The Aga-Khan Central Asian Music Initiative - Smithsoniamn Folkways
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Music of Central Asia (series)
Vol. 3 Homayun Sakhi: The Art of the Afghan Rubab
Vol. 7 In the Shrine of the Heart: Popular Classics from Bukhara and Beyond
Vol. 9 In the Footsteps of Babur: Musical Encounters from the Lands of the Mughals
Smithsonian Folkways

There can be no doubt; lumping musical collections into a pile based on nothing more than a huge, and often vague, geographical region seems nothing more than a convenient way to compartmentalize entire swaths of earth, music and the various peoples who perform it. Itís not like one would review avant-jazz saxophonist Daniel Carter alongside North Carolina ballad singer Dellie Norton just because they were both from the United States. Itís almost as ridiculous as writing about Kazak traditional music from Western China as Chinese, rather than, well, Central Asian. But then, it is Chinese, and Kazak, and Central Asian, even if China isnít technically a Central Asian country. One thing is clear, the various ethnicities that make up Central Asia have little to do with borders. Whatever the case, these three meditative, profound and gorgeous collections are not only on the same label, but part of a series. Furthermore, at least two of them draw heavily from Indian influence, as well as sharing a common performer. And all of them are concerned, in one way or another with drone, repetition and trance.

Vol. 7 focuses on a small group of traditional dutar, tar, ghijak and rubab ensemble and solo players from various regions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The performers here typically picked up the music aurally, perhaps studying later at one of the various Universities in the region. What they play often draws lyrically from Turkic and Persian poetry passed around for the last thousand or so years. For example, ďDilhiroj,Ē played by a vocal & dutar duo from Northern Tajikistan, sets a 100-year-old melody to 600-year-old Persian poetry that, translated into English, means ďtormented heart.Ē What makes this matter is how incredible a performance it is. The dutar, a long-necked, two-string lute played all over Central Asia, is here strummed with such intensity as to suggest a swift horse ride over mountains, while the vocals, by Nasiba Omonboeva, more than suggest Persian maqam. Elsewhere there are instrumental pieces for Ghijak, a spiked fiddle, and percussion, tunes featuring accordion, as well as songs for various configurations of traditional instruments. Once in a performerís hands, the music is immediately transformed into something new. Melodies shift, vocal inflections suggest a multitude of poetic meaning and the ancient and present collide, making the musicís chronological delineation as complex as the cultures that play it.

Vol. 3 shows Homayun Sakhi to be the undisputed master of the Afghan Rubab, which has little in common with other instruments in the Central Asian region that go by the same name. Sakhiís rubab has 20 strings- two drone, three plucked and somewhere around 15 sympathetic. No doubt, the presence of sympathetic strings connects it with instruments from farther east, the sarod in particular. And the fact that Sakhi plays extended ragas with tabla accompaniment further links his music to India. The disc contains only three tracks, two of them over a half hour, and a single listen unlocks secrets of the universe. In Sakhiís hands, the rubab, which sounds not unlike a banjo, at least if it had more sustain, sneaks around dark corners, bursts into the light, whispers, demands, suggests and proselytizes. Once the tabla enters, typically half way through a performance, the two players drive the music to ecstatic heights. Reaching God takes time and demands concentrated listening, but the rewards here are nothing short of spectacular. The accompanying DVD not only reveals the sheer intensity of his playing, it also gives some insight into the USAís largest Afghan population, in Fremont, Ca, where Sakhi has lived for years. If thereís anything good to come from Russia and the USAís disastrous meddlings in Afghan affairs (and quite frankly, there isnít), itís having music of this caliber played in the states.

Vol. 9 uses the travels of Babur, the 16th century wanderer who hailed from what is now Uzbekistan, but formed the Mughal empire, which ultimately ruled much of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, as a reference point for itís stew of ragas, quatrains and other various folk tunes. Much of the tunes heard here revolve around the Afghan rubab (once again played by Sakhi), tabla and a zither known in this region of the world as the Santur. The musicians, who also include dutar and setar players, come from Afghanistan, India, and the Afghan-Tajik border region known as Badakhstan. Together they make a music that certainly sounds like a hybrid, but then thatís what Central Asian folk music has been for so long. In fact, paintings leftover from the age of the Mughals show long-necked lutes of Turkic and Persian origin mingling with native Indian instruments such as the vina. While the music from that time period probably didnít sound quite like the tracks on Vol. 9, it no doubt had a huge effect on just how this music has evolved.

All the discs in this series were co-produced by the Aga-Khan Central Asian Music Initiative, which works to preserve and encourage the regionsí folk arts, and they all come with DVDs featuring a half hour of performances, as well as comments from the musicians. - Bruce Miller

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