Posts Tagged food

Day 36 – Mad ride to music lesson

36truck.gifI have the morning off as I’m scheduled to visit the local village school at 12 noon. I’m told that around the next hill there is a beautiful gorge, so I set off for a bit of sightseeing. Nomadmobile 4 is a fairly rugged minibus but likes to keep it’s tyres on a road. After a five minute drive the mountain track runs out and we are left with a mud path with ruts 2 feet deep. Our driver pushes on but the van is soon grounded on it’s axle. By unlikely coincidence a huge four wheel drive truck appears full of local workmen. They turn out to be a pylon crew and in fact have a mains pylon in the back of the truck. Sign language prevails as they offer a lift, so next minute I’m off sitting on the bonnet, 5 feet in the air taking plunging dives into 3 feet ditches – “when you travel you live in the moment – it might be your last”. We arrive at the gorge and I take my pictures – the pylon crew wait patiently then, believe it or not, take me back to my campsite – time has a whole new meaning out on the steppe. I’m sure they thought we were all mad.

36kurmsc.gifMali, the headmaster of the school asked us where we would like his pupils to gather. Five minutes later more than 60 of his finest, marched single file into a small, but bright assembly hall. Their ages ranged from 11 to 18 and they were abnormally well behaved. The older children stood plain faced at the back and the youngsters in the front looked slighty perplexed. This was no normal second day of term. There were ‘westerners’ with cameras and musical instruments. Above the children a poster of a famous Kazak poet looked like it had been there for a decade. The few teachers that were present stood calmly at the back and occasionally prodded any child who showed the slightest sign of misbehaviour.

36jwhis.gifI had arranged with the headmaster that we would listen to the school perform their national anthem. Then we would perform some music. They promptly broke into unison singing. A lengthy anthem with a range of voices, some decidedly discordant. At the end we applauded, something surely strange to them which provoked very little reaction. Immediately afterwards I introduced them to the team and the project. Moldira translated and the children paid attention.

Each of the team played their individual instruments. Paul a passionate Spanish melody on classical guitar, Gary a melodic Jazz piece on soprano saxophone and I played a short Irish jig on penny whistle. Kathy was too busy taking photos as usual. I sensed that this was something new for them. In the ranks quiet chatter broke out occasionally and the applause seemed genuine.I asked the school to assemble in a circle to teach them them a song with nonsense words. They began to liven up, responding to this call and response game. Once they had learnt the simple three note melody I taught them some movements which became deafeningly loud on the hollow wooden floor. This didn’t deter them from singing their hearts out. 36musles.gif

For the finale the Nomad team gathered to play their own version of the Turkish melody that has been cropping up at various meetings on our journey. I improvised over the chords on my concert flute. I think we may have sown some seeds. Perhaps when these little Kazak children grow up one of them may have the urge to play flute.

We were then taken to a classroom to witness a music lesson. Kuan and the music teacher stood in front of the class. The children sat in formal rows. Pinned on the blackboard were pictures of various types of Kazak dombra. These seemed to serve a purely decorative function as they were never referred to. The lesson commenced with a group of children performing a Kazak song.

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One by one children were called up individually or in groups to do ‘a turn.’ We began to suspect that this ‘lesson’ had been staged for our benefit. Some of the children sang and played well but we had really been interested in music teaching. The media arriving in your village is perceived as a solemn and important occasion. Was everyone briefed to be on their best behaviour? Outside school the children laughed and played and they seemed back to normal again.

36headw.gifAfterwards we were invited to the headmasters house for chai. In his front room we were confronted with a huge table groaning with food. We had experienced this before – heaps of fantastic home produced food that you just can’t refuse. It proved to be a good opportunity to talk to Mali, the headmaster. We discovered that his school had only been built in 1992 and he took over as headmaster in 1993. The school had been doing well but Mali regretted the lack of IT resources. We promised to send him a token desktop computer. We showed Mali and his wife around our web site and they seemed to like it. They asked if we had any images from other parts of the world. We obliged by showing the inevitable photographs of Trafalgar Square with Red Buses – they were delighted.


In the heat of the day we make a hasty decision to move camp. We leave behind Bulat and his family (our yurt neighbours) and the villagers of Kurmetui.

Onward for three hours up the Charyn River valley to a large lake and a bigger village. Who knows what awaits on the last day of a journey?

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Day 32 – Where there is spirit there is usually music

What oppression causes such sad faces in Almaty? In the hotel reception everyone glowers when you request directions to an urgently needed toilet. When I turn up for breakfast (the other half of bed and breakfast?) I’m marched off to reception where 8 dollars is demanded, cash, now! I smile at a floor manager (each floor of the hotel still has a KGB style ‘watchdog’). She glowers back uncomprehendingly. I point out my bathroom has no water to a hotel supervisor, she glowers at me for interrupting her chat with her friend. I assume this is all the legacy of the Soviet years – it will take a long time to heal these wounds.

