Day 12 – Bukhara – holy city. 2500 years of written history, 6000 years of mythology

12bk2500.gifI’m lucky to lodge in the old Jewish quarter, a film set fit for Cecil B. De Mille. At each corner architectural delights charm the eye, gold shimmers in the intricate mosaic. My guest house, built in 1908 for a Jewish family, has a wonderful room of Tajik design. The high beam ceiling of plain wood contrasts with the vibrant glory of the richly ornamented walls. Here is the inspiration for William Morris and ‘Art Noveau’, all combined in a glorious synthesis of colour and light. Alcoves richly decorated are adorned further with Chinese bowls and Turkic tea sets. The shuttered windows filter the morning sunlight and silk curtains drift in a Bukharan breeze.

12room.gifThe centrepiece is a small wooden platform covered with a gold-threaded cloth and cushions coloured to shame a biblical Joseph.Our musician Ari Babakhanov frets his Kashgar rubab and weaves a spell in sound. Outside a rogue shutter crashes but the spell cannot be broken. Emissaries from the ‘Musical Nomad’ silence every window for miles and Ari once more weaves a quiet magic. High on the walls Hebrew script proclaims a faith long at home in Bukhara.

“Persian-speaking Jewish communities seem to have existed in the larger oasis and riverine towns of Transoxiania for over a millennium. Documentation of the origins and early history of these communities is extremely sparse, but legends speak of the importation of skilled Jewish craftsmen from Iran by a succession of Central Asian rulers, beginning with Timur (1338-1405), and a Tashkent based archaeologist has reported on the existence of a Jewish cemetery in Samarkand before Timur’s time.”
Theodore Levin: “The Hundred Thousand Fools of God” (reproduced by permission of the Author, pub. Indiana Univ. Press)12ari.gif

After his marvellous performance Ari invited us to spend some time with his family on the outskirts of ‘modern’ Bukhara. As we pull up outside his flat he steps out to meet us. He has the kind of face that you immediately warm to, with as distinctively Jewish features as I have ever seen, a sun-torn face which speaks volumes. I sense he is a deeply thoughtful man.

Inside his typically styled soviet flat there are faded paintings of Bukhara and ‘colourised’ black and white photographs of his son and daughter. We are welcomed, and meet his wife, daughter and grandchildren. Traditional rugs line the walls and there is a piano, played by his daughter, Susanna. They are a musical dynasty. As we drink tea and chat everyone seems quite at home. He has a ‘deceased’ Bulgarian guitar hung above the TV, a tanbur props up a bookcase and his prize rubab lives in one of the back bedrooms. We “have a go” at playing Ari’s instruments much to his amusement and Paul is instructed to play the antiquated guitar. It needs new strings and an overhaul but Paul struggles manfully on.

12arihom.gifLunch arrives, it is delicious but unfortunately we cannot do justice to it. Try as we might it just keeps on coming. Whether this is Jewish hospitality or Bukharan we cannot tell but Ari’s wife urges us on with despairing looks and huge portions of everything. The ice, by now seems well and truly broken and Paul’s guitar comes out for another tune. We try to persuade Ari and Susanna to play together but they don’t seem in the mood. Ari, besides being a consummate Shash Maqam artist, also plays Western classical music on his rubab. He likes Spanish and Italian music and wants to make a “World music” CD. As I look around the table at us, the team, Ari’s family, Bahadir (our driver) and Sasha (our musical adviser), I wonder whether we somehow reflect the polyethnic character of the city – Jews, Muslims, Christians and doubters all happily sitting down together.

12plguit.gifWe later huddle together in a back bedroom for an intimate discussion. The Bukharan wind whistles through the overground pipes outside singing a discordant melody. Ari seems very relaxed as we talk, occasionally his voice becomes animated, deeper and more powerful when he warms to a question. He tells of his background and of learning the Shash Maqam as a child. Now in his seventies, Ari shows us a medal he gained in Moscow playing at a ‘Soviet Festival for Youth’. He has composed songs still sung today by famous singers in the capital. From the age of twelve he learnt the maqams. He showed us transcriptions (published in 1924) of the maqams notated by the Russian, Uspenski. He is keen to talk about his hereditary tradition and of a past when musicians were held in high esteem. His grandfather, Levi, was a court musician and would play, before the Russian revolution to the Emirs (Uzbek ‘Royalty’) and after 1924 to high ranking Soviet officials. I hear in his rich Russian voice a real sense of longing for the ‘good old days’ when musicians like his grandfather, would play with musicians such as Maarufjon Tashpulatov, Najmiddin Nasriddinov.

“For three generations the Babakhanov family had played a central role in the musical life of Bukhara. Levi Babakhabov (1874-1926) is still revered as one of the greatest of Bukharian singers…”
Theodore Levin “Fools of God”

12arifam.gifThe Soviets began to see this music as dangerous along with the movements led by the Mullahs and Sheikhs of the time. Ari’s grandfather feeling at risk in Bukhara had to escape to Samarkand. Mysteriously he suddenly died. Some believe he was deliberately poisoned by the oppressive power but there is no real proof of this. I am keen to find out whether there is anyone else who can continue the old Bukharian traditions? His voice stutters and he sounds resigned as he says “nobody, nobody now. I am the last one”.These words echo painfully as he tells further of a few students who may one day be able to play the music. Are we witness to a form of musical ‘extinction’? Commercial and political pressure has all but stamped out the last members of a joyous and heartfelt musical tradition. A tradition relevant to today’s societies in the West – tales and music of longing and devotion. We say goodbye to the family and leave them in their apartment block and we return to our lavish B&B in the ‘old Jewish quarter’.

Ari still dreams of one day restoring Shash Maqam to it’s former glory.

Tomorrow – This city is full of music. Join us as we bring the sights and sounds of Bukhara, live – yes, a third satellite unit is arriving!

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