is one, why does not every step lead him to his beloved?

Navai, rejoice in the house of your heart

For sadness never floods a house where wine flows”
The song “Munadjat” means prayer, and the melody was used by Sufis even before the poem by Navai (1441-1501) was written. It is now a famous melody of the region and Munadjat (whose name also means prayer) has made it her own. The performance begins with the voice whispering a secret confidence. As the piece progresses the melody ascends in pitch and volume with incredible control and restraint. The climax of the piece (or awj) is searing in intensity and superhuman in volume.

07munint.gifDuring this trip we have been lucky enough to meet musicians who are national celebrities. They have been relaxed, accessible people who possess great humility. Munadjat and Shavkat are no exception.

As we sat and chatted to them about their lives and music, there emerged a sense that Shavkat and Munadjat feel music is an essential ingredient in life, it is impossible to live without it. To give vent to one’s feelings of pain and joy, almost in a Cathartic way is somehow purifying. When asked about Uzbek pop music Shavkat simply said that he did not listen to it. There was an implication, however, that he felt it might be detrimental to the Classical music.

Munadjat often defers to Shavkat to answer questions, which he does in a very articulate way. They seemed encouraged by the number of students training to play Uzbek Classical music. I was curious to know whether musicians still maintained a connection with the Sufi practice that inspired this heartfelt music. This is a difficult thing to judge, especially since Sufism was discouraged during Soviet times. There was an attempt to secularise this music, which the Russians saw as feudal, into an innocuous lyric poetry. Reading between the lines though, I sense that there are still musicians for whom music is a sacred art.

Tommorow we meet two of the most celebrated lutenists (dutar and tanbur) in the country, Abdurakim Hamidov and Pattahon Mamadaliev – who is also one of Uzbekistan’s foremost composer/singers. Join us for a full report.

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