Music is the food of the spirit. Outside of the modern cities that spirit seems more alive – perhaps further from beaurocracy and dogma?

In our absence no progress has been made on our proposed Yurt stay, we’ve been out of touch as Kyrgyzstan has no external phone service worth mentioning. We only have a few hours to organise this expedition.

Raushan Obrazbaeva – part two
What of music? One of my favourite musicians so far is Raushan, the hypnotic exponent of the kobuz. Her inspirational performance (Day 4) has remained a high point of the trip. I remembered she had spoken of musicians in the mountains. Perhaps she could help solve our predicament. I was also keen to ask her some more questions in the light of our experiences elsewhere in Central Asia.

In a small and rather noisy cafe in downtown Almaty we showed her how our Internet project had progressed. She was keen to hear Barkut (Day 29) the Kyrgyz kyl-kyiak player. Unfortunately, we did not include this track in our report but I showed her the instrument I had bought from him. Raushan was curious to play what she described as a Kyrgyz variant of the Kazak kobuz. She pointed out some significant differences in design, and sound. Unlike Western instruments, which are very standardised, Central Asian instruments vary widely. Kathy had also bought a Kazak kobuz, which was very different from either Raushan’s instrument or the Kyrgyz kyl-kyiak. The basic design of two string horse hair fiddle is constant – after that it seems to be up to the creativity of the maker. One of the main things Raushan pointed out about the kyl-kyiak was the different playing technique. She plays by pressing her cuticles on the strings like an Indian sarangi player (also a vertical fiddle but with sympathetic strings). The Kyrgyz players press on the strings with the fingertips. These differences are generalisations and there are pieces in the Kazak repertoire that demand different techniques.

“She plays with her cuticles”
Our conversation continued as we moved to the park to record Raushan in the open air – where she likes to play. [Also see Kurmangazi day 28]. She demonstrated some pieces that are inspired by animals – the wolf and the camel. I found myself astonished once again at the variety of expression that Raushan has, literally at her fingertips. Her instrument is close to nature in its simplicity. It produces a complex ‘unpurified’ sound with strong overtones. Raushan’s impressionistic renderings of animal sounds are very abstract in character, simultaneously ancient and modern.

Raushan also likes to play pieces from the European Classical repertoire, and she showed us how she changes the way she holds her bow to emulate a ‘cello. We could have chatted for ever about instrument design and playing techniques. We were conscious though that we had an expedition to organise and so time was short.

A kobuz masterclass and interview
Raushan told me of a village in the foothills of the Alatau Mountains only one hour away from Almaty – ‘The village of craftsmen’. Everyone there is a crafts person – the men making musical instruments and the women making clothing and jewellery. An instrument maker in this village had made her kobuz and she seemed delighted by my interest. It sounds like a beautiful area and apparently we can camp there overnight. Another region she recommends is a 6 hour drive away. This valley surrounding the Shinishke river has ‘real’ Kazak villages with people who still live in traditional ways. There are Yurt encampments – Nomadic herders settling in the rich pastures for the summer months. There is natural beauty. Thirteen thousand foot mountains, white water rivers and rare wildlife such as Ibex and Bobcat. Most importantly, Raushan told us that where there are people there is always music. She reiterated that Kazakstan is a very musical country. Suddenly our trip tomorrow is looking like an exciting adventure.

Raushan had given us some useful leads but we had a very short time to put the wheels into motion. This final week was meant to be a voyage of discovery and we seemed to be steering in the right direction. Nomadmobile 4 has to be organised – this time though we will be self-sufficient, living remotely, eating from carried supplies often miles from anywhere ‘civilised’. The electricity generator will now become our most important piece of eqipment as we send you daily episodes from deep in the mountains.

Jan ‘older and wiser’
Our Kazak interpreter Mary knew of an agency who were allegedly experts in the expedition field. Visiting their premises inspired some confidence. A large ‘ordnance survey’ style map of South East Kazakstan proudly enveloped one wall. In another room professional climbing and camping equipment. They seemed sympathetic to our requirements and listed everything we would require as we told them of our needs. We talked vehicles. Their first suggestion of a decrepit bus was soon jettisoned – the seats were lose, the bodywork crumbling and the wheels buckled. We stipulated two ‘modern’ Gazelle vans which would accommodate the Nomad team, cook, interpreter and drivers. There was also a lengthy conversation about safety. If we were in danger or someone was ill do we have a 24 helicopter rescue number? – they told us no general Kazak ‘mountain rescue’ service existed but the agency had a helicopter for emergencies. As the hours went on we realised we would have to furnish many ‘expedition’ items ourselves. A desperate rush around Almaty’s bazars and prestige shops then ensued. Gary, Paul and myself haggling with old women over the price of cheese and pears. On our way back through the commuter streets of Almaty, white shopping bags in hand we at last felt at one with the city – the locals around seemed to accept us. A pity that tomorrow we finally say good-bye to this, our most familiar city.

