Posts Tagged Museum of Applied Arts

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 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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