Posts Tagged Fergana Valley

Day 27 – Two Weddings and a Satellite

We have set up the satellite in many strange places – it is surprising the number of times we have managed to get a clear view of the Indian Ocean receiver without venturing beyond the nearest road. Sadly there have been too many times when mountains, trees or Soviet apartment blocks have got in the way. Today we had to go somewhere. In a children’s playground in the suburbs of Biskek, Kyrgyzstan, English Nomads could be seen setting up a bizarre array of equipment – morning entertainment for the youngsters. The sound of a motor generator and sight of a ‘sputnik’ in the middle of their playground was too much to resist. After some confused policemen had left us a throng of children gathered and cheered us on as we connected to the world. No big flashing lights or music just Gary saying ‘great – another one off’. We asked them to return at 10 PM for part two.

27lenin.gifI had the opportunity to spend a late Sunday afternoon walking through Biskek with our new Kyrgyz translator Gulnaz Abdrahmanova. It has been 42 degrees for the last few weeks. Now, after a sudden rain, the weather is typically British and a welcome change for the team. One of the first things that strikes me is the people – they are, like in Almaty, dressed in ‘modern’ clothes, very different from the traditional Muslims of the Fergana Valley of two days ago. The city itself is wide, open and filled with Soviet style buildings and monuments. As we walked through Dubovy park filled with decaying carvings, Gulnaz explained how Biskek had bought up many Russian artifacts from other ex-Soviet countries – they were quite keen to pass them on! Biskek is the most ‘Russian’ city we have visited. It is the only ex-CIS city with a statue of Lenin still dominating it’s main square. It is difficult to know how most of the city react to these relics. Will Lenin last much longer? The people do seem proud of some of thier monuments, especially Urkuya Saliyevas a reformer from Osh who led the Kyrgyz female movement after the revolution.

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Along the main street there is the familiar mix of subway markets, karaoke cafes and photographer stalls. There are eccentric props used by the photographers including large white gorillas, dead birds in a palm trees and broken down cars. One street stall that caused the team much surprise was an evil spirit removal and fortune telling service. A man in jeans and green shirt waved his arms and hissed Shaman-like chants around each customer. A queue of women sat in the open as each were treated in turn. Our presence caused some embarrassment but we were told this service is very much in demand. Gulnaz’s husband goes once a year and she told me how valuable it was to him. I found it so strange to see this kind of thing performed so openly and I thought how much it differed from our meeting with Shaykh Kushkarov on day 20.

The musician, Kurmangazy Aiylchievich who we are going to meet tomorrow, is larger than life. There is something about him that reminds me of Shoberdy – the Baysun Bakshy [see Day16]. He is a wild, flamboyant virtuosic vodka drinker. Unlike Shoberdy he talks extravagantly about musical healing, Shamans and holistic principles but also plays popular hits at public functions.

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By reputation Kurmangazy is Kyrgyzstan’s top musician. I’ve been invited by Kurmangazy to a special location. A double celebration of a 70th birthday and a 50th wedding anniversary. As I climb the staircase of the ‘Kyrgyz National Restaurant’, I’m immediately struck by a sea of hats – the white Alpine-like national hat of the Kyrgyz nomads. The old women all wear head scarves softening their sun-gold faces, few smile, their heads filled with memories?

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The details vary but I’m sure these occasions have common ground the world over. Solemn vodka laced speeches about ‘fifty happy years,’ on a stage decorated with bouquets and fruit. Children reluctantly pushed to the front, perform party pieces – this time on the national instrument, the komuz. A special delicacy is presented to table – today it’s horse meat – another nomad symbol? Perhaps amongst the gossip there is nostalgia for a Soviet era of greater prosperity and a more certain infrastructure. Nostalgia tempered now by an influx of jobs in fizzy soft drink factories and the fluorescent appeal of catalogue fashions – it’s Sunday and everybody looks their best. In the key of slightly Eb auntie Flo will sing a song: ‘Her mother should know’ – the band struggles to follow.