Tomorrow we head for the village of the masters, then on into unknown territory, little visited villages of Nomads and Yurts. Music? Who knows. Usually where there is spirit there is music

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Day 29 – Home Cooking on the Road to Issyk-Kul

29road.gifMy journey covers over 3500 miles mostly by road. Today I set out for Lake Issyk-Kul, a resort area famous for its mineral rich water. I am told the road is bad. Nomadmobile 2 has left us and I anxiously wait to see how much further we can descend into highway hell. With trepidation I look-out from our apartment and behold an apparition. A brand new Chevrolet Winnebago mobile home – it even has a fridge! The only problem is our ton of satellite equipment – this is precariously balanced in a plywood bulkhead over my head. One bump too many and I’m an ex-Nomad.

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On the way to Balykchy to meet our musician Saparbek Kasmambetov we stopped off for a visit at Barchagul’s house (the mother-in-law of Gulnaz our interpreter). I always enjoy visiting local houses as it gives the truest insight into the way of life. Barchagul invited us in for chai, which turned out to be chai, bread, chips, jam, yogurt, bread etc. We should have guessed by now.

Barchagul is a special lady. Besides being a doctor she lives in a typical rural house and keeps sheep, chickens, rabbits as well as growing fruit and veg. 29jaws.gifThe gardens are full of produce and conserves and pickles were being made in readiness for the winter. No doubt the family work very hard but it is an enviable life. All the food is fresh, the bread homemade and the milk straight from the cow. Barchagul played us her jaws harp (Krygyz call these temir ooz komuz). The jaws harp was kept in a beautiful wooden box handmade by her husband. As we left their house laden with apples and pickles, Barchagul presented the instrument to Kathrin, saying ‘it’s a women’s instrument’. Once again the hospitality overwhelms us.

I am soon engulfed in beautiful precipitous mountains, blue and snow capped. To the left a desert town

29jbeach.gifTashblak – ‘the land of stones’, to my right a motorway services with a difference. Joe’s Yurt Cafe is a surreal mix – fizzy American cola and traditional chai both served in a bozui (Krygyz Yurt literally meaning ‘white house’). The waitresses are dressed for a Manhattan disco and outside a stuffed Ibex succumbs to the moths.

I’m due to meet the musician Saparbek but on arrival in Balykchy, I receive the sad news that he unexpectedly had to go to hospital in Biskek. His son tells me it is not too serious and I will see him in Biskek tomorrow – all part of life’s rich tapestry.

Instead I sample Lake Iyssk-Kul – it’s wonderfully relaxing swimming surrounded by Alpine-like peaks. When I emerge I experience a bout of the shivers – apparently this is normal – a lady from one of the bozui gives me some free chai and a blanket and I soon recover.


Tomorrow back to Biskek in the imperial Nomadmobile and the wonderful music of Kasmabetov.

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Day 26 – Vultures Circle Looking for Musical Nomads?

26jkara.gifAs I write this at 9 pm Krygz time we are driving precariously close to a deep ravine carrying the Naryn river. We work our way up to the top of the Ala-Bel pass at 3184 metres. The road is rocky, slow and the team and equipment are being thrown around. It begins to rain. I have no idea if this report will reach you – will the satellite survive? We have a second pass to come, the Tor-Ashuu at 3600 metres when from the top in the dark, we will attempt to erect the satellite and send you today’s experience.

Last night we said to say Good bye to Bahadir, his son Alisher and Matluba.
26krgy1.gifHaving crossed the border with us to Osh, they turned round and headed back to Uzbekistan. Nuts. bread and chai for supper, (Uzbek food) 6 hours sleep and back on the road in a much older Russian built Nomad mobile. Out two drivers are friendly and helpful but we have been on the road for 17 days with Bahadir and his gruff manner has grown on us.

As the mountains close around us, the valley is the greenest so far. Agriculture stretches to the horizon, orchards and fields of sweetcorn. The view is occasionally blighted by early 20th century industrial ‘daymares.’ Vultures circle looking for musical nomads without water? We stocked up in Osh – is it enough for 16 hours? Nomadmobile 1 couldn’t travel into Kyrgyztsan – farewell to air-conditioning and the whiff of leaking petrol. Nomadmobile 2 has all the comfort necessary for a quick trip to the seaside on a cool Easter day in England.
26petrol.gifThis is Central Asia in August, the seats grind your bum and you sweat a pound for every mile.

Three time zones in one hour, as we cross briefly back into Uzbekistan and then back again into Kyrgyzstan. Even on the foothills of the mountains dreary Soviet style apartment blocks spring up like bloated fungus. The foothills remind me of Llangollen, Wales – without loo paper!

