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  • UNESCO Collection Week 55: Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan: Ancient Stories at a Forgotten Crossroads

    This week’s UNESCO releases focus on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, two nations whose cultures depend heavily on story telling through music, and music as a communal activity.


    by Ben Detrixhe

    Ancient storytelling traditions connect the two UNESCO albums released this week, featuring the music of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  These two nations possess long and rich histories which inform their cultural traditions.  As anyone who has had the chance to experience jazz on Bourbon Street or blues in a Mississippi juke joint can attest, a musical tradition can best be appreciated when one has an understanding of the place and the history behind its formation, so in this post I will attempt to set the stage upon which the music of these albums is performed.

    Most of Turkmenistan and western Uzbekistan are covered by the Karakum and Kyzyl Kum deserts.  With little rainfall in the region, cities and agricultural lands cluster around rivers flowing into the deserts from the east and south.  The largest of these rivers is the Amu Darya, which flows from the mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan northwest along the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border before bending north toward the vanishing Aral Sea.  In recent decades, Soviet-era irrigation schemes which diverted the river have led to the drying up of the Aral Sea and the desertification of the lower Amu Darya delta, posing challenges to the agricultural success of the region.

    The desert oases formed by the floodplains and deltas of the Amu Darya and other rivers gave rise to cities which became vital centers of trade and culture.  A strategic location along the Silk Road contributed to the success of cities such as Konye Urgench, which survived for two thousand years, and from which the Khwarazmian dynasty ruled much of Iran and Central Asia during the twelfth century C.E. (493-595 A.H.).  While the region’s natives are Turkic peoples, they have absorbed influences over the centuries from Persia and its successor states, Muslim missionaries, Mongol invaders, and Russia and the Soviet Union. 

    Throughout these centuries, perhaps the most important method for conveying history and tradition was the telling of stories through music.  As the art form developed, bards grew in skill and told epic tales and sage poems in the form of songs with sophisticated rhythm, melody, and meter.  Many elements of the tradition are similar across Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, although there are variations among different ethnic groups and sub-regions.  The first of this week’s two albums focuses on Turkmenistan, particularly the provinces in the east and north of the country, and the second album focuses on Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the northwest of Uzbekistan.  Common elements across both albums include the musical retelling of dastan-s, or heroic epics, by skilled bards (bakhshy in Turkmenistan, baqsy and jirow in Karakalpakstan), as well as some of the key instruments.  Both albums prominently feature the dutar, a two-stringed lute with a long, thin neck, as well as a small spike fiddle known as gidzhak in Turkmenistan and ghirjek in Karakalpakstan.

    Turkmen Epic Singing: Köroğlu
    Turkmen Epic Singing: Köroğlu is unique in that it focuses on the singing of a single epic which holds a prominent place in Turkmen tradition, the legend of Köroğlu.  Köroğlu is a tale popular among Turkic peoples from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan to Turkey, and it has been told and retold in various ways over the centuries.  It is as old as the English tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and its degree of influence on the cultural imagination of the peoples who tell it has been similar.  The character Köroğlu is a great hero who, with the help of his magic horse Kyr At, defends his people against a large outside threat.  Through the centuries, the story has evolved to incorporate elements of pre-Islamic shamanistic culture, Islamic history, and references to the many empires which have challenged the independence of the Turkic peoples who tell it.  The Turkmen version of the tale contains thirteen chapters, or shaha.  With the exception of the greatest bards, most performers specialize in just a few shaha, but they can perform hours of songs based on verses from their shaha.  The liner notes for the album provide detailed information on the source material, musicians, and instrumentation for each performance.
    Uzbekistan: Musical Traditions of the Karakalpaks
    Uzbekistan: Musical Traditions of the Karakalpaks surveys the music of the Karakalpaks, an ethnic group of about half a million living in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan.  While this album does not focus on a single legend, it still emphasizes the oral tradition of the epic tales, or dastans, while also including some less formal folk songs.  The singers of dastans, or dastanshy-s, include the jirow bards, who sing in a guttural style accompanied by the qobyz, a two-stringed bowed fiddle, and the baqsy bards, who sing with a more open voice and can be accompanied by the dutar (lute), ghirjak (spike fiddle), and balaman (small clarinet).  Becoming a dastanshy is a matter of great pride, and historically it involved an apprentice studying directly under a great master for many years to hone the necessary skills.  New singers continue to study the dastanshy tradition, although music schools are in some cases replacing or supplementing the master-student relationship.  However, while the epic tradition of the Karakalpaks is being preserved, the common folk music is in serious danger of being forgotten.  The liner notes provide more information on the types of dastanshy-s and the common Karakalpak instruments, as well as detailed descriptions and recording information for each song.  Several performances feature the late Turghanbay Kurbanov, a widely revered baqsy, including two tracks where he sings songs from the Köroğlu epic (Ghoroghly in Karakalpak.)

    As each new installment in the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music proves, there are many rich layers of history and meaning that can be discovered through the study of traditional music and its cultural origins. With this week’s albums, not only do we learn about the music of Turkmenistan and Karakalpakstan, but we also learn about the stories that are central to each culture and how their musical and literary traditions have evolved over time. With this intersection of music and narrative a seemingly frequently overlooked region is brought to life.

    Ben Detrixhe is a sales and marketing intern at Smithsonian Folkways. He is a graduate of Kansas State University with a major in geography and a minor in history. Passionate about music, he hosted a blues show on K-State’s student-run radio station, and he hopes to continue working in the music business after his current internship.

    UNESCO Collection Week 55: Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan: Ancient Stories at a Forgotten Crossroads | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings