over the past few years, I've become fascinated with the music of Central Asia, a region that stretches from Mongolia and the Xinjiang province of China in the east to Afghanistan in the south to Armenia in the west. This is, obviously, an enormous region, filled with grand steppes, harsh deserts, lush forests, towering mountains, and rich farmlands. Not surprisingly, the people in this part of the world are as varied as the lands they inhabit. This diversity is best evident in the rich variety of musical styles that have emerged over the centuries; and despite the 20th century attempts by the Soviets and others to destroy it, much of this music is not only still alive today, but it is also thriving.

Since very few people in the west know much about Central Asia and since even fewer are familiar with the region's many musical legacies, I thought I'd provide a little primer. What follows is a very brief overview of the many countries that make up Central Asia and the musical styles that are unique to each country. Along with these brief words, I've included pictures highlighting the instruments, performers, and just about anything else I can find to give you, dear reader, an idea of what Central Asian music and musical culture looks like.

Here’s an example:

This is a photo of musicians in Samarkand, circa 1900, courtesy of the United States Library of Congress' "The Empire That Was Russia" online exhibit (one of the most fascinating web sites you're likely to find). Notice the stringed and wind instruments, along with the large drum. All of these instruments are traditional in most Central Asian musical cultures, though there are variations among the different groups. In Samarkand (and, indeed, in most areas that are today part of Uzbekistan), the stringed instruments include the dutar and the tanbur, while one of the more common wind instruments in Central Asia is called a ney.

The information that follows is arranged alphabetically by country; following "Xinjiang," I've included a page of music and book suggestions for anyone interested in learning (and hearing) more about Central Asian music.

1. Afghanistan
2. Armenia
3. Azerbaijan
4. Georgia
5. Kazakhstan
6. Kyrgyzstan
7. Mongolia
8. Tajikistan
9. Turkmenistan
10. Tuva
11. Uzbekistan
12. Xinjiang
13. Central Asian Book & CD Suggestions


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Afghanistan is surrounded by Iran, Pakistan, and nearly every other Central Asian country (except Mongolia and Kazakhstan). Its proximity to so many powers (Iran/Persia, Pakistan/India, Russian/Soviet-controlled Central Asia, and China) basically explains its turbulent history. For centuries it was the favorite stomping ground of great (in the horrible sense) conquerors like Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan, among others. In recent history, however, things have been a bit different, though no less bloody. The British tried to conquer Afghanistan in the 19th century (basically as a buffer zone against Russian imperialism; the Czars had their eyes fixed on Britain's crown jewel, India); their troops were massacred on several occasions, and they eventually gave up any hope of controlling the region. Then, of course, the Soviets tried to make a grab at the country in the late 70s, but the Mujahadeen forces (with help from the United States) fought back until invaders eventually left, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. This, as we know, paved the way for the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden's Al Quaeda (groups who sprang up from the Mujahadeen). Now, of course, the US-backed coalition, having weakened the Taliban (without fully destroying it) is trying to gain control of the country. Kabul is somewhat under control, but the rest of the country is still in chaos. Will things improve? I hope so. It's a beautiful country, and its people have suffered as few others could possibly understand.

One great beneficiary of the Taliban's downfall is the music industry. Music was outlawed under the strict Islamic ruling of the Taliban, so the re-emergence of music in this region is a welcome sign. Music groups like the Kaboul Ensemble (based in Paris, like so many Afghan musicians who fled the country in the 90s) have begun touring the world, and records are starting to emerge from this country after a long hiatus.

The picture on the left is of a dutar, which is a two-stringed instrument that is commonly used throughout Central Asia. The picture on the right is of a zirbaghali, which is a single-headed pottery drum. These particular pictures are taken from the liner notes to Traditional Crossroads' wonderful album, Afghanistan Untouched.

The music of Afghanistan is similar to the music of other Central Asian countries, though Iranian and Pakistani influences are also evident. This shouldn't be surprising, as the country is a mixture of Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and a host of other ethnicities not called "Afghan." This diversity has caused its share of problems, but it also has given Afghan music a rich musical heritage. In some ways, Afghanistan is a microcosm of all the different musics of Islamic Asia: the classical pieces of Transoxiana (modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), the love and spiritual poetry of India and Pakistan, the folk music of Turkmenistan, and a host of other styles from a host of other cultures. No matter the subject of the music, the proficiency of the performers or the location of the performance (be it a home, a teahouse, a hose race, or a wedding), the same instruments dominate Afghan music. Along with the dutar and zirbaghali, there are variations on the fiddle (ghichak), the flute (badakhshani), and cymbals. Of course, the most important instrument is the human voice, which, like other Islamic musics, can be piercing, like the wailing of a "call to prayer," but it can also sound as understated and muted as a Richard Thompson vocal in one of his folk ballads. In the end, what makes Afghan music so engrossing is its variety. This is a big country, as rich and as varied as the landscape; the music echoes this.