26write.gifKyrgyzstan is different. It is difficult to judge a country by its ‘truck’ stops and small apartments. There is a feeling in the air that these are people who like to move. The Kyrgz in the cities give you a feeling they are frustrated nomads. Kyrgyzstan has a more improvised feel to it. Buildings appear to be placed randomly, the road from Osh to Bishkek appears as a major artery on our map but is often no more than a mountain track. We are not complaining, this is the nomad life… or just mad life..

26lake2.gifThe country is vertical. The Soviet’s in their grand scheme obviously realised the enormous potential for damming key valleys and turning the region into a large electricity producer. One of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest exports is electricity. This policy has had some catastrophic effects, there are electric pylons everywhere and subsidiary industries have taken root in areas of great scenic beauty. There are though some positive effects. Traveling through sandy, dry hillscapes for five hours it comes as a magnificent and beautiful surprise to see deep gorges carrying cool turquoise water to large reservoirs. One of the most impressive is lake Toktogul. We turn a hairpin bend and it appears like a mirage, a large blue, mirror ‘sea’ stretching from horizon to horizon. If it were set to music it would be the timpani roll leading to a perfect orhestral cadence.26yurt.gifWe met some interesting characters enroute. One chap at a roadside chaikhana had a motorcycle. He was travelling the same route and was proud of the sheep he had killed for the seat on his bike. He then made an offer of four sheep for Kathrin, Gary suggested twenty dollars intead.

Close to the tea house on a long ridge stands a Burial area. A series of both enclosed and open mounds sit silent as a warm wind whistles. In the distance Lake Toktogul shimmers blue in the afternoon haze. The grave enclosures vary from cathedral-like structures to brick ‘yurts.’ Some even have yurt shaped metal frames, inside a simple mound of earth marks the spot. At the front of the ridge a body, simply wrapped in Muslin leaves an eerie and lasting impression.

It slowly goes dark. We have mountains to climb. Waterfalls and Yurts fade into the steep slopes. Its been a gruelling 18 trek. It’s 4 in the morning and we have just arrived in Biskek – sorry for the late transmission, goodnight. Tomorrow the capital Biskek and best music Krygyzstan can offer.

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Day 24 – The Elusive Shaman

The shaman elludes us. Sadly she was busy at a funeral. Luckily we were introduced to Uzbekistan’s finest folk singer, Rakhimahon. More later.When we arrive at Rakhimahon’s spacy and elaborate house, food and tea is already on the table. We are immediately shown a video of her many performances on TV and video. This is surprisingly well made for a ‘State film’. Rakhimahon Mazokhidova sings and plays doira. She is the most celebrated folk singer in the country and she could perform at weddings every day if she had the time. She is also the teacher of the two musicians we met yesterday.

As we begin to settle, Rakhimahon is called to perform at a nearby wedding. We are suddenly at another table loaded with food and drink, surrounded by a large crowd of women. Apparently they have gathered (in the groom’s house) to witness the bride’s unveiling. Here the newly married woman opens her veil after a chilla – the bride and groom are locked in a room for three days, are not allowed to receive any visitors and are treated like Royalty. The air is filled with expectancy when a door opens and the bride enters the scene. Rakhimahon is slowly beating her doira and begins to chant a wedding song.

Two girls are leading the bride to the female crowd, they dance in wave-like motion as they slowly move forward. The bride lifts her white-golden veil and disappears into another room. Rakhimahon now plays a faster rhythm. In front of her several women perform a wild dance twisting their feet and arms in animal-like motion. At 68, Rakhimahon still has a lot of energy and bewitches the listener with her charm. The ceremony finishes with Rakhimahon chanting a short prayer.

While we have chai with the host, Kathrin disappears to join the women’s gathering inside the house. Being male I could not enter so Kathrin relates her experience; I find myself sitting cross-legged surrounded by a circle of women in traditional dress. They all wore head scarves in a diverse range of colours. Richly decorated tables overflowed with plov, exotic fruit, strange sweets and drinks. They looked at me with great curiosity and a wonderful openness – it didn’t take long to connect. I am invited to join them for food and prayers. Magical sounds fill the air. The voice belongs to a female Koran reader who is chanting a sura, now the ‘party’ can begin.

Suddenly it’s time for us to leave. We have to get back to Rakhimahon’s house where we are expected by her friends and entourage.

After eating yet another meal back at Rakhimahon’s house we were invited into another part of the house, and told to bring our cameras. Rakhimahon wanted to show us something. Inside a small room were several women wearing white headscarfs. They started to intone a sura from the Koran as soon as we were seated. The recitation is punctuated at intervals by the receiving of blessings (or baraka) from God. This gesture, a cupping of the hands which are then passed over the face soon becomes second nature here in Central Asia. It is performed at various times during the day particularly at meal times. On this occasion the recitation grew in intensity until several of the women began to sway and move their hands rhythmically. This turned into chanting of syllables such as “hai” and “hu” and I realised I was witnessing a Zikr. Zikr is an Arabic word meaning remembrance and there are two main kinds; loud and silent. It consists of the repetition of words or syllables and is used by the various Sufi orders to establish a connection with God.

