Posts Tagged composer

Day 9 – Red Tape Hell, Musical Heaven

08conver.gifHaving been out of action for a while I have not been able to tell you about our meeting with Pattahon Mamadaliev. Sometimes it’s difficult to interview musicians here because of their modesty . if you ask them about themselves they will naturally represent themselves in a very humble way. Pattahon is a good example of this.A respected maqam performer he is particularly famous for his wedding singing in the Fergana style. He is professor at Tashkent state Conservatoire and has performed numerous times on TV and Radio. In fact, the people working in our hotel were thoroughly surprised to see him sitting in their dining room. Perhaps the thing that most distinguishes him is his status as a composer. Pattahon was the first musician to be awarded the honorary title of Hafiz by the new administration after independence. This title is used in the Islamic World to describe one who has learned the Koran by heart, but it can also refer to a master musician. Pattahon is not only an interpreter, he also composes maqam music and texts.

I always enjoy watching older musicians who have played for years, they often have a minimalist style, an economy of expression. Pattahon plays as if his tanbur is a part of him and his voice still retains a power which belies his seventy years. Interestingly when we asked about the age of the tanbur he said it was not old, only fifty years.

09kathas.gifAs Pattahon’s life spans much of the period of Soviet rule in Uzbekistan I was keen to ask him about the changes that had come about. Both he and Abdurahim were clear that it had been an ill conceived experiment on the part of the Russians to try to change the musical tradition here. They felt it to be a tribute to the strength of the music and the peoples’ feeling for it that it had survived. Sasha our interpreter and musicologist companion pointed out that this viewpoint was fairly nationalistic and not necessarily representative of all musicians in the country, although there is much evidence that Soviet Cultural Policy had set out to repress the music. Sasha can be heard translating this viewpoint in an excerpt from the interview.This day was to be special for the project. A high ranking official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was going to make customs give us our satellite phone. We left for the airport at 9 am in triumphant frame of mind believing we would return within the hour. At 2 pm two bedraggled people walked through the door, black satellite phone in hand. We had been through red tape hell. The country may have reached independence but the old Russian way of doing things remains fully intact. An endless stream of grey concrete ‘huts’ scattered randomly around a wide, bland pot-holed road leading away from the airport. Sleepy Army soldiers guard rusty gates and several stages of payment, slips of paper and rubber stamps get you in.

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Over a roaring fire a large wok containing gallons of water. Lumps of dirty raw meat and vegetables, sit bubbling away in the middle of one of the yards – who is it for? The atmosphere of the place is slow and still, certainly not an area bubbling with efficiency. The various stages that Uzbekistan customs ask you to go through to acquire your own property is excruitiatingly painful when like us, you are in a rush. The paperwork and arguments burn irretrievably into the memory of all who pass through each ‘hut of frustration’.Though I’m still unwell, I’m keen to see how the new satellite is shaping up. I descend the stairs to find Gary and Paul surrounded by 100 pieces of wreckage – I can’t believe it, the replacement satellite has possibly been corrupted in transit and they are trying to trace an obvious fault. Despite all their efforts the team cannot find one, desperate calls to England are hampered when we can’t get a phone line. I retire to a safe distance, Gary and Paul are not happy. Ten minutes later I am awoken by a combined banging and throbbing – what now? Peering through the door I see Gary manfully priming a petrol generator and Paul planting an earth spike in the dusty courtyard. There wasn’t enough current in the local electricity supply to even work a soldering iron, so this is the solution – make your own electricity. It’s bizarre seeing all this sophisticated satellite gear driven by a petrol generator.

We are told a third satellite transmitter will be hand delivered in a few days to Bukhara. Please stick with us we are doing everything we can, normal ‘service’ will commence shortly.

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Day 7 – “My soul was taking flight” Navai

07bynls.gif“My soul was taking flight” Navai

Tashkent 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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Day 2 – I didn’t realise it would happen on the second day!

“I had hoped that during this trip I would have the chance to play the flute alongside some of the musicians I had encountered. I didn’t realise it would happen on the second day!”