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Armenia is located in one of the most treacherous parts of the world: east of Turkey, west of Azerbaijan and Chechnya, and north of Iran. Situated at the edge of the Caucasus mountains, Armenia is a country of immense turmoil, both internally and externally. The country has basically been at war with its neighbor, Azerbaijan, since it became independent from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. That war was centered on an area known as Nagorno-Karabakh, an area within Azerbaijan whose population is largely Armenian. The war over this area lasted about ten years (from 1988-98); however, even though the fighting has subsided, the territory is still disputed by the two nations.

Because of this strife (and because Armenia is a Christian country, and for a lot of other reasons), its other major neighbor, Turkey, has cut off ties and blocked off the border between the two nations, effectively crippling Armenia's economy (since Turkey blocks most land routes in and out of the country). Of course, Armenia's relationship with Turkey extends back a lot further than just the last few years. Back in 1915, Turkey tried to wipe Armenia off the map by killing every Armenian they could find. This was the Armenian Genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey still claims that Armenia is lying about the genocide (that it never happened, or, at the least, that Armenians killed as many Turks as Turks killed Armenians), and even western countries (eager to appease Turkey for military and economic reasons) refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide for what it was. Turkey's denial is helped out by the fact that documentation about this genocide is sparse. Unlike Germany, they didn’t bother to keep extensive records or leave behind gas chambers; rather, they took Armenians out into the deserts and either killed them there or let them die on their own—far away from prying eyes.

The genocide is the central point of reference for Armenians all over the world, who continue to push for western countries (including the United States) to recognize its existence (and, by extension, acknowledge the struggle that all Armenians have gone through throughoutthe century). Until that happens, however, at least Armenians can take solace in the fact that their music—their wonderful, rich, incredible music—offers them a voice in world culture that few groups can match. Their musical tradition is an ancient one, yet it is also a decidedly unified one. The key instrument, the duduk, is perhaps the saddest musical instrument I've ever heard; when I hear a master of the duduk play, I can feel the suffering Armenians have gone through over the past century (and even the prior centuries, which weren't too great, either). Below are some glimpses into Armenian musical culture: its instruments and people.

This is a picture of a duduk made by the master SAM (Minasyan Surik Hovhannesi). Like all high-quality duduks, this one was made from Apricot wood that is only found in the mountain regions of Armenia. The wood is aged for about 5 years before the duduk is actually created, tuned, and treated with natural oils and salt. This is the same duduk that I own and am currently trying to play. If you want to get your own duduk, then I'd suggest getting one of these, as they're the best. They're available for sale at Armenian Musical Instruments.

This is a photo of Djivan Gasparyan, the famous Armenian musician, playing the duduk. Notice how his cheeks swell with air; this is a technique used by duduk musicians to allow them to play continuous notes without pausing for breath.

This is a picture of the Shoghaken Folk Ensemble, whose music I've reviewed at this site, performing at the 2002 Folklife Festival in Washington DC. The one in the middle is Gevorg Dabaghyan, the famous duduk musician whose album I've also


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

I recently read My Life as an Explorer by Sven Hedin, the famous 19th century Swedish explorer of Central Asia. His first visit to Central Asia was to Baku, the capital of what is now Azerbaijan. As you can see from the map above, Baku is at the fingertip of the peninsula that makes up this tiny republic. Hedin was in Baku to act as a tutor for a wealthy Swede's child (this was about 1880 or so). Why would a Swede be in Baku in the 19th century, you ask? Simple: oil. Oil refineries were all over this area, and most of them were (at this time) owned by the Nobel family of Sweden (yes, THAT Nobel family). In short, oil is the central focus of life in this country, and that has been both good and bad for the country. It's good because, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has been one of the chief beneficiaries of Western support—thanks, of course, to the oil. There's a big pipeline being built from Baku to Turkey, which will take that oil to Europe and the US. But the downside to all this oil is pretty severe. Azerbaijan is one of the most polluted places on Earth.

As I said previously, Azerbaijan and Armenia are still struggling over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It's a region that is actually controlled (for the most part) by Armenia. So the two countries continue to fight over this; it also doesn't help that that Azerbaijan is primarily Moslem and Armenia is primarily Christian. But there's always an ironic lining to every squabble, right? The irony here is that Azeri music has a lot in common with Armenian music. They, too, make the duduk a central feature in musical works; other instruments, like the dhol, the shvi, the tar, and the zurna, are common in both musical cultures (though the Azeri national instrument is a type of bagpipe called a balaban—see below).