The chanting was becoming more rhythmic and the women stood up and began to move more vigorously. I sensed that none of the Nomad team were expecting this and this is quite disturbing when it happens so suddenly. Rakhimahon, our host, was becoming physically affected by the experience and she began to cry. It was one of those moments when you feel you ought not to be there let alone with two video and three still cameras. We had most definitely been invited to record this. Before we knew it the atmosphere changed abruptly, the tempo relaxed, smiles flashed, drums were brought in and all tension vanished. There was dancing and celebration. Kathy’s dancing being the cause of much mirth, her hip gyrations were possibly out of context – later though we noticed it had caught on with the younger women. Each of us was presented with a silk scarf which was tied around our waist. We sat down and drank chai. Still shell shocked from our experience I could tell from the uncomprehending looks passing across the room that events had once more taken an unexpected turn. We had witnessed a ceremony normally performed at a funeral.

These women are hereditary singers who are trained to learn the Koran from a very young age. I suspect that they undergo other kinds of spiritual training as well, but this is difficult to substantiate. We were told that this is first time this had been shown to anyone and certainly the first time it had been recorded. Exactly why it was shown to us remains a mystery.

If you ever come to Uzbekistan you need a hat. Small square and black, decorated with a motif that will mark you out – there’s a Fergana motif and a Tashkent motif, a Samarkand motif and a Baysun motif – people know you by your hat – there’s probably one for Peckham. The hats are mostly worn by the older men. These ‘white beards’ (a translation from the Uzbek words) are the custodians of wisdom and sit for hours sipping chai (green tea) in chaikhanas – mostly humble areas of shade beneath a clump of trees. Today I sit in a very grand chaikana, decorated with carved pillars and a multicoloured ceiling. A ‘Ghengis Khan’ lookalike sits in the corner discussing ancient battles his boots carry the mud of the Mongolian steppes.

In the nearby market a woman sits chewing Kokand rock – not the seaside candy variety but serious bits of geology – she tells me it’s good for the blood and circulation – she sells it by the kilo.

With my hat I make many friends, people shake hands in the street I am a local, I wear the Kokand hat.

I came across a stall selling wooden toys. I approached and was greeted ‘asalam aleikum’, peace upon you. Behind the stall the young stall holder had an Afghan Rubab lying on a bed. I pointed to it and he seemed surprised that I recognised it. Suddenly I was in his ‘shop’ drinking chai, being treated like a VIP. Olim played the rubab, luckily I had my penny whistle to return the favour. This seemed too much for him and he immediately started looking through his stock of decorative knives to find the best one to give me. He examined each blade for straightness and sharpness and spent several minutes find the best sheath to fit it. It was then presented to me as a gift. he absolutely refused any payment. The only thing I had to give him in return were my sunglasses, cheap ones, but he seemed pleased. We exchanged addresses and felt like lifelong friends.

24mus01.gifThis tradition of hospitality to strangers is extraordinary – Kathrin was showered with gifts of spices just for being in the market. People want to give you everything. This is an extraordinary feeling for a Londoner. In the chaikhana today they didn’t want to take payment for our tea. It’s no good explaining that we can afford to pay 20 pence for seven people to drink tea and eat bread. Admittedly this is Kokand and tourism is not big here. In some ways I hope it stays that way. In Samarkand and Bukhara where tourism is more developed the people are friendlier than most but they have learnt to handle tourists. If one measures civilisation by warmth of character, grace and humour, then we’ve got a lot to learn from the folks in Uzbekistan.



Tomorrow we go to a new land, Kyrgyzstan. On the way we plan to finally meet an Otin-Oy, a female Sufi singer. Join me

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Day 20 – If I ask for paradise, kill me!

“If I ask for paradise, kill me!” A proverb from the Yasavi Sufi Order

In response to an email from one of the many thousands following us, we were intending to visit Shaykh Kushkarov, a Sufi master of the Yasavi Order. Such opportunities do not occur every day. As we have said before this kind of direct interactivity is what ‘The Musical Nomad’ is all about – so keep requests and questions coming.

This was going to be another hot, relatively uneventful journey from Samarkand to Tashkent. This the most used roads in Uzbekistan complete with occasional ramps and wandering cattle. The journey took us over a small mountain range sometimes a gorge at other times just a rocky outcrop in the brush landscape.

The exterior of Shaykh Kushkarov’s healing centre is quite plain. Two women dressed in colourful robes greeted us. They had a nun like manner, quiet yet direct and efficient. We sat waiting for Shaykh Kushkarov to arrive and we joked about Jan being left here for the remainder of the journey – the Musical Nomad becomes a resident of this particular Sufi order? Shaykh Kushkarov arrived without ceremony. A tall man with a long black straggly beard hanging down from an oriental face strolled through the wooden doorway. He greeted us with a firm handshake and a smile, the back teeth adorned with gold caps. It felt completely natural to meet him and there seemed to be none of the tension often associated with meeting a ‘stranger’.