02museam.gifThe museum of Kazak Musical Instruments has a surreal air about it. It’s a wooden ‘fairy-tale’ castle enclosed in a cocoon of Soviet administrative architecture. Surreal also because as you enter the building there is a feeling of setting foot in a timeless world of ancient practice and frozen tradition. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, the treasures inside slowly emerge. A large map of Kazakstan clearly displays the instruments of each of its regions. A few surprises for me – is that an ocarina near Almaty? Are harps so widely used throughout Kazakstan?

02aby2.gifThe six or so rooms that constitute the Museum are devoted mainly to three things. The composers of Kazak music (many of whom were once politicians in the Soviet system), the instruments (many originals used by the composers themselves) and some ancient artefacts which illustrate the origins of Kazak music. The rather sad looking musical instruments are ceremoniously displayed behind glass cases, deprived of a musicians touch. A small button now allows you to hear wonderfully ‘grainy’ recordings of their instruments. The playing sounds remarkably authentic and has an honesty about it. Some highlights include a bass dombra, presumably scaled up to provide the ‘low end’ to Russian designed Kazak ensembles and a selection of a horse hair string instruments. One of these is very similar to the West African “khallam” (from the Wolof people).

02jaws.gifAs we wandered around engrossed we were joined by Abylai, our friend who yesterday invited us to join him and his ensemble for a performance and chat about his world.Later I endeavoured to talk with Abylai a little about himself and about music. He was born in China, of Chinese parents, and went to a Kazak School. There is a large Kazak population in China, where the peoples are quite integrated. It was here that he acquired a taste for Kazak music. He studied music in Peking and since coming to Kazakstan in 1975 has been increasingly involved in local music. As something of a “musical nomad” himself he is liable to give you a list of all the styles of music he is able to play. He played us a musical medley which seemed to encompass most of Asia and considerable parts of Southern Europe. It was impossible to fathom the full depth of his knowledge in this short encounter. In one respect he emulates his mentor Al Farabi, he is a polymath, a philosopher, a performer and composer. Al Farabi is a famous name in Islamic scholarship, mostly for his Kitab al-musiqi al-kabir (the great book of music). This is a widely translated classic. Al Farabi was a true Hakim in the Islamic tradition, a man of wide learning. His scholarship extended to the religious sciences; mathematics, philosophy, astrology,physics and so on. Most importantly he was keen to convey the connections between these areas of knowledge which science now views as separate disciplines. Abylai could have talked to us for days about Al Farabi, as he had written about him extensively. My curiosity was certainly aroused and I made a mental note to do some reading-up when I get home. What else I could discover about this almost legendary figure from musicians here in Central Asia? Another important figure in Abylai’s opinion was Yasavi, a Sufi poet composer whose Mausoleum was depicted in the Museum. He performed a song composed by Yasavi. At this point Abylai’s voice lowered and his countenance became more reverent. We were all moved by this performance.

02shamen.gifIt was clear that in some ways at least Kazak music has changed little and the fact that the melodies we heard today are from the nomadic period seems to support this. Elsewhere, this way of life is still alive, even though these professional performance ensembles seem to be an urban, post 1917 phenomenon. The Soviet system seems to have been a mixed blessing. Whilst state ensembles were supported and musicians were paid, it may have brought about some changes in the music. Since independence, a living still has to be made and this means that the ensembles now frequently travel abroad to perform their music.Abylai was very keen for us to hear a ‘traditional’ ensemble. They gathered ‘concert style ‘ in their own auditorium in the museum . This curious round space, shaped like a yurt tent is made of wood and has an extraordinary resonance.

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The instruments played were; two dombra, an accordion (probably from Russia) a bass dombra, a shetigen (a zither which probably originated here and travelled the silk road to become the Japanese koto), a frame drum with two heads (unusual), some castanets made of animal hooves (very loud) and an ulbek (an ocarina). The ensemble also featured a jaws harp, apparently a very ancient instrument.I had hoped that during this trip I would have the chance to play the flute alongside some of the musicians I had encountered. I didn’t realise it would happen on the second day! Mayra the dombra and ocarina player taught me a Kazak melody. This haunting but simple melody fits easily into our Western diatonic scale, yet somehow it has a decidedly non-European feel.

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Music is too often cited as the international language but this time it worked. It will be interesting to see how I get on with the musicians further afield in Uzbekistan and the Fergana Valley

Tomorrow should present more opportunities for exploring East-West fusions. The Voice of Asia festival starts this evening. Log on tomorrow for a live update.

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