december 2011
border crossings

The Dotar, Uzbek's national instrument, comes from a family of long-necked lutes, closely related to Setar and Tanbur, and could be found throughout Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East and as far as in Eastern Turkistan or Xinjiang, China. Its ancestor is probably the ‘Tanbur of Khorasan’ as depicted by Farabi (10th century) in his essay ‘Kitab AI-Musiqi Al-Kabir.’ Marâqi (15th century) in his Jâme Ol Alhân also describes two types of two-string Tanbur: one which he calls the Tanbur of Shirvân (a region in Azerbaijan) and another which is the Turkish Tanbur. The name of Dotar Dutor is used for the first time at the beginning of the 16th century in Huseyni's Treatise of Samarkand. The Dotar is tuned in fourth or fifth intervals and the frets are placed in a chromatic scale of twelve semitones. It is a perfect instrument to accompany folk songs, another instrument such as the Tanbur (which has generally a higher pitched sound like the Iranian Setar) or perfrm solo pieces of the classical repertoires (the Uzbek/Tajik Shash Maqom or the Uighur Onikki Maqom).

Uzbekistan Music: The Persistence of Tradition

From afar, over the roofs of the houses, the inviting blaring tones of karnais are resounding--today there is a wedding in the makhalla: a respectable neighbor is marrying off his daughter. Singing the song with the refrain "Yor-Yor!" the women are seeing the bride to the groom's house. Since time immemorial the most important events in the lives of the Uzbeks, from cradle to grave, have always been accompanied by ritual music and songs. On the seventh day of his life a baby is for the first time swaddled and put to beshik -cradle to the accompaniment of the lullaby "Alla.” If a child is ill, he is comforted with the chant "Badik.” The ancient laments "Yigi" and "Yuklov" can still be heard at funerals and commemorative ceremonies. Many Uzbek families cherish and hand down their traditional ritual songs. Full of special meaning, these songs often date back to the age of the pre-Muslim culture.

uzbekAccording to historical sources, the hymns of the holy Zoroastrian book Avesta, composed 2500 years ago in Khorezm, were performed in a drawlingly chanting way. In the 5th century B.C., in his description of the lands and peoples conquered by the Persian king Darius, Herodotus, "The Father of History,” mentioned the choral singing of the Massagetae, distant ancestors of the present-day Uzbeks. The famous scientist Narshakhi, who lived in 10th century, in his "History of Bukhara" marked out the Sogdians' art of singing ancient ritual songs.

In some regions of Uzbekistan there have preserved the common practice of starting to plow fields with the ritual of the first furrow and the song "Kush Khaidash,” whereas harvesting is started to the accompaniment of "Oblo Baraka" song. The farmers in Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya regions start their haymaking with the song "Yozi"; whereas during threshing time the ritual tune "Maida" is performed. The celebration of the spring holiday Navruz in Uzbekistan is accompanied by the choral songs "Navruz Ayomi" and "Navruz Muborak"; in winter the first snow is greeted with the chanted rhymes of "Kor Keldi"...

Uzbek pop singer Feruza Jumaniyozova sings in the Uzbek and Tajik languages. She was born in 1984 in Khorezm province of Uzbekistan.

But Uzbek musical folklore is not limited to only ritual songs. Very popular are still the ancient genres kushik, lapar and yalla, when singing of poetic stanzas is accompanied by dancing. It must be noted that interrelation of lyrics, tune and rhythm has always been one of the basic principles of Uzbek national music.

A prominent place in Uzbek musical heritage is assigned to dastan, a genre of a lyric and heroic epic. The unwritten folk music and poetry of the peoples who lived in Central Asia has such deep historical roots that it is impossible to determine the precise date when such masterpieces as the dastan "Gur Ugli" or the heroic epic "Alpomysh" were composed. We only know that as early as a thousand years ago Surkhandarya bakhshi- singers of the Uzbek clan Kungrat would already sing dastans about the feats of the legendary hero Alpomysh. The plot of the dastan "Oysulu" is about the events of the 6th century B.C., those of the fight of Tomyris--the queen of the Massagetae with the Persian king Cyrus. The ancient dastans "Shirin and Shakar,” "Takhir and Zukhra,” "Farkhad and Shirin" are based on the legends of the Sogdians and the Scythians (Saka) who in the distant past lived in Chach (Tashkent).

As time went by there formed a few distinctive schools of dastan singers in Uzbekistan. In Kashkadarya and Surkhandarya regions the dastans are sung to the accompaniment of dombra. In Khorezm bakhshi-singers perform them to the ensemble of dutar, gidjak and bulaman. In Karakalpakstan jyrau-narrators perform dastans to the two-string bow instrument kobuz. Based on folklore poetic style, dastans as well as ritual songs can be regarded as a form of professional folk music.