He was happy to talk about his organisation and the Yasavi Order – in English or in any of the five or more languages that he speaks. The Order is one of the most widespread in Uzbekistan, along with the Naqshbandiyya. The centre has been operative since 1992 and has five ‘branches’ which are all controlled from their central headquarters. He has about 500 students or ‘murids’ all over the world.

In the course of a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation we were given a tour of the centre. He avoided ‘religious’ dogma, had an intrinsic integrity and pitched his responses at a level we all could grasp.

The attached clinic which specialises in herbal medicine and various kinds of massage. We were told how, at certain times of year, members of the order travel to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan to collect herbs. This is a difficult task, not only because of the Civil War in Tajikistan but because the herbs only grow above 3700 meters. Several months are spent in the mountains. The physical and spiritual practices are said to be more effective because of the altitude – one month’s work at sea level being achieved in two days. The team also collect a certain kind of root from which they make a special drink. This drink takes five years to prepare and we can all vouch for its extraordinary properties. Shaykh Kushkarov told us that these Sufi medical practices have been used to curing some chronic diseases, including cancer. He stressed that this was not possible in every case but one of his murids whom we met claimed to have been cured of leukemia.

The secret or non public activities of the order consist of the spiritual training of the murids. This is performed through meditation, music and various forms of movement and martial arts. All the exercises are performed under very precise conditions. Shaykh Kushkarov points out that although much had been written about Sufism, important elements of the training were never committed to paper, always being passed on by word of mouth from master to pupil. The centre consists of three areas or ‘corridors’. The first is the reception area and contains the massage and clinical treatment rooms. The second is the court yard and adjoining rooms where exercises are performed. The third area was strictly guarded and no one except the most advanced students were allowed access.

The second area consisted of a martial arts space, a meditation building he told us, a tomb-like structure for ‘focusing’ energy, and a stone on which various movements and meditations are practised. He told us this stone had been used in his family for eleven generations. The meditation hall is an extraordinary building. Built to very precise proportions, it combines the use of colour and certain metals to optimise the conditions for meditation. Nine people can meditate at one time. Three metres underneath the visible structure is another complex of cells and rooms in which people sit in isolation from one to forty days. This they do without any food or water and special air vents have been constructed to allow enough oxygen to penetrate. Shaykh Kushkarov has three times remained underground for forty days. We found it difficult to believe that anyone could survive such an ordeal. He explained how the body can draw upon its own resources of energy, as well as drawing energy from the earth and the cosmos.

Being shown around such a place is no ordinary experience. It has the effect of shifting your perception. We have decided to include personal reports from each member of the team as we were all uniquely affected by these experiences.

GARY’S PERSPECTIVE
Being a bit of an ‘expedition man’ I felt an immediate connection with Shaykh Kushkarov’s three month trips above four thousand meters in the Pamir mountains. Living off the land and searching for rare, medicinal herbs, this was a man who had a mind and body in perfect harmony. He uses it to keep himself alive at high altitude as well as nine meters below the earth, meditating for forty days without nourishment. Regardless of any belief system, he is a ‘very well tuned’ individual. I sensed the team all felt he was responding to them on an individual level. He has an ability to connect with many people simultaneously, not through words but simply by his presence. I also sensed he could pick up many things beyond the superficial such as body language, or tone of voice and was actually able to ‘read’ you. This became evident in a session we had in his ‘medicine’ room. My colleagues had all received readings about their physical health. A short probing of the wrist area, a look at the tongue, some rolling of the eyes and he could diagnose problems in a very detailed way. He then prescribed some herbs for all of them.
When my turn came I was thinking how ineffective medication is, being a firm believer in the minds ability to control the body. As he gently prodded my arm I looked him in the eye, he seemed to respond. He asked me if I had any problems, I said none. He responded “you have a very pure energy, you are well”. He seemed to be telling the truth. I felt he knew that ‘substances’ to many people are placebo, they can carry some ‘energy’ to specific parts of the body but they are not totally necessary and act as a catalyst for the mind to take the healing process further. Later we sat and ate talking further about music therapy.
I showed him our Internet project which made his eyes light up. Suddenly he said “who wants a drink?”vodka, we thought? One of his ‘students’ suddenly produced a clear bottle containing a red liquid. Inside floated a root “from under one meter of rock in the Pamirs.” It looked decidedly unappetising. “This drink contains energy, it will go straight to the bodies ‘centers’ and provide much healing.” Of course that could also be said of a cold pint of Guinness! He poured the red liquid into small chai cups. It smelt of strawberry and mushrooms. “Drink it in one go”, he said and watched gleefully as we each ‘knocked’ it back. He expected a major response. I drank, the musky taste faded then totally unexpectedly I felt as if I was gaining altitude. Not a ‘high’ feeling, more like standing on top of a mountain, my senses were heightened and unbelievably my ears popped as they do when descending in an aircraft. This lasted only four or five seconds but it was a definite physical and mental reaction. Whether or not it had any connection to my ‘energy’ centres I can’t say, but it happened.