27komuz.gifSpecial occasions need special music and Kurmangazy seemed happy to provide the crowd-pleasers. To European ears his band is a bizarre cocktail of popular Kyrgyz melodies, South American music, Jazz and Classical pops. His band are all accomplished conservatoire-trained musicians and appear very relaxed.

27kurm.gifKurmangazy fronts the band with a frantic energy, swapping frequently between his many wind instruments. The band’s funked-up versions of everything receive a somewhat cool response from the audience of over 50s. The medley of ‘Classic’ hits which Kurmangazy dedicated to us included snippets of Bach, Mozart and Paganini, all arranged in a ‘hooked-on-Classics’ style with a synthesised back-beat. He invited us to attend a healing session he will conduct at midnight!

Once again the team have to extricate themselves from a tricky situation. We are invited to stay and drink endless vodkas and eat horse with the band. Horse intestines are a local delicacy and it testifies to the wealth of the host that it was in plentiful supply. We were told each horse makes four plates of ‘delicacy’ and costs about 1500 USD. We decide to sneak off and send you this transmission.

27shawms.gifEmerging into the street we encounter a traditional wedding in full flight. Two surnai (shawm) players and a drummer play spiralling polyrhythmic music that makes you want to dance. The bride, groom and entourage arrive and a circle dance starts up in the street. Money is pushed into the hands of the dancers. There is a strong link here with the music of Turkey (the Kyrgyz people are a Turkic people) but the surnai is also very similar to the ghaita of Morocco. In France there is a similar double-reed instrument, the bombard. The double headed drum exists worldwide and in France it is known as the tabor. These connections must be well documented, but to see it in real life gives a startling sense of the cultural overlap between Europe and Asia.



Tomorrow we meet the extraordinary Kurmangazy again and hope to discover more about both his music and his research into ancient Kyrgyz culture.

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Day 23 – Everyone’s free in Uzbekistan to live however they want

“Everyone’s free in Uzbekistan to live however they want” Matluba, Kokand

23muse.gifIn pre-Soviet times Kokand was a major capital. It is now a small industrial town in the Fergana Valley. The main industry is still textiles, though over 50 percent of the population depend for their living on casual labour or working the local market. It is a familiar mix of Soviet apartment blocks, older Uzbek architecture and the grandiose statues and fountains celebrating the first Bolshevik leaders. The atmosphere is of calm tolerance with traditional Muslim lifestyles coexisting alongside modern aspirations and styles of dress.

As we drive through Muqimi park, Kokand’s recreation space I witness a disconcerting array of sights. An Uzbekistan Airways jet languishes in the trees, a steam engine resides on a disused circular railway and next to the swings, a palace, the ‘Palace of the Last King’. This structure sits uneasily with its eccentric neighbours. A ramp leads up to one of several decorative courtyards, wooden pillars support primary coloured patterned ceilings.

23jsilk.gifCompleted in 1873 and destroyed soon after by invading tzarist troops, the Palace was converted into a Museum in 1925. The remaining rooms and courtyards now host local history curios. Two original wooden gates from the walls that previously surrounded the city alongside musical instruments imprisoned behind glass. The display included a kobuz (see day 4) possibly evidence of Kokand’s prominent position on the old ‘Silk Road’.

One area that seemed to excite the team was a room full of patterned paintings. These works by Saidakhmad Makhmudov were bright, eye-catching and seemed to echo many of the decoration we had seen before – the walls of the Registan in Samarkand, the ceiling in our Jewish Guest House in Bukhara even the walls of the Museum of Applied Arts in Tashkent. These were fabulous designs and Gary took some stills which can be viewed on a separate page.

23bigw.gifLocal TV director Burkhon Shermatov arranged a meeting for us with Kursanoi Kodirova and Muborakhon Akramova. In a courtyard in the Palace they performed some Uzbek folk songs. Singing and playing doira, their songs mostly concern courtship and marriage. The traditional Uzbek wedding consists of three parts: Erkak Ash, a morning ceremony for men during which male musicians play, Khotin Ash an afternoon ceremony for women and Toy, an evening celebration for everyone. Kursanoi and Muborakhon usually perform in the afternoon and evening. One of the songs they sang for us was a standard of the repertoire called Yor Yor. It is sung as the tearful bride leaves her parents’ house for her new home. Legend has it that the prophet Muhammad once saw women taking a bride to be married and asked them where they were going. They said they were going to a wedding.