However, there are also a lot of differences between Armenian and Azeri music—and between Azeri and other Central Asian musics. Lonely Planet's online guide to Azerbaijan includes some information about Azeri music that I thought was a bit odd. Here it is: "The country's musical traditions are preserved by ashugs, or poet-singers, who often strum the kobuz (a stringed instrument) while singing of the deeds of ancient heroes. Another popular form of music in Azerbaijan is mugam, which is improvised by voice and wind and stringed instruments and is often compared to jazz." What is odd about this? The jazz reference. From what I've read, mugam is a very rigid, organized, and in no way improvised form of music.

At least, that's what the mugam is in Uzbekistan and other areas of Central Asia. To me, this suggests that Azeri music is very different from the musics of other Central Asian nations, and that it takes its cues from Iran (which is located right to the south and which possesses a rich and very popular classical tradition). Lonely Planet's take on Azeri mugam music is, apparently, right on the mark, however. Susan Cornnell's article, "Baku Diary: The Music Scene,” notes, "I've seen many Azerbaijanis listen to a tune only once and then be able to play it back, improvising and improving upon it. We, westerners, are so accustomed to having a written copy of everything from recipes to phone numbers and musical scores. These folks don't always have access to such and, therefore, seem to be particularly adept at improvising. That's true even when their instruments break." Sadly, she also mentions that traditional music in Azerbaijan is not as relevant or as popular as it once was. However, her article was written in 1995, smack in the middle of the Azeri-Armenian war. In a later article, she notes that things have gotten better. I hope so. I've only heard a smattering of music from this country; I'm eager to hear more.

Here's a picture of an Azeri trio in action. The guitar-like instrument is called a tar; it is common in Armenia and throughout Central Asia. The bowed instrument is called a "spiked fiddle." Armenians call it a Kemenche; I'm not sure if Azeris have a different name for it. Finally, as I said before, the drum is called a dhol.

The instrument on the left is the national instrument, called a balaban; it looks and sounds much like the bagpipe. This photo is courtesy of Azerbaijan International.


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

I'm afraid I don't know much about the Republic of Georgia, save from what I've learned in the news over the past year (the "revolution" that led to the former president's resignation). I do know that Stalin was from Georgia, as was the wonderful filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. Also, I remember some breakfast cereal commercials from the 70s that claimed life expectancy in certain areas of Georgia was the highest in the world (all due to Corn Flakes, no doubt). Oh, I also know that this is a predominantly Christian country that is, like Armenia, surrounded by Moslem countries (though its direct border with Russia means that the country is a little harder to attack than Armenia is). As for Georgian music, I'm afraid I know very little. Lonely Planet's cultural overview of Georgia doesn't mention music at all; it's all about food and drink. So, if Georgians like to party, then I'm guessing they also like to sing. Unfortunately, I've heard very little of Georgia's music.

What little information I could find on the web about Georgian music came from the most unlikely of sources, the Georgian Parliament's web page, which provides the following information about Georgian music: "Georgian folk music, featuring complex, three-part, polyphonic harmonies, has long been a subject of special interest among musicologists. Most Georgian folk songs are peculiar to individual regions of Georgia. The inspiration is most often the church, work in the fields, or special occasions. The Rustavi Choir, formed in 1968, is the best known Georgian group performing a traditional repertoire."

In other words, Georgian music seems predominantly vocal. Deep Down Productions has released a number of Georgian CDs, including one of Medieval choral music, one of modern choral music, and one of traditional Georgian folk music (performed by a group of Georgian-Canadians). Interestingly enough, only the CD by the Canadian group features instrumentation, and even these instruments are downplayed in the description of the album in favor of a detailed analysis of Georgian polyphonic vocal techniques.

Now, I've heard Armenian polyphonic vocal music, and it is absolutely mesmerizing. It's similar to a lot of Gregorian chants, except that, as the word "polyphony" suggests, there is more than one melodic line going at any given time. It's eerie, mesmerizing music—at least, the Armenian version I've heard. No doubt, the Georgian version is equally mesmerizing; I look forward to hearing it soon.

This is from the same Georgian Parliament site mentioned above. It's described only as "The Temple of Folk Music." I'm afraid I don't know what that means, but it certainly is beautiful. Notice the icons in the background; I'm guessing Georgian Orthodox culture is closer to Russian Orthodox than Armenian Orthodox is (and if none of this makes sense to you, don't worry; it doesn't make much sense to me, either).


