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Day 19 – Culture is a Living Thing

19zinda.gifSamarkand contains some of the most stunning sights in Central Asia. Its huge majestic architecture and blue azure domes are a big attraction. It is not a museum city however, it has the feel of a functioning place. People pass through the old centre in the morning on their way to work or to market. You get the impression that people who live here no longer marvel at its beauty, just as Londoners no longer ‘see’ St. Pauls cathedral.
Being a living city there are some sights that are just ‘monuments’ such as the Registan, and some that retain a religious significance beyond their outward beauty. Shah I Zinda, or tomb of the living king is an impressive example of this. It consists of a street of tombs once elaborately decorated with ceramic tiles. Largely unrestored it’s partly ruinous state encourages the imagination to recreate the original splendour.

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The name Shah I Zinda refers to the mausoleum of Qasan Ibn Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Mohammed who is said to have brought Islam to this area. The simple ante room which connects to the actual burial chamber via a small door is a much visited shrine. Tapers are left to burn here and suras (Koranic verses) are read almost continuously. I found myself moved once again by the devotion displayed here, and somewhat mystified by the numbers of video cameras that roamed the sight. Perhaps here more than any other sites we have visited the difference between the tourist and the pilgrim is most obvious.
19muson.gifOnce again everyone is welcome but it did leave a slightly uncomfortable impression.

Just across the road from the quiet serenity of the tombs is the noisy chaos of the main bazaar. In the heat of the day people argue over prices and laugh and joke together. Once again this is the living city of Samarkand, the farmers market where people buy and sell their produce. Its noisy cassette stalls and vivid colour seem even more intense after the cool of the tombs. The whole market sprawls in the shadow of the Bibi Kharnym Mosque. This enormous ruin looms impressively, dwarfing all around it. It was once one of the Islamic World’s largest mosques, but gradually it crumbled under its own weight, finally collapsing in the earthquake of 1897. Around it the city bustles on.

Musaffar was still very excited about our interest in his ‘serious’ music when we returned to his shop. I hoped he had kept his promise and found me a ‘quality’ nai. Sadly he had forgotten.
19jbook.gifThe elusive nai and nai player saga continues. While we were in the shop Musaffar suddenly began playing and singing a maqam. His voice seemed to be slightly out of practice and several notes missed the mark, but I sensed a great deal of integrity in his performance. I asked him to play ‘Munadjat’ (one of the most famous maqam pieces) which he performed wonderfully on his rubab. I asked if we could return later to record some of these pieces. Before I left I purchased a good frame drum case, at least the drums may survive the journey ahead.

Culture is a living thing. The way people dress, the artifacts they make tell their story. As part of Russian imperialism the ‘State Museum of the Cultural History of Uzbekistan’ takes Uzbek culture and sets it in stone. Faded costumes are a poor reminder of a peoples history. As ever the saddest exhibits are the musical instruments – sentenced to a mute death. Tar, gidchak and rubab never to sing. On a positive note the museum does feature a very large Koran, possibly the largest in the world and some intriguing pre-Islamic stones, similar to the ones we saw in Almaty. (see Day 3)

18regbsy.gifBack home in England it’s the sad relics of empire that strive for dignity in the British Museum. Even in the West a museum can be a poor testament. Here surrounded by a population living in a new republic a Soviet conceived museum seems an irrelevance.

The real culture of Uzbekistan is out there on the streets, celebrated in kaleidoscope clothes and the throb of a distant doira. In contrast the Registan across the road has life, a focus for current events animated by dancers and mad trumpets. The heat of the day in Samarkand sat still like a dosing alley cat. It had been well over forty five degrees and it still felt dangerous to be out in the roaring sun. The pollution and general ambient noise added two more disturbing ingredients.

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When we returned to Musaffars shop at four he had his fan on, cooling his small shop to a bearable level. He and his son, Nabishon looked eager to play for us but they had work to do, so we could not take them anywhere quiet. Vehicles and disco music were part of the general chaos outside the window. We needed the fan switched off to enable a reasonable recording. The heat rose. Musaffar picked up his tar, his son grabbed the nearest doira and they burst straight into a ‘number’. They had done this before! The perfect duo, accelerating and decelerating in synchronicity as only father and son could. Nabishon tastefully decorated the instrumental sections with his doira. They both seemed to enjoy playing as much as repairing. Their main income comes from repair work, performing gave life to the instruments. The biggest surprise for me was Musaffar’s voice, now much improved, it rose above the tar and doira. As they played the second piece the workshop became a sauna, sweat rolled off Musaffar’s brow splashing onto his now slightly out of tune tar. We had witnessed a traditional music, passing from father to son without any suggestion of a generation gap.