The professionalism in Uzbek music art developed as early as the beginning of the first millennium AD. Famous for their mastery, there were musicians of a wide variety of genres. Although in a Sogdian manuscript of the 7th century there have been found some accent signs that can be regarded as the prototype of musical notation, all the complex genres of Uzbek professional music used to spread orally; each talented musician would make his contributions to musical composition.

Ilyos Arabov and Behzod Safarov.perform 'Rohat,' a traditional Uzbek song, on the national instrument, the dotar.

Professional musicians, like artisans, would belong to a mekhterlik, "an artistic guild." Each member of the guild would have to follow the bylaw "Risola." A guild would be headed by the most experienced musician. In order to earn the status of a professional singer or an instrumentalist and become a member of the corporation, an apprentice musician would have to learn from a prominent master for ten years, to memorize scores of compositions with great precision and to pass a stiff examination. The musicians of the Western Land--as Central Asian countries were called in Chinese chronicles of the first centuries AD--were famous along the whole Great Silk Road. Central Asian music, dances, musical instruments and artists as dowries of royal brides, diplomatic presents and in other capacities would reach China, Korea, Japan and other countries. There is historical evidence that Sogdian musicians were very popular in China. An orchestra from Ango (Bukhara), for example, was an unprecedented success at the court of the emperors of the Sui Dynasty in the 6th and 7th centuries.

History knows the names of several outstanding musicians of the medieval Uzbekistan. Not only a virtuoso performer of musical compositions but also the author of the treatise "The Big Book on Music" was Abu Nasr al Farabi, a philosopher and a scientist, a man of encyclopaedic knowledge, who lived in the 9th and 10th centuries. His contemporary, the legendary medical man Abu Ali ibn Sino (Avitsenna) and the eminent mathematician Al-Khorezmi also wrote on the theory of music.

Uzbek professional music reached its fullest flower in the times of the Temurids Dynasty. In the 15th century centers of education and art in Samarkand, Bukhara and Herat became homes to the famous performing musicians Usto Kul-Muhammad, Sheikhi-Na'i and the poet Abdurakhman Jami. The great medieval poet Alisher Navoi was not only a performing musician but also a composer of melodious pieces of music. Uzbek professional music of folk oral tradition has a wide variety of genres and forms: songs and instrumental pieces, solo and ensemble cycles of vocal and instrumental compositions.

Formed in the Middle Ages, the classical traditional vocal and instrumental genre makom is deservedly believed to stand at the top of Uzbek professional music of folk oral tradition. Some researchers find that makoms evolved from the ancient Zoroastrian sacred songs. Long before Islam became dominant in Central Asia, those songs had been connected with the astrological beliefs of the Zoroastrians. It is supposed that at certain hours when guards were relieved it was prescriptive to perform special ritual song over a fortress's or a town's gates. The song was called makom, the literal Arabian for “position.”

Uzbek traditional music and dance

Makoms are instrumental and vocal musical pieces performed together as a cycle. The lyrics of makoms come from ancient folk poetry and the classical oriental poetry by such authors as Khafiz, Bedil, Navoiy, Jami. Makoms stylistically fall into Bukhara cycle and Khorezm cycle. Bukhara cycle "Shashmakom" consists of six makoms: Buzruk, Rost, Navo, Dugokh, Segokh and Irok. Each of the makoms consists of instrumental and vocal parts. Each instrumental part in its turn should embrace several complete musical pieces: Tasnif, Tarji, Gardun, Mukhammas and Sakil, all of which differ in tune and rhythm. The vocal parts of Bukhara makoms consist of several compositions shu'be to be performed in strict order. The main musical instruments of makoms are the tanbur and the doira. Makom cycles also include usuls, rhythmical fill-ins beaten on the doira or the nagora-drum. Usuls are very important for making makom cycles sound as an integral dinamic piece.

Khorezm makoms, just as Bukhara's ones, consist of six parts containing several original tunes. Though makoms are strictly standardized, it is allowed to change their tempo, interpret usuls and melodic intonations to personal taste of performers. The highly artistic and perfectly mastered genre of makom cycles is extremely popular in Uzbekistan.

The pervasion of European music in Uzbekistan consequent to Russia's annexation of Turkestan stimulated the formation of a new phase of Uzbek national music. In the 1880s the tanbur-player Pakhlavan Niyaz-Mirzabashi from Khorezm invented written tabulation for Uzbek national musical instruments; a little later the modern musical notation was brought into practice. Early in the 20th century the first national opera "Leyli and Medjnun" by U.Gajibekov was staged in Tashkent.

A clip from the 1960 Uzbek classic film Mahalla duv-duv gap (Whole Mahallas Speaks About It), starring Rahim Pirmuhammedov, Maryam Yoqubova

The fact that such prominent Uzbek musicians as Tokhtasyn Djalilov, Mukhitdin Kari-Yakubov and Yunus Radjabiy were able to master the techniques of musical composition and apply them to the traditional makoms and folk songs resulted in development of new forms of Uzbek national music for ensembles of national musical instruments and philharmonic orchestras.