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

The largest of all the Central Asian republics (and the ninth largest country in the world), Kazakhstan is a land of rich, beautiful mountains, flowing rivers, deep lakes, arid deserts, and a grassland area known as the steppe. It's the least densely populated country in Central Asia, and it also has the potential to be the richest, thanks to huge (and largely untapped) mineral, natural gas, and oil reserves. And, as an added bonus for westerners hoping to visit Central Asia, Kazakhstan is probably the least Islamic of the region's countries. [By the way, these facts all suggest that Kazakhstan is the most inviting tourist destination for westerners; if you're interested in heading to Central Asia, you'd probably be wise to start your journey in Almaty.] The nomadic tendencies of its inhabitants (the country's citizens were largely nomadic until well into the 20th century) meant that Islam, while still practiced, was never as fully embraced as it is in other, more urban countries like Uzbekistan.

The music of Kazakhstan, like the country's inhabitants, is less urbane and classical than the music of other Central Asian countries. Most of the traditional music consists of folk tunes (the mugam never really made it here). Because of the nomadic history, Kazakhstan's folk music and its literature are largely intertwined. As Lonely Planet notes, "Before the 19th century, Kazak literature consisted chiefly of long oral poems, a reflection of the race's nomadic life. Recitals by bards (akyns), and contests between them known as aitys, are still important and popular."

The Kazak President's web site sheds more light on these aitys: "Aitys is rooted deep in ancient times, [sic] it stems from in ritual and every-day songs, in chorus-like songs-dialogues exchanged by young boys and girls which—later on—transformed themselves into aityses of akyns (Akyn is a poet-improvisator and a singer with Kazakhs and some other ethnoses [sic] of Central Asia). Not infrequently they raised quite topical issues of social life when staging aityses. An aitys is full of dynamics, it requires particular quickness and brightness, an uncommonly fine wit and improvisation skills." I haven't heard a great deal of Kazak music, but what I have heard I've enjoyed. Kazaks use many of the same kinds of instruments as other Central Asian peoples (horse-head fiddle, dombra or dutar, drums, cymbals, and so on), so Kazak music sounds like a lot of other musics of the region. However, because of the nature of the "aitys," the music is rooted in improvisation. It's fun, fast, highly melodic, and always entertaining.

The music of Kazakhstan shares a lot in common with its Central Asian neighbors. That includes instruments, like zhetigen, pictured here in the center, and what I think is a dombra, on the left.

The Kazaks were largely a nomadic people—at least, until the Russians arrived. But there's still a bit of nomad in the modern Kazak. Check out the traditional nomadic domicile, which some in Central Asia call a yurt, but which the Kazaks call a kiizuy. These are round, portable houses made of felt and wood frames. Also notice the dombras that these musicians are preparing to play.


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Kyrgyzstan is the smallest, most remote, and (arguably) the most beautiful of the Central Asian republics. The Pamir Alay and Tian Shan mountain ranges dominate the country and actually separate the northern part of the country from the southern part. The people of the north are closely connected to the Kazaks; their languages and customs (nomadic herding, a limited belief in Islam) are very similar to one another, to the point that some believe they are variants of the same group, with the only difference being that the Kazaks live in the steppe and the Kyrgyz live in the mountains. The southern people, especially those in the dangerous Fergana valley, have more in common with their neighbors in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (about 13% of the population is Uzbek, in fact) than with Kyrgyz in the north.

You might ask yourself, why would two diverse groups of people choose to form a country together? The answer is...they didn't. The Soviets created Kyrgyzstan as a way to "divide and conquer." They wanted to divide the Kazaks and the Uzbeks—the two major Central Asian groups—so that they could more easily control both groups. So the Soviets created Kyrgyzstan as a way to separate large groups of Uzbeks and Kazaks from one another by lumping some of each in with the Kyrgyzs.

Now that there is no Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to find its identity. However, there is one thing that unites all Kyrgyz: music and literature, especially as they are combined in the form of the Manas, the Kyrgyz national epic, which tells of the formation of the Kyrgyz people and which is recited by a special type of akyn, called the manaschi. This epic tradition is probably not exclusively the province of the Kyrgyz; no doubt, Kazaks and other peoples of Central Asia (some that don't exist any more, others that exist in parts of Siberia) all shared in the formation of these epic tales. However, because Kyrgyzstan is the invention of Soviet officials, Soviet historians decided to "give" the Manas to the Kyrgyz, in an effort to foster a stronger sense of national unity (this for a people who never needed a "nation" until it was forced upon them). I recently saw a film called The Stars Caravan, which is about a Kyrgyz film projectionist who travels to remote regions to show films to nomadic herders. Throughout the film, the Manas is featured, discussed, and celebrated by every single Kyrgyz. So, apparently, this Soviet plan has worked; it's a force that has united Kyrgyzstan, even if nothing else does

. In a nutshell, Kyrgyz music is very much like Kazak music, in the sense that it is largely a folk music utilizing stringed and wind instruments. Not much Kyrgyz music is available in the west, but Mark A. Humphrey of Frequency Glide Enterprises in California is trying to change that. He's released two CDs of Kyrgyz music, including one by the incomparable Salamat Sadikova, with a promise of more to come. Judging by the high quality of these works, I can't wait to hear more from this interesting part of the world.