Tomorrow on the way to Tashkent we hope to meet a Sufi Sheikh (mentioned in Day 18 Mail), and we go in search of the elusive Baysun Ensemble.

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Day 17 – Ten Second Tornadoes on the Road to Samarkand

17mount.gif“The Road to Samarkand” and not a sign of Bing Crosby or Bob Hope (one of Paul’s jokes for the oldies on the web).

We set off early from Baysun and received a ‘right royal’ send off from the mayor and deputy mayor – they carry our luggage and grip our hands in gratitude for spending time with them and ask us to return. As the ‘Nomadmobile” heads off out of the town a morning light glances low over the Zerafshan ridge. The vertical landscape is dotted occasionally with Yurts, small ‘ten second tornadoes’ and herds of goats. We have to swerve precariously close to the edge of steep gorges narrowly avoiding various bovine animals.

17sign.gifOur driver, Bahadir who has just had his fifth grandchild, is fully in control. Gradually the heat rises and the hills disappear as we come out of the mountains. A big right turn at Karsi and we are on a fast, flat, perpetually straight road to Samarkand – the only interest being an occasional near vehicle crash either through potholed roads or badly misjudged overtaking. Eventually we near the outskirts of Samarkand and say good-bye to Sasha, he has to catch a bus to Tashkent. “Farewell comrades”, he says.

This trip has had its highs and lows, from the exhilaration of meeting wonderful musicians to the frustration of having no petrol. Through it all one figure seems almost unruffled by anything. Always patient, calm and considered, Sasha, our translator and advisor is a kind of centre of gravity, a point of stability for us. He has been on the road with us now for ten days so is used to our strange ways. He has acted far beyond the call of duty, and his understanding of Uzbek social graces has been invaluable . He always seems to be considering some “problem” (a word he likes to use) or reading a book (preferably in classical Persian). Suddenly something will amuse him and his bearded face will ignite with infectious laughter.

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Things work at their own pace here and Sasha understands this better than anyone. It’s easy to forget that this mild mannered man is an accomplished scholar, he wears his learning lightly and doesn’t need to impress anyone.

In one conversation with Sasha I caught a glimpse of the difficulty musicians here face trying to communicate with the outside world. Sasha gave the analogy of an Asian musician trying to describe Beethoven using his own musical terms of reference. Inevitably distortions would arise. This situation compares roughly with the efforts of some European scholars who come to Central Asia to research music. Sasha was at pains to point out that there were Europeans who understood this music better than some local scholars.This problem of unconscious Euro-centrism is something which musicians treat with indulgence here. Sasha kindly added that our project had a completely different brief, to introduce this music to a wide audience.

Patience and wisdom are rare qualities, Sasha possesses them in abundance.

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I arrive in Samarkand to find there is no room at the inn (again!). Samarkand only has two ‘bed and breakfasts’ and they’re full. I’m shunted off to a small courtyard with some abandoned bedrooms and parking space for the Nomadmobile. Gary is concerned that we have a clear line of site to the Indian Ocean – whatever that means. (Satellite?) I’m just happy to wash the dust off my feet.

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Samarkand is often described as the ‘Pearl of the East.’ The tall madrassahs supporting deep blue domes and the majesty of scale could produce a thousand descriptive superlatives. The city is, like Bukhara undergoing major refurbishment and soon celebrates its 1250th year. It also hosts a week long “Music of the East” Festival starting 25th August, this is one of the biggest events in the area for many years.

The Registan, one of the most celebrated monuments shows signs of preparation – tomorrow I will see it in the dawn light and get you some photos. When we arrive twenty traditional trumpet players rehearse their fanfare and stage positions for the opening ceremony – it reminds me of a Dad’s Army drill. The whole city has a sense of life and movement. Things are changing, fast. There is transition and excitement in the air, music and dance are commonplace on the street and in the specially designated tourist areas. I will explore this more in the next two days.17regs.gifEverywhere in the world, folk culture is presented as entertainment for “package tourists”. Samarkand is no exception. At 6 pm every evening local musicians and dancers re-enact an Uzbek legend with music, mime, puppetry and fire eating. It’s beautifully done and although stylized maintains a joyful innocence.

17musi.gifThe costumes are probably exaggerated, the music simplified, the legend made larger than life with roaring flame. Yet for all that bemused confused tourists get a taste of a wonderful culture. If they want to know more there are CDs and ‘Musical Nomads’. I was particularly impressed by the doira (frame drum) players with their intricate poly rhythms – I arranged to see them for a detailed session on Usul – the rhythmic patterns of Central Asia. The chang (oriental hammered dulcimer) player is also worth a closer listen.