23twow.gifThe prophet then declared that everyone should be notified of weddings using a special song. Fatima, Muhammad’s wife, is supposed to have handed down this song which is still sung, over one thousand years later.Besides singing at weddings, Kursanoi and Muborakhon also perform in concert halls and at state events. They were recently awarded third prize at an international festival in Turkey. Their singing and dancing is direct and unfussy with an immediacy and humour that seems appropriate for weddings. Their manner is charming and engaging and it is easy to see, even out of context, why they are the most famous singers (or Yallachi) in the Kokand region.

Whatever may be the popular perception of women’s roles within Islam, it is clear that in this culture women have their own views and modes of expression.

I had the opportunity to talk to Matluba (our present translator) about the position of women in Uzbek society and in particular about the work of the Business Women’s Association of Kokand (BWAK). Matluba presented a very positive view of the way things are progressing. The BWAK is a non governmental organisation which gives advice and training to women wanting to work in both private and governmental sectors. Some of its stated aims are:
– to form an ideology of female business
– to support entrepreneurial initiatives
– to protect the rights of business women
– to improve professional skills.

23int.gifAccording to Matluba more and more women are coming to them for help and she sees the future of Uzbekistan in terms of an open and democratic system. Matluba describes herself as a Muslim, who ‘trusts in God’ and who is trying in her busy life to learn the namaz or prayers. At the same time she sees no reason why she shouldn’t wear modern clothes and make-up. It was extremely refreshing to hear so much optimism from a young person so soon after Independence.

I asked Matluba what she thought of an earlier description of the Fergana valley as being ‘a hotbed of Islamic Militancy’. This seemed totally at odds with her perception of the region. She stressed the extent to which people are increasingly free to live as they wish. Women may follow a traditional way of life or can dress in a modern way and have careers – as long as their families allow them to !

Matluba places a lot of faith in their President, Islam Karimov to take the country further forward into a tolerant and democratic future.

Tomorrow, Ochil Khan – shaman or female Sufi, join us and find out

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Day 22 – Angels of Fire, Tashkent to Kokand

22rdwrks.gifBack on the Silk road. I travel across a mountain pass into the Fergana Valley. This area has been producing silk since the fourth century. It remains a cottage industry despite producing 30 000 metric tonnes per annum. Ironically this is also the most densely populated area in Central Asia and heavily industrialized. From the window of the vehicle I see Dickensian mills churning out black smoke. Cooling towers and open cast mining add to the industrial skyline. Each small town we pass through has its heroic Soviet monuments – arms reaching for the sky, sword wielding soldiers, ‘angels of fire.’
22dombra.gifEach town also has its police checkpoint where the men in red hats peer at us in disbelief and say ‘niet’ quite a lot. Along the road motorists picnic in the petrol queues, this being a rare commodity. As in the Welsh valleys the rather bleak foreground is made worse by the majestic beauty of the surrounding mountains. Roadwork’s delay us for several hours and I eventually arrive in Kokand after dark..

Tourism has not happened yet in Kokand and we find ourselves attracting more curious looks than anywhere we have been so far. We arrived at our accommodation (Soviet style apartment block) somewhat shattered and suffering from the dramatic increase in humidity.

22mat.gifThe hospitality is as warm as anywhere but today it seems more difficult to be good company as we are all so tired. Gary has had a 24 hour flu bug, perhaps three weeks of 16 hour days has taken it’s toll. My new guide is Matluba a member of the Business Women Association of Kokand (BWAK), we will be their guests tomorrow night.

Join us over the next three days when we will be meeting Otin-Oy women – female Sufi singers and a Kokand TV Director will be introducing us to some leading musicians in the area.

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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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