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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