Join me tomorrow as we explore the city and meet frame drum and other traditional Uzbek folk musicians – I may even get to meet my first Central Asian flautist

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Day 15 – Bukhara to Baysun, into the mountains at last

15shop.gifBefore setting off from Bukhara this morning, we called in at the workshop of an instrument maker, Karomat Mukimov. It was not long before we were surrounded by the master’s young apprentices and were being shown the intricacies of tuning tars. Karomat and Sasha had been at the Tashkent Conservatory together 23 years ago, so there was a mini reunion going on. Amongst the instruments in his shop was a tanbur from the nineteenth century, it had been lovingly restored by this master. It transpired that the tanbur had once belonged to Leviche Babakhanor, grandfather of Ari (a musician we met three days ago). This news came as something of a shock. Why would the family sell such a beautiful instrument? It was heavily inlaid and was quite obviously made for an important player. Sasha told us that Ari had referred to an instrument of Leviche’s which had been sold to a maker. This tanbur was an antique with historical value, having belonged to one of the last Bukharan court musicians. Here it was for sale. Admittedly not cheap, but we would have been free to take it abroad. It crossed our minds to buy it and give it back to Ari – where it belonged. The story went that one of Ari’s brothers had gone to live in Israel and had exchanged this instrument for an new one. It seemed sad to see it here but at least it was now restored and perhaps would end up in the hands of a player.

My thoughts now turned to a doira, a frame drum, that I had seen several days before, but had then seemed absurdly overpriced. Whether it was the effect of half an hour of conversation, or Sasha’s connection with the instrument maker, I’ll never know, but the price suddenly dropped by a third. We struck a deal and I walked away the proud owner of a high quality doira. Now all I have to do is persuade someone to show me a few tricks.

15van.gifThis project involves plenty of travelling around Central Asia. After all I am the ‘Musical Nomad’. Of course the truth of the matter is I am accompanied by a small, specialist team. Our ‘nomad horse’ for the last two weeks is a Volkswagen Caravelle, with enough seats for six people and five large flightcases.In Central Asia a driver is more than simply a driver, he constantly nurses and cleans the car, never leaves it and finds petrol in the most unlikely places. Our Uzbek driver Bahadir is a real character and devout individual. He is a stout man with a face half resembling Mel Brooks and a sleepy manner. We were amused watching Bahadir buying petrol. He would chase lorry drivers, hug and kiss them and spend hours in the back yard of strangers.

16bah.gifOur delicate computer, communications and audio/video equipment are at the mercy of his driving skills and we all too often have to tell him, through Sasha, to ‘slow down!’ This gets lost in the translation as within minutes we are once again careering through potholed hairpin bends. Bahadir also has an uncanny ability to forget things – only basic things such as which town we asked to stop in!. With all his faults though he has some key redeeming features – his devotion to his religion and his mild manner which conceals a strength alien to many in the West.

Yurts and oil wells line the improbable road to Baysun. A semi desert of stunted shrubs strectches to a hazy horizon. The mode of transport switches from dodgy trucks to lively donkeys, laden with unknown produce bound for market.

I15grp.gifn many Islamic countries you wield a camera at your peril. In Tunisia for example, even pointing a camera at a person is considered deeply offensive. I entered the lively market at Karsi full of trepidation. Everywhere the rich fruit colours of high summer beg for Kodachrome. Reds in apples and tomatoes, golden yellow pears, grapes, as black as night. In direct competition for photogenic appeal were the gorgeous Tajic clothes of the Uzbek women. I gestured to my camera with a thumbs up and a smile – smiles were returned. Suddenly I was the most popular guy in town – everybody wanted to be photographed and video’d. It gets better. The fruit sellers started to compete for my attention by paying me in fruit. I left the market laden with bags, totally bemused but thrilled. The generosity of these people had been such a surprising contrast.

15bays.gifIn the cities of the former Soviet Union the legacy of too many conquering Tzars and an autonomous state is a frozen fear still reflected in faces. Here in the country people further from the hub of beaurocracy seem to retain an earlier innocence. As we arrive in Baysun unannounced in the early evening, word spreads fast. Soon a whole greeting committee turn out to welcome us to this small town in the mountains famous for its music.

Tomorrow the ‘Bakshy of Baysun’.

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Day 11 – A great deal of what we see depends on what we are looking for

11samar.gifAt last I hit the old silk road although now it’s cotton that lines the highway. I travel in hope from Tashkent to Bukhara, the Holy City. Hot miles of fields, the vanishing point defined by incongruous power lines. Was this really the road trodden by Ghengis Khan, Marco Polo and Timur. It is 90 degrees in the shade but the only shade is an 11th century Caravanserai, and even that crumbles, returns to sand. Hundreds of miles of overgrown irrigation ditches are the only vestige of some bold ten year plan. At a tiny oasis beneath an exotic maple? I take chai and admire the local faces.