In the mid-20th century there appeared a galaxy of Uzbek composers. Among them are Tolib Sadykov and Ikram Akbarov. The former was one of the most talented players on tanbur, dutar, and nai-flute; he was a connoisseur of Bukhara, Tashkent and Fergana makoms, of Uzbek folk melodies and songs that he used as the basis for his makom-like arias for the opera "Leyli and Mejnun." The latter composed a suite on themes of Uzbek folk songs for piano, oboe and stringed quartette; in his sonatas for the violin and the piano the vocals originally mix with the rapid rhythm of the folk music.

A significant contribution to the development of the modern Uzbek national music was made by the outstanding composer and conductor Mukhtar Ashrafi. He was born in Bukhara, in a family of a famous singer, where he got his musical education based on the standards of the classical Bukhara makoms. In his youth, when he heard a philharmonic orchestra, he was deeply impressed by the rich sounds of European musical instruments. Later, having studied the theory of musical composition at Moscow Conservatory, he returned to Uzbekistan and became for many years the head of the philharmonic orchestra of the Alisher Navoi State Opera and Ballet Theatre. Mukhtar Ashrafi is the author of the highly praised by professional musicians as well as music-lovers national operas "Buran," "Ulugbek," "Dilorom" and "Heroic" symphony, not to mention many musical compositions for ensembles of stringed and wind instruments. Many of his compositions are based on Uzbek and Tajik folk songs, or evoked by the rhythms of usuls.

One of the most renowned Uzbek composers of the late 20th century is U.Musaev. He is the author of the ballet "Tomyris,” based on the ancient legend about the fight of the Massagetian queen against the Persian invaders. Among the most avant-garde philharmonic composers stands out Uzbek composer Rustam Abdullaev.

Today the traditions of Uzbek national music, folk melodies and rhythms are taught at musical colleges and at the State Tashkent Conservatory. The graduates of these establishments play at the Alisher Navoi State Opera and Ballet Theatre and at the musical and drama theatres in all the cities of Uzbekistan. In numerous concert halls throughout Uzbekistan music lovers can enjoy musical compositions played by philharmonic and chamber orchestras, ensembles and orchestras of Uzbek national instruments.


Tamara Khanum, dancing teacher, first woman to perform without the veil in Uzbekistan.

Tamara Khanum: Legendary Uzbek Dancer

Although Russia conquered Turkestan in the mid nineteenth century, local traditions went largely undisturbed until 1924 when the region was incorporated into the USSR. The Bolshevik campaign to eliminate the custom of veil wearing soon lead to public dance performances by women.

Born in Margilan, Ferghana, in 1906, Tamara Khanum was one of the first women to defy tradition and perform unveiled, often courting death at the hands of Basmatchi reactionaries. (One of her colleagues, a young dancer named Nurkhon, was murdered by her own brother for dishonoring the family by dancing in public. Nurkhon later became the subject of a musical drama by Kamil Yashin).

Tamara Khanum (Photo by Langston Hughes)

After graduating from the Moscow Theatrical College, Tamara Khanum was selected to be part of the delegation of USSR artists to the 1924 World Exhibition in Paris, where she performed Uzbek dances and songs. This was the first time in modern history that Central Asian dance had been seen in the West. (1924 was also the year that Isadora Duncan performed in Tashkent and Samarkand).

At the end of 1930s Khanum collaborated with composer Evgeny Grigoryevich Brusilovsky to create the first Uzbek ballet, Gulyandom, in which she performed the lead role. She also established the first ballet school in Tashkent and composed her own original genre “song-dance.”

During World War II Khanum was a member of the front theatrical companies: she gave more than 700 concerts to the troops, and donated her Stalin Prize to the Fund of Defence. In the 1950s she toured Austria, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Mongolia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China to great acclaim.

Tamara Khanum was awarded the title of the People's Artist
of the USSR and many other government awards. She died in
1991. (Photo: Max Penson)

One of the stops on any Uzbek Journeys tour will be at the Tamara Khanum museum, located in her former house in Tashkent. In 2008, the museum received a $34,000 grant from the U.S. Ambassadors' Fund for Cultural Preservation to revitalize and expand exhibits. The museum has used the funds to restore 75 costumes the dancer wore as she performed around the world, create a new exhibit of hundreds of historical photographs, record an audio guide for visitors to learn about the life of Tamara Khanum, and to improve the display of the museum's exhibits.

A new exhibition area displays hundreds of photographs with captions in Uzbek, Russian, and English. The photos include pictures of the dancer and the musicians with whom she performed, black-and-white scenes of life in Uzbekistan in a bygone era, and posters advertising her international performances. Together they tell the story of the dancer's life, as well as that of a changing cultural landscape as Uzbekistan evolved throughout the 20th Century.

You can view rare 1939 archival footage of Tamara Khanum dancing at the opening of the Ferghana Valley canal, one of the most remarkable achievements of the Soviet Union, at the Soviet History site (two minutes--click the second title on the right, "The Opening of the Canal.").


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