Falak: Traditional, Popular and Symphonic Music of Tajikistan
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Various Artists
Falak: The Voice of Destiny
Traditional, Popular & Symphonic Music of Tajikistan
Topic Records (www.topicrecords.co.uk)

Tajikistan's rich musical heritage remains relatively unknown to those living outside this land-locked central Asian republic. This two disc compilation from the British Library Sound Archive seeks to remedy this situation, presenting a notably diverse range of material encompassing traditional, symphonic, and popular musical forms. The CD's title is something of a misnomer, however, as nearly all of the selections derive from the mountainous southern portion of the country, particularly the region of Kulob, near the Afghan border. As a consequence, listeners will find notable similarities between the kuhistoni ("of the mountain") selections presented here and the music of northern Afghanistan.

Central to kuhistoni music is a song form known as falak, which alternately translates to "vault of the sky" or "destiny."

Musically, falak is characterized by long melismatic vocal lines and musical chromaticism, and lyrically by songs of separation or despair, often addressed to the sky. The first CD consists of crisply recorded field recordings of traditional music collected between 2002 and 2004. The disc begins with two pieces by the extraordinary folk singer Panjshanbe Jorubov, whose taut vocalizing lays bare the emotional intensity of this music to devastating effect.

Another amazing vocal performance is an excerpt of the Guroghli epic cycle by Hotam Hokimov, who accompanies himself on the dumbra, or fretless two-stringed lute. Hokimov relies on the overtones derived from throat singing during key passages, and his raspy, expressive voice, coupled with his soulful playing, may remind American or European listeners of Charlie Patton, albeit in Central Asian garb. Also noteworthy are the vocalists and lutists Asleddin Ghafurov and Qosim Pimazorov, whose rhythmically compelling "Suite of Songs" present a string of falaks and ghazals, gradually raising the pitch and tempo of the melody to give the piece a churning intensity and irresistible momentum.

While the first disc is uniformly excellent, the second, which focuses on Tajik popular and orchestral music, is a bit more uneven, with some tracks suffering from excessively glossy production values, which can polish falak's jagged musical form to a dull sheen. Nonetheless, there are several stand-outs, such as the highly inventive Shams Group, whose four tracks create an intoxicating blend of techno, psychedelia, and falak. Likewise, in a perfect world, the insouciant, perfect pop of Manzinha Davitova's "Guli Maidon"("Flower of the Square") would be an international hit. The CD ends with some examples of orchestral music. A product of the Soviet period, the symphonic performance of folk-based music has become something of a standard in the concert halls of Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. The three examples presented here (including, rather incongruously, the Tajik national anthem) vary in quality, although the falak by the composer Abdufattoh Odineav performed by the State Orchestra of Tajikistan is nothing short of exhilarating.

The accompanying booklet provides useful information regarding the performers and musical styles presented. The absence of lyrics is a major shortcoming, however, as these pieces draw from a deep vein of poetic forms extending back to medieval Persian verse. Nonetheless, Falak: The Voice of Destiny presents the listener with a rare opportunity to explore the endlessly inventive and emotionally compelling music of southern Tajikistan. - Michael Duke

The British Library Sound Archive is online

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