Back on the road a combine harvester reaps the Nomad plain. From a hill I catch my first sight of Samarkand, Bibi Khanum. The dome shimmers blue in the midday haze.

11tomb.gifNot far outside Samarkand lies the tomb of Imam Ismail Al Bukhari, an important figure in early Islamic history. He is famous for collecting Hadith, or stories of the life of the prophet Mohammed. As Bahadir, our driver, wanted to pray we thought we would have a look around. The entrance to the mosque complex opens into a serene and tranquil garden with artificial lakes and fountains. Venerable looking gentlemen sit on the “Iwan” or raised platforms, characteristic of all Central Asian chaikanas or teahouses. As people slowly gather for the Friday prayers chatting and catching up with news, I notice that everyone is in their equivalent of Sunday Best. Older men in their silk frock coats, knee length leather boots, sashes and turbans, women in colourful silks.

11water.gifAlthough people tend to cover their heads out of respect it doesn’t seem compulsory. Visitors are welcome to stay in the gardens to watch the prayers as long as they show some decorum. This is a holy place but there is an overriding tolerance and hospitality. These are not values that people in the West often associate with Islam. Even Paul tottering around with his DV camera and tripod, hat on head didn’t attract any curiosity. Perhaps there have not yet been enough intrusive or inquisitive Westerners here to make a nuisance of themselves. During prayers I spent some time by the tomb itself and afterwards was joined by many people from the mosque. The gardens and tomb have a timelessness about them to be enjoyed by all.

11jnmeat.gifLunch is at the local ‘greasy spoon’, a lorry stop. I sample lamb stew and potatoes and admire the ancient bread oven almost biblical in simplicity. As the miles drag on I try and imagine the scene before the 20th century scarred the landscape. Ill thought out irrigation schemes and rusty power lines are sad monuments to leave our children.

We arrive in Bukhara at sunset. The golden glow permeates everything especially the overwhelming sandy colours of the buildings. We are staying in a local B&B with a fabulous, ornately painted wooden verandah overlooking a central courtyard, a wonderful location for musicians – perhaps we will invite some here. The B&B is next to a central square and pool called Labi-hauz which has, according to Gary who was here before, lost all its ‘old Bukharan’ charm. The renovations taking place for the 2500th year anniversary in a few weeks has turned it into a clean yet bland square complete with plastic white tables, chairs and ghetto blaster music. I feel quite sad that my vision of a Holy City is initially shattered by so much modern influence – the Coke and Kodak syndrome is starting to take a hold. After dinner we stroll in the dark city. The domes of the mosques, tall madrassahs and dominating minarets cloaked in black seem to exhude centuries of wisdom. Perfect silhouettes against the starry, moonlit sky, the night hides some failings.

11bksky.gifA canal runs down Bukharas main street, carrying with it both life and death – much needed water which in the past has carried many diseases. We turn a corner and see an entrance through a large wooden gate. This leads into a barely lit courtyard and on a board above a chaikana table hangs a dazzling array of Central Asian instruments – tanburs, tars, satos and doiras (frame drums). I am in the market for a frame drum and these look particularly well made and playable. The maker of the instruments takes me to his workshop hidden behind some trees. A small room is filled with half finished instruments. Drying animal skins and the smell of freshly cut timber give the impression that here is a professional craftsman. Newspaper cuttings show him and some musical diginitaries smiling to camera. Paul meanwhile is attempting to see if any of the local players have heard of a vocal technique for articulating the rhythms or ‘usul’ of frame drums, similar to that used in India. Sadly they all look bemused, another preconception shattered. After a short session playing with the locals, I am interested in purchasing one of the drums. I am told it costs $150, this is definitely too high as I know $75 is a good price and tell them I will return in a few days. It is too late for a long drawn out haggle session, anyway who’s gonna carry all this stuff! As we wind our way back, the wind whistles around the small ‘venetian-like’ streets, curtains are sucked out of windows and bats play in the tungsten streams of light. This is going to be interesting.

11duira.gifOn my return to the B&B there seems to have been some confusion, there is no room at the inn. Tonight I sleep outside.

“When you sleep in a house your thoughts are as high as the ceiling, when you sleep outside they are as high as the stars” (Bedouin proverb)

Tomorrow join me as we meet Ari, a player of the Kashgar Rebab. We are told he is the last of his kind.

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