This is a group of Kyrgyz performers holding a three-stringed fretless instrument known as a komuz; this is the instrument that is most widely associated with the Kyrgyz people; you can hear this instrument on Sadikova's wonderful album, The Voice of Kyrgyzstan.

Another picture of the komuz.

On the left, you'll see an instrument called a kyl kiak; it's a two stringed bowed instrument. On the right, you'll see (barely) a timur komuz, or what many westerners call a jaw or jew's harp. If you've always wanted to play an instrument but have never had the courage, pick up one of these; anyone can play them, and they're great fun. All of these pictures, by the way, are taken from Mark A. Humphrey's excellent site.


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Growing up, looking at maps of Mongolia, sandwiched as it was between the USSR and China, I always wondered exactly how this sparsely populated, nomadic country ever managed to remain independent. Only recently did I learn that Mongolia was, for all intents and purposes, a part of USSR; its "official" independence was a move by Moscow to appease relations with China. Of course, today Mongolia IS completely independent, and that's caused a number of problems within the country, thanks to a lack of infrastructure. The ties between the present and the past are more evident in this country than in any other in Central Asia, as the country's population is still largely composed of nomadic herders.

As a result, traditional culture in Mongolia is very much alive today. The fascinating web site, Mongol Art, offers a very vivid description of Mongolia's musical culture:
Mongolian music is a reaction to our surroundings and life. Caring for a baby provokes melody. Seeing a calf being rejected, its mother is convinced to return by singing. Seeing white gers spread across the green pasture inspires a proud melody. Traveling a long way on horseback, riding sets a pace, the pace delivers rhyme, and here again the song is involuntary. Hurrying to one's beloved, the heartbeat composes another melody. The sources of song are endless. Birthdays, weddings, national holidays, winning a horse race or wrestling competition, celebration of the elderly, mare's milk brewing, wool cutting, cashmere combing, and harvest comprise an endless chain of reasons for singing and dancing.

Through the ages, music has spread around Mongolia through home teaching and festivals. Any family or clan event was a good chance for musicians and singers to gather together. Coming from different areas, most often representing different tribes, people had the opportunity to perform, to learn from others and to take home a new melody or song. In this way, the ancient patterns of various corners of Mongolia have been preserved by local masters for the whole nation.
Mongol Art goes on to note the variety of traditional songs common in Mongolia, including labor songs, lullabys, "Uukhay" or call and response songs, epic and long songs (similar to those heard among Kazak and Kyrgyz nomadic herders) and "Mongol Hoomii," or throat singing (see the Tuva section of this guide for more information on that). Among the many instruments used in Mongol music, the one that stands out is the horse-head fiddle, which the Mongols call the morin khuur (see below). If you're interested in hearing some Mongol music, I'd heartily recommend picking up a copy of Egschiglen's Sounds of Mongolia. It's filled with exuberant, joyous music, including a lot of morin khurr and mongol hoomii. It's a true delight!

THIS is Mongolia! Wide open spaces, isolation, and peace: what more could you want? Well, perhaps a horse and some music...

...and here's a little of both. This is a picture of a morin khuur, or horse-head fiddle.

As this picture demonstrates, the morin khuur is played in an upright position, using a bow (like a cello). This picture is courtesy of Ride4Kids.com.


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Tajikistan, as the Lonely Planet guide notes, is "a curiously incomplete country." This is, in part, because traditionally Tajik areas like Samarkand and Bukhara are now in Uzbekistan, thanks to Soviet balkanization. In fact, Tajikistan was originally part of Turkmenistan, then Uzbekistan, before the Soviets made it an autonomous republic in 1929. Tajikistan spent much of the post-independence 1990s in chaos, as a civil war raged over various factions vying for power. The civil war waged on and off through most of the decade; even today there are parts of the country that are still out of control (especially the area that borders Afghanistan), and the land is seen as a fertile breeding-ground for terrorist cells.

Most Central Asian languages are Turkic; however, Tajik's language is Persian, making the group closer historically to Iranians than to other Central Asians. Since Tajiks were separated from Iran for decades under Soviet domination, these Persian ties are only now being renewed. Hence, where there is a desire to move Tajik culture closer to their Persian brethren, Tajik music today is still closely aligned with Uzbek music. This is especially true because Samarkand and Bukhara, two Uzbek cities that were once largely Tajik, were for centuries the two main centers of classical and folk music in Central Asia. In short, Tajik and Uzbek musical cultures today are closely aligned.