My reaction to the drink seemed superficial compared to the feeling I had after saying my good-byes to Shaykh Kushkarov. The feeling of a light being switched on in the centre of my body. A very bright incandescent glow emanating from within. As I entered Tashkent, the noise and pollution rose but the light remained. Something had happened, a warmth from one human to another. Not magic or indoctrination – this was real. Something may have begun.

KATHRIN’S PERSPECTIVE
When I first saw Gulbahor, one of Shaykh Kushkarov’s murides (students), I was immediately struck by her serene beauty and peaceful eyes. We connected in a very quiet yet intense way. When I mentioned that I had terrible stomach pains, she suggested that I have a diagnosis by Shaykh Kushkarov. He discovered various imbalances in my body one of them being my low internal haemoglobin level of -81, which can’t be detected by conventional methods, they would only read the external level of +112. He also noted that fifty percent of my spines energy is ‘blocked.’ I asked him if he could rebalance this. Shaykh Kushkarov then prescribed three herbs. He also recommended a Sufi massage – three sessions would last a lifetime!

Gulbahor asked me to lie down in the massage room. I expected a deep tissue or shiatsu type massage. What followed can only be described as ‘wild ritual.’ She asked me to lie down on my stomach and began to meditate. Gulbahor then picked up a bronze pen-like implement. It had sharp and flat tips. Starting with my feet, she worked her way up my body, scraping, pinning, stroking, pulling and slapping various parts. This was mostly a painful experience, especially when the point connected with various energy points on my back. My arms and legs were pulled beyond their limit. This reminded me of a Shaman’s ritual, beating rapid and regular rhythms on their drums. Again, Gulbahor slapped my body with enormous energy. I thought she was pulling me apart. Suddenly she stopped and stroked me tenderly. She was again her quiet self. Was I dreaming? When I awoke I felt extremely peaceful and happy. Something special had happened. Shaykh Kushkarov checked me again and smiled – “your spine blockage is down to ten percent”.

PAUL’S PERSPECTIVE
For me mystical hocus pocus and men with long beards seem a long way from the stark reality of my home town of Liverpool. However following an industrial injury I suffer a lot with my back. Suddenly in the middle of our conversation Shaykh Kushkarov, I had to interrupt with a question.
“Did you say the Shaykhs give off energy?”
“Yes Indeed” replied the Shaykh.
“Well I just experienced the strangest thing, in therapy for my back injury I undertook a course of cranial osteopathy – this creates a sensation of electricity pulsing in the spine. I have just experienced the same thing in my neck and shoulders just sitting here next to you. All the aches and fatigue from my recent illness have suddenly dissipated”.
“It’s quite normal,” assured the Shaykh.
He later prescribed some herbs from 3700 metres up in the mountains. He refused payment for either his diagnosis, prescribed herbs or the lavish meal he provided.
“There are more things in heaven and earth…………”

JAN’S PERSPECTIVE
Shaykh Kushkarov’s Sufi centre is the kind of place one reads about but can never quite believe in. It is no less than a holistic training centre for physical and spiritual development. It is based upon a traditional wisdom, unbroken for hundreds of years.

As I sit and write, I’m struggling to comprehend it all. The range of the conversation had been enormous. Shaykh Kushkarov publishes books on politics and told us that he is influential in political spheres. Certain facts that he divulged make me inclined to believe him. He demonstrated ‘Koranic mantras’ used in preparation fo

r meditation as well as a Shamanic dance. This connection between the Yasaviyya and Shamanism had already emerged on Day 2 and 4 in Almaty. He described in some detail his martial arts system and allowed me to play a metal flute that was also a disguised weapon.

20kushfl.gifShaykh Kushkarov explained that he had pupils who were Christians and Buddhists and that it was necessary to break down all barriers of faith and nationality in order to have a connection with God. There is no doubt however that his practices are based upon an esoteric interpretation of the Koran. We discussed the connection of maqam music and Sufism. He explained that the music acted as a vehicle for the energy of the Shaykh or spiritual master. It was a catalyst to make them receptive. Herbs he said function in a similar way. Maqam music is a part of a whole training system which is now largely forgotten by most musicians even though it is still performed.

In this medium it is impossible to give more than a taste of the effect that Shaykh Kushkarov had upon us. I suspect we will have much to think about in the coming weeks.

