Press photo of Abduvali Abdurashidov (photographer unknown)

Songs of Imploration and Love: The Music of Tajikistan

For centuries, Tajikistan has seen just about every monarchy, kingdom, religious faith and culture sweep through its land, leaving an indelible impression on its people and music.

A country which, perhaps, not too many people in the Western world could easily find on a map, the country of Tajikistan resides in the mountainous region of Central Asia, bordered by Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. Since it hardly makes the news, save for the political affiliations that are discussed occasionally whenever the country’s surrounding nations are up for debate, Tajikistan and its culture seem to be somewhat of a mystery to those on the outside. If the grim news to often come out of its sister nations like Afghanistan were any indication, one might be forgiven for thinking Tajikistan follows a similar trajectory in culture and social attitudes.

In fact, the country has had a dizzying history of overlapping cultures that have left an indelible impression on the nation and its people. Tajikistan has seen just about every monarchy, kingdom, religious faith and culture sweep through its land, from as early as the 4th millennium BCE to the present day. Its people have endured a constant overturning of lifestyles that would change shape and form with the country’s evolutions.

When it comes to music, it’s hard to say just exactly where Tajikistan’s influences are rooted. There’s always the sense of a familiar culture, something you’ve possibly heard in a Russian folk tune or a Chinese Jiangnan sizhu, or maybe in the sounds of Afghani Pashto. Simply put, Tajik music is a little bit of everything and also something entirely its own.

Employing numerous musical instruments that in some form or another share some relation to the instruments of its neighbouring countries, Tajikistan’s most popular form of traditional music is largely based on the Arabic modal scale known as maqam. Maqam is a system in which the melodic scales are primarily improvised with characteristics that are typically Arabic; many times maqam utilizes the appropriation of quartertones, and this lends the scale its improvisational feel.

Shashmaqam is the modal system used in Tajikistan. Shashmaqam basically means “six maqams” and refers to the act of employing six modal scales during a piece or performance. Much of Tajik shashmaqam, in terms of themes and cultural expression, has its basis in Sufi poetry, most recognized by the Western world as the teachings of divine love by Persian poet Rumi. Many songs of Tajik shashmaqam discuss love in both its earthly guise (for nature and humans) and in its spiritual form.

Shashmaqam, despite its ornate frills, is rather uncomplicated in its setup. Primary instruments include the doyra, a small circular frame drum often played polyrhythmically, the dotar and tanbur, long-necked lute-like instruments which produce a clear and ringing sonority and the sato, yet another long-necked lute-like instrument played with a bow. The sato is probably the most notable instrument in Tajik music. In many shashmaqam performances, the sato is often the backbone of the musical ensemble. Played upright, very much like a cello, the instrument delivers a thin, wiry metallic sound that’s more sinuous than that of the violin.

A setup slightly shambolic in design, these instruments together produce a sound richly coloured with texture, often seeming fuller than the minimalist techniques would have one believe. Many shashmaqam performances are situated in large gatherings – weddings, festivals, religious ceremonies and celebrations. And offsetting an already jubilant and vibrant music are the equally brilliantly coloured traditional garments adorned by the native Tajiks, whose traditional dances (swift, elegantly-articulated movements) go hand-in-hand with the shashmaqams.

One of Tajikistan’s most notable musicians is Abduvali Abdurashidov, whose mastery of the sato is highly regarded by both the general Tajik public and the small community of Tajik musicians. A multi-instrumentalist who is also the founder and director of the Academy of Shashmaqam in Tajikistan, Abdurashidov’s compositions and performances have brought him some attention outside of his native land, finding appreciative audiences from places like Russia, India, Iran and even France. His intuitive approach to playing lends itself naturally to the improvisational modal scales of shashmaqam but also transcends those loose, general structures because his execution is at once instinctive and disciplined. Carving elegant lines on the sato, Abdurashidov manages a truly heartfelt resonance with one of his country’s most cherished instruments.

Other Tajik musicians have risen to fame in their home country. Tajik singers continue to turn out in handfuls (thanks to the rising quotient of pop music in Tajikistan), but only few succeed in truly honouring the traditions of the cultural music, doing it the justice to make their nation proud. Ozoda Ashurova is something of a renaissance woman when it comes to music; her versatility allows her to cross all musical boundaries of Tajik music, from shashmaqam and classical to folk and pop. Her keening vocals find an intermediate balance between a soft and earthy shudder and an ecstatic, heavenbound cry. Trained in the traditional classical style of shashmaqam singing, Ashurova (who is a member of the Academy of Shashmaqam) has often performed with her fellow countryman Abdurashidov at many concerts and festivals, as well as on studio recordings.

When it comes to the more rural folk traditions of Tajik music, the Pamir Mountains, which are situated in the south-eastern region of Tajikistan, is home to a style of folk music known as falak. Alternately meaning “heaven”, “fate” and “sky”, falak is normally a musical tradition based on religious mysticism which, much like shashmaqam, is heavily informed by Sufi poetry. Much of the lyrical themes of falak discuss the issues surrounding life and death and these are songs of imploration, hopes and desires delivered outwardly to the universe. Instrumentation in falak leans toward the more Persian side of Tajik’s musical tradition (as opposed to shashmaqam’s more multi-ethnic oriented instruments) and predominantly featured are the ney flute, the spiked fiddle (known as the ghijak) and the dombra, one of the many variants of the lute in Central Asia.

Tajik pop music has had quite a rise in the last 20 years or so. One can find just about every genre that falls under the pop music umbrella in Tajikistan with, of course, some variants on style. Much like its neighbouring country of Iran, Tajik pop integrates elements of traditional classical-folk music into its sound and singing sensations like Sadriddin, a lightweight pop artist who’s been storming the charts in Tajikistan for years, is but one of many pop singers to find an appreciative audience.

Perhaps one of Tajikistan’s most prized popular singers is the late Rena Galibova, a classical pop singer who also made her mark as an actress in her home country. Galibova, in many ways, was Tajikistan’s answer to Egypt’s Oum Kalthoum, the Middle East’s most cherished performer of the 20th century. Possessing a voice of deep, fiery passion, Galibova’s fame and highly regarded talent earned her the honour of Merited Artist of Tajikistan in 1939. Her music is still recalled fondly to this day in Tajikistan.

Only recently, a film production team decided upon putting together a documentary of the musical arts culture in Tajikistan. Named after an epic Tajik poem called Gurguli, the film offers a generous view on a seemingly cached culture that thrives nonetheless in the cloistered reserves of its home country. In the film, the honourable tenets of Tajik art are discussed, and a most curious and romantic image of Tajik music is described: “The thunder comes from the rotation of the skies, as the tanbur and the throat of the people sing the poem…”