There are specific, geographical reasons for this close association between Tajiks and Uzbeks. The two countries as they now exist actually inhabit an area known as Transoxiana, or the land "beyond the Oxus," which is the area between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers. As Theodore Levin notes in his book, The Hundred Thousand Fools of God, the area now comprising Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has a long, rich musical history, one that closely links Uzbeks and Tajiks and other ethnic groups. This blurring of boundaries is still evident today. Sadly, because of the problems in Tajikistan, little information about the musical culture within the country is available, and what is out there is usually tied in with Uzbekistan.

This is Tajikistan: gigantic mountains and sweltering deserts, with a few fertile areas (near the rivers) in between. Of course, the people live in the fertile regions.

There are few pictures on the Internet of Tajik music or musicians; here's one of the few I could find. Yes, it's a stamp, but those are traditional musical instruments there. Guess which one is which!


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Turkmenistan is bordered on the left by the Caspian Sea, on the south by Afghanistan and Iran, and on the north and west by Uzbekistan. But inside, it's mostly desert. Its people are only a generation removed from nomadic herding, yet, because the country sits atop one of the largest, untapped natural gas reserves in the world and because it serves as a maritime connection between Central Asia's immense oil reserves and Azerbaijan's oil refineries and pipelines, it has a potentially rich future before it.

However, there's one problem: the country is ruled by a loon. How else can you explain the fact that President Saparmurat Niyazov officially renamed the month of January after himself, the month of April after his mother, and Tuesday as "Youth Day." Oh, and he also named several cities, schools, airports, and even a meteor after himself. He's been elected President for Life, so he might be around for a while, stirring up his own ego. How did he get away with all this? Well, perhaps the better answer is, why haven't more Central Asian dictators followed suit? Niyazov, like the other leaders of former Soviet republics, was a former Communist Party crony who was in the right place at the right time when the Soviet Union collapsed. Really, Turkmenistan and the other countries (especially Uzbekistan) are still dictatorships; the only difference is that now the dictators are locals, not Russians.

But Turkmenistan itself is more than just its nutty leader. It's also the most homogenous country in Central Asia. As the name suggests, Turkmens are of Turic origin, so there's a close connection between Turkmenistan and Turkey; in fact, Niyazov is actively courting Turkey and actively ignoring Russia (much to Putin's annoyance). The Turkey connection is extremely popular in Central Asia, for many Turkic people see Turkey as a potential world power, who should sweep through the Muslim world and create an empire that would rival America. My question is: have any of these people ever heard of World War I? If not, then they should ask the Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, and Armenians about the benefits of a Turkish empire.

But what of the music? Well, actually Turkmenistan has a first-rate musical culture, and traditional musical (Islamic) forms are gaining popularity. Lonely Planet notes that Turkmenistan's national poet, Magtumguly Feraghy (1733-1800), wrote "qoshunk lyrics, four-line poems with a distinctive rhyming scheme, [which] are revered classics in Turkmen folk music, and a favorite of baghsys folk singers, accompanying themselves on the two-stringed dutar." The dutar plays an enormous role in Turkmen music, which is probably why there's a web site devoted to Turkmen music called Dutar.com. There are many parallels between Turkmen music and Uzbek and Tajik musics: the dutar, the "toy" (or celebration, which always features music), and the mugam.

This is a Turkman musician playing a dutar. Note the headgear: it's traditional for all Turkmen.

Here's a group of Turkmen musicians. If the President's mother can have a month named after her, then why can't a woman play Turkmen music?

The Cult of Personality himself: one crazy motherfucker.


Tuva is the only region in my Central Asian guide that is still part of Russia. As the map above notes, Tuva is situated on the Mongolian border, within shouting distance of Kazakhstan and China. As you might expect, Tuvan culture is remarkably similar to Mongolian and Kazak, with a large percentage of the population devoted to nomadic herding.

Of course, there are some differences, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan's post-independence history has been relatively successful; it has welcomed (to some extent) western investment and influence, and the country's future looks bright. Mongolia's recent history, on the other hand, has been a struggle: to build an infrastructure, to feed its people, and to reassert its own identity after years of de-facto Soviet control. Tuva's post-Soviet life falls somewhere between these two extremes. Tuva is, after all, still part of Russia, so when there are problems in Moscow (economic, military, etc), those problems also effect Tuva. However, Tuvans have benefited from the fall of the USSR in one significant way: they are now free to communicate with (and travel to) the west.