Tomorrow – In search of the STILL elusive Baysun ensemble

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Day 8 – The Land of Lutes

The Land of Lutes

Every journey has it’s trials and today we’re having our fair share. Last night I was struck down with a bug, without going into graphic detail. I am now laid up in bed unable to be of much use to anyone. As if this were not enough Gary and Kathrin are at various Government Departments wading through acres of red tape. The officials in Tashkent are very suspicious about our new imported Satellite transmitter – are we really James Bondski? Only a letter from the Minister of Foreign Affairs can convince them to release this much needed lifeline. Without this we cannot continue our dialogue or bring you the exciting music we have been hearing. We hope we will soon be ‘on-line’ eager to reply to your e-mails. Only Paul is left back at the ranch, Dat machine in one hand, camera in the other. He loves it really! While I catch up on much needed sleep I leave you in his capable hands. I know he’s dying to tell you about lutes.

07bedutr.gifAs one of the guitarists and sitarist in our team I’m fascinated by the ‘lutes’ we encounter. I’ve just been lent a dutar by Abdurahim Hamidov. Living with the dutar, having it around my room playing it, I feel invited in to a sort of magic. It has made me incredibly aware of the close relationship between all these Central Asian instruments and most of the world’s ‘lutes’. The two-stringed dombras and dutars have all the latent characteristics of the guitar, the Oud and the sitar. The tuning in fourths (and fifths), the tendency to play parallel patterns up and down the fingerboard – the modal scales are all common to these more familiar instruments. The rasguedo of the dutar is almost “flamenco” in character. The vibrato and portamento techniques are reminiscent of the classical Oud of Arabia.

If the lute began in Central Asia as many scholars believe, what fascinating journeys it has made – into China, India, Arabia and Europe – taking new names and new shapes but retaining its Central Asian roots.

07abdru.gifAbdurahim Hamidov who I met today is an incredible virtuoso on the dutar. He also knows many of the other lutes of the area and explained their relationship. According to Abdurahim the dombra which we heard a lot of in Kazakstan is primarily a folk instrument. Though if you refer back to Day 4, you can hear that Aygul Ulkenbaeva is now taking the dombra to a more sophisticated level.Abdurahim regards his dutar as a classical instrument, especially in the context of the Shash maqam though he often performs solo as well as accompanying singers.

Physically, the dutar is more sophisticated and highly decorated with beautifully made silk strings instead of the factory produced nylon strings of the dombra. Curiously his dutar retains its modal scale – it has not been ‘improved’ to a fully chromatic version (yet!). Abdurahim also asserts that his dutar has different tunings; in fourths, fifths and unison whereas he alleges the dombra doesn’t (I’m not convinced).

I encountered another fascinating lute yesterday, the Kashgar rubab played by Munajat’s teacher Shavkat Mirzaev. This is a five string lute with four metal and one silk string – an unusual mix. The silk string is very thick and provides a rich bass. The four metal strings are arranged in two pairs and are used for melody. The rubab has a haunting sound enhanced by its parchment sounding board and the harmonic richness of those pairs of metal strings. There are superficial relationships here to the saz of Turkey and the bouzouki of Greece. Earlier, in a taxi I heard the local version of Greek popular music or Rembetika – it’s a strange and wonderful world.

08patta.gifWow, another lute – today we met Pattahon Mamadaliev, a fantastic 70 year old guy. He sings with a consuming passion and accompanies himself on the tanbur. It has four bronze strings. In India bronze is a sacred metal, I must check out its significance here. The tanbur has very thick gut frets to enable a deep vibrato, it’s made from mulberry and apricot. Pattahon possesses an intensity of performance and a sincere unmannered humility. I played some Spanish lute music for the musicians, Pattahon and Abdurahim. Abdurahim said he understood this 15th century lute music perfectly, which is interesting. This music is very polyphonic ‘in many parts’ as opposed to most Central Asian music which is often monodic. They also enjoyed a bit of pseudo-Flamenco – this is also interesting as Pattahon’s passion and style is reminiscent of Canto Joto from Andalucia in Southern Spain, a deep form of flamenco. Somebody must have told the lute to “go forth and multiply “- I’m ever more convinced that the lute family originated here as most scholars assert.

I’m currently in the lap of luxury – our little guest house even has a tiny swimming pool. I banged my head trying it out – perhaps it will knock some sense into me? The food here is the best so far in Central Asia – delicious Vegetarian stuff – not that common in the land of the rising Kebab.

I08paulbd.gif got caught last night serenading five Muslim girls in their bedroom – their father just laughed and went to bed – not the expected reaction. The girls enjoyed a Bo-Diddly song but thought Shash maqam was ‘pretty cool’. They are on holiday from Chicago, so that probably explains their frankly modern behaviour. Jan still has the “montezumas revenge”, so retires early. Kathrin and Gary are simply exhausted, endless wrangling and still we can’t get our satellite out of customs.

Tomorrow, who knows?

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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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