Music in Central Asia

If you are only familiar with western pop or classical music styles, the music of Central Asia can be as exotic as its markets and architecture. Like so much of its culture, it is a fascinating blend of nomadic and courtly traditions, while incorporating elements of the cultures surrounding (and sometimes infiltrating) it. But whether it is bardic, or classical, it is undeniably passionate. Voices are heroic, and could give any western pop star a run for the money. Melodies can seem Asian, Arabic, Indian or even reminiscent of Russian folklore!
The classical Central Asia tradition stems from the great courts that flourished during the heyday of the silk road, and is called muggam, or shashmaqam, (referencing maqqam, an Arabic system of modes and scales not unlike ragas, upon which most Arabic and Turkic music is based). The music is not choral or harmonic, but more about beautiful melodic lines that intertwine. It is stately, formal and somewhat otherworldly. Lyrically, the songs are usually settings of the works of the great poets whose names are legend, and whose poems are taught to children in school.
Both men and women can sing muggam, whereas it is only recently that women have started to sing the Bardic music, which is more associated with the nomadic culture, and has been the province of men. It is an oral tradition, somewhat troubadour-like as it recounts history and news. Of course it also has its classic repertoire, and its great teachers. In either case, this is music to slow down with, and to savor, like a fine brandy.
Instrumental accompaniment can be with Uzbekistan dutar, a long necked two stringed lute that for all its simplicity, can carry powerful riffs and melodic lines, the kemanche, or spike fiddle, which is played vertically, or the doira, a frame drum with small "rings" inside the body, that give it a bell-like jingle. The jews harp is also a popular instrument, particularly within the bardic tradition.
Central Asia folk music by contrast can be downright fun, from humorous songs that are easy to follow with call and response patterns, to energetic dances. Unlike the very formal court dancing, some dances are easy to join in on, and as long as you can keep up, and have a reasonable sense of rhythm you'll have plenty of folks cheering you on.
If you take any taxis or buses, you will hear plenty of the local pop music. This is incredibly infectious, fun stuff, and everyone will be happy to tell you who their favorite stars are. Much of the music retains the melodic structures of the traditional songs, but are fleshed out with Western style harmonies and electric instruments. You'll find your toes tapping to it, and bits of the songs running over and over in your head. During your tours to Uzbekistan or Central Asia be sure to buy some of this music in the market places, it will be a wonderful reminder of your visit, for years to come!

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The archeological jewels, nomadic life and spectacular mountains of Uzbekistan

Central Asia has a many-layered history and its windswept landscapes have seen prehistoric hunter/gatherers, nomads, invading armies and the rise (and fall) of empires. One can practically touch history here; unlike so many other places, one can still get up close to ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings) and wander on foot through once mighty strongholds.
Over 150 sites with petroglyphs have been discovered in Uzbekistan, including in the Nurata mountains; with the Sarmyshsay petroglyphs in the Navoi region being particularly popular with visitors. These petroglyphs are wonderful works of primitive art, although "primitive" seems to be a strange word to use, when confronted with the sophistication of the execution, and the magical quality of the images. They go as far back as the bronze age, and reflect a hunting lifestyle depicting all kinds of animals both extant and extinct, as well as humans.
Remnants of the vast empires dating as far back as the 4th century BC through to the Sassanids (224-651 AD) can be seen in the fortresses of Tuproc Qala and Ayaz Kala. Perched on plateaus high above sweeping desert vistas, these fortresses which sometimes housed royal residences, were primarily built to protect agrarian subjects from invading nomadic hordes. The fortresses had crenelated turrets to defend from, and were designed ingeniously to trap an enemy once it had breached the walls. Mostly fashioned of a kind of mud brick, these impressive buildings have survived the searing winds and sandstorms of the region to differing degrees, thus placing them on the list of UNESCO's Endangered World Heritage Sites. Ayaz Kala is perhaps the best preserved of these, with enough left of the structure to easily imagine what it looked like and how it was used, when it was alive and functioning.
Those "searing winds" are responsible for the design of the classic Central Asian nomadic dwelling, the yurt. Its round shape sends the wind around it, rather than against it. Its lightweight wooden "mesh" walls are also easily dismantled, and its cloth and wool walls folded to make for easy traveling and setup. Nowadays there are more and more people living settled lives, but the further way from cities one gets, the more likely it is to find families that still live in yurts.
Whether they are settled or nomadic, Central Asian hospitality can actually be overwhelming to the uninitiated. Nothing is too good for the guest, and even a family with few resources will work all day to make a beautiful meal, and to provide entertainment. Perhaps a local musician will be brought in to sing ancient ballads; in that case, relax on the cushions, and prepare for time to slow down, and to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. While the yurt is not a luxurious dwelling place, it is a model of economy and function, and it is worth the chance to spend the night in one, rather than be thrown on the mercy of some local motels, which can be primitive by tourist standards, with none of the down to earth charm of the yurt! And there is nothing to compare with spending the night in a yurt and arising at dawn in the desert to survey the suns first rays hitting the towering ruins of a Central Asian fortress.

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The Nukus Museum

Who would have thought ten years ago that tourists would be clamoring to travel to Karakalpakstan? It's true; these days more and more people are making it a point to include Nukus, the home of the Savitsky museum, into their Central Asian tour.

There they can see two extraordinary and different collections; both are the life's work of one man, who turned an artist's eye an everything he saw. The first collection is comprised of ancient and folk treasures. As a young man and painter Savitsky (born in Russia) worked on the historic archeological dig at Khorezm, and it was there that he fell in love with the culture and light of Karakalpakstan. Although he was a talented painter, his teacher so discouraged him that he turned instead, to collecting and preserving what he encountered around him. He unearthed artifacts, and more dramatically, he found wondrous jewelry and textiles that were not valued by the Karakalpaks, whose culture had been subverted by the Soviets. Savitsky was instrumental in preserving this heritage. The second collection is comprised of paintings from the Stalinist era, some by local painters, some by Russians. All these works were banned in their day as "subversive" as they were not state-approved Social Realism. But through Savitsky's perseverance (and the fact that Nukus was an isolated backwater) a world-class collection of what came to be known as Russian Avant-Garde came into being. It is now formally acknowledged that the Nukus Museum is among the great museums of the world. Tragically, Savitsky died from overexposure to chemicals he used in his restoration work. His story, told in the excellent documentary "The Desert of Forbidden Art" (a hit worldwide) drew global attention to this hidden treasure of a museum. As a result Nukus has seen some development, with the addition of more local hotels to accommodate tourists, and a music center in 2012. The museum itself is now housed in an impressive new building that reflects its cultural importance.

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