During Soviet times, Tuva was isolated from most of the rest of the world. The famous physicist and Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, spent years trying (and failing) to gain permission to visit Tuva. However, his friend, Ralph Leighton, did manage to obtain permission to travel shortly after Feynman's death. He wrote the book, Tuva or Bust!, about the pair's obsession with this magical place. That was back in the 1970s and 1980s, during the cold war. Today, adventurers, following in Feynman and Leighton's wake, are beginning to discover this distant, mysterious land.

It's ironic, then, that this tiny sliver of Central Asia would be so much better known in the west than other, larger areas. One reason is, clearly, Feynman's obsession and Leighton's book, which (to some extent) inspired the formation of a Friends of Tuva society, dedicated to spreading the word about this wonderful, beautiful, and peaceful corner of the world. Another, possibly bigger, reason for all this attention is the region's music. Whereas most Central Asian musicians are virtually unknown in the west, Tuvan music has actually made some inroads in popular culture in the United States and Europe, to the point that Tuvan groups like Huun-Huur-Tu regularly perform here, and a documentary was made about the American blues musician Paul Pena learning Tuvan throat singing and then traveling to Tuva to compete in a throat-singing competition. The movie, Genghis Blues, is a wonderful introduction to Central Asian music; I highly recommend it.

Oddly, Tuvan music isn't really that different from the music of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, or even the Xinjiang province of northwestern China (also known as Chinese Turkestan): nomadic folk tunes, horsehead fiddles, throat singing, and so on. But somehow, for whatever reason, Tuvan music is singled out as exemplary. This is, in part, because of throat or overtone singing, a technique whereby a singer simultaneously emits two or even three notes: one low-pitched, one high-pitched, and occasionally another one in between the two. It's an incredibly difficult technique to master, which makes it an ideal distraction from the solitary, isolated life of a nomadic herder. It's also undeniably beautiful, a cross between the sounds of a strong breeze and a whistle.

Another reason that I think Tuvan music has caught on (to some extent) in the west is the simple fact that Tuva is still part of a European country, Russia. True, Tuva is all Asian, but being part of Russia means Tuvans have greater access to news and information about the west and about popular cultures in other parts of the world. Add to this the fact that most Tuvans are not Moslem but Buddhist, a religion that is undeniably more tolerated and appreciated in Europe and America than Islam, and you have the recipe for a musical culture that has no problems selling its brand of art to the world at large.

Yes, there are women in Central Asia. Some of them even play and sing music (though few women go in for throat singing). This is courtesy of Sami Jansson's web site.

Here they are, Huun-Huur Tu, ready to throat sing their way into your heart.


Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Of all the countries of Central Asia, Uzbekistan stands out. It is the most historically rich country, as it houses the ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. It is the most populous country. It houses the largest agricultural area in the region (though, thanks to stupid Soviet planners, a lot of this has disappeared over the years). And, in the last few years, it has played a pivotal role in the U.S. war on terror, serving as a base for American military intervention into Afghanistan and gaining international financial and military backing against the terrorist organizations within its borders.

But despite all these positives, travelers to Uzbekistan will find a country that is barely removed from the repressive policies of Soviet times. Its leader, Islam Karimov, was a Soviet puppet before his country's independence and has sought to not only dominate his own country (often in repressive, violent ways) but has plans to dominate all the other Central Asian republics as well. More significantly (at least, as far as his people are concerned), he has taken every step he can to curb the rise of Islam in this very religious country, going as far as to shut down all but official mosques. It's no wonder, then, that he's fostered a sense of disillusionment in his people, a disillusionment that has seeped into the musical culture that is significantly intertwined with Islam's (and Central Asia's) history.

Read Theodore Levin's book, The Hundred Thousand Fools of God, and you'll understand that Uzbekistan is home to the finest traditional musicians in Central Asia—people like Turgun Alimatov (above), Munajat Yulchieva, and many others. These artists practice a very ancient art form known as the shash mugam, or classical Islamic court music from the glory days of Samarkand and Bukhara. As Nationmaster.com notes, "The name, which translates as six maqams refers to the structure of the music, which contains six sections in different musical modes, similar to classical Persian music. Interludes of spoken Sufi poetry interrupt the music, typically beginning at a low register and gradually ascending to a climax before calming back down to the beginning tone."

The music was created by court musicians for the edification of the various emirs and other rulers of Bukhara and Samarkand, rulers who might have been brutal monsters but could appreciate a good tune when they heard it. When the Russians (later Soviets) took over control of this region, they held onto the mugam as a way to foster national pride. However, as Levin notes, all they really ended up doing was turning this Islamic music into a boring copy of Russian classical music, complete with European harmonics. [There's a brutally boring version of the harmonic mugam on the accompanying CD in Levin's book if you're interested in hearing this; the CD also includes many different versions of more traditional mugam pieces to demonstrate how wonderful the music can be when performed correctly.]

In the post-Soviet era, even the fake mugam is disappearing (thanks to a lack of funding for the classical arts); it's being supplanted by pop and rock music in the eyes and ears of the younger Uzbeks. While there's nothing inherently bad about rock music gaining wider access in a formerly Soviet part of the world, it is sad to see a culture's traditions slowly die out at a time when the people of Uzbekistan are yearning to carve out a new identity for themselves. This is especially sad because the music that Uzbeks have to offer is so rich and so beautiful. Half of the Central Asian music I own comes from Uzbekistan, and I own only a sliver of what is out there.

Perhaps the solution is to find Uzbek artists who understand the country's rich heritage but can also interpret this heritage in new ways, blending the best of the past with the best of the present. One such artist is Sevara Nazarkhan (above), whose Real World release, Yol Bolsin, combines Peter Gabriel-esque pop with traditional Uzbek instrumentation (
check my review here). Nazarkhan also released an album of more traditional music, Gozal Dema. Both are well worth checking out.


Chinese culture is, obviously, vastly different from the many cultures that make up Central Asia. Rene Grousset's book The Empire of the Steppes notes that the history of Asia was shaped by the struggles between the "barbarian" nomads of the Asian Steppe (much of Central Asia) and the "civilized" people of China, India, and Persia (Iran). If this is the case, then the Xinjiang province of China (also called Chinese Turkestan) is today a meeting point for these former enemies. Xinjiang is a rather formidable place, housing the second lowest inland point on Earth (-391m at the bottom of the Turpan Depression) and the second highest mountain (K2). Not surprisingly, the bulk of the province is made up of desert (three different ones: Taklimakan, Gurbantunggut, and Gumtay) and mountain ranges (again, three: Tianshan, Allay, and Karakorum).

More than half of the people of Xinjiang are of Turic origin, and the vast majority of these are the Uygur people. As with the Tibetans to the south, the Uygurs are heavily controlled and monitored by the Chinese government, in order to prevent any independence movements from sprouting up. However, Chinese colonization has done little to suppress Uygur music. And, as you might expect, Uygur music shares a great deal in common with the other musical cultures of Central Asia. For example, check out this interesting paragraph from a web site called Uygurworld's:
Nowadays, certain parts of Twelve Uighur Muqams, a unique creation of musical folklore, are widely popular. Folk songs and muqams are performed to the accompaniment of folk instruments, which the Uygurs have in a great number. Some of them are: a dutar is a string instrument with an oval barrel and a long neck, which has from 8 to 15 movable frets; a tambir is a stringed musical instrument played by plucking, a sitar is a lute with 3 metal strings; a stringed instrument with 9 strings; a 3-stringed and a 5-stringed ravap; 48-stringed dulcimer; a qalun—an instrument with 18 pairs of strings; a gidjak with 4 to 10 strings. Among percussion instruments there are: a dap or shaldap—a tambourine; a big drum—dumbak; a small drum—nagra; a kettke-drum—tevilvaz and brazen cymbals. Wind instrument include a nyay—a reed flute; a surnyay—a pear-tree clarinet; a carnay—a long instrument made of a brazen pipe.
In other words, Uygur music features not only the same musical styles that are found in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (folk songs and the mugam), but it also features just about all of the same instruments (like the dutar, tambur, nay, and dap). Although I've heard only a little Uygur music, I can attest to the fact that it does, indeed, sound like other Central Asian musics. However, there is a slight Chinese feel to this music (its use of long, squeaky bowed string and the occasional high-pitched flute notes that are so prevalent in Chinese music). This use of Chinese musical markers is understandable, considering that Xinjiang is part of China. I think this Chinese element actually makes this culture's art more interesting, as it is a musical representation of the country's proximity between two vast cultures. I'm eager to hear and learn more of this part of the world.

Here's a Uygur musician performing on a dutar in a Xinjiang music shop. Check out how big that dutar is!

Here you go: the musical instruments of Central Asia. To the right, you can also see a master craftsman creating an instrument. These photos are from Uygurmusic's.

Central Asian Book & CD Suggestions

Essential Central Asian CDs

Turgun Alimatov, Ouzbekistan
I spent about two years trying to find a copy of this disk. I finally found it at Stern's Music in London—about 5,500 miles from my home in California. But the search was worth it. Alimatov is an incomparable artist who has managed to transform the shash mugam into his own personal art form.

Ashkhabad, City of Love
This is a Real World collection of quasi pop songs created by a very distinguished group of Turkmen artists. If you're not too sure whether you'd like Central Asian music, then this might be a good place to start, as it expertly marries Turkmen music with western pop.

Bolot & Nohon, Üch Sümer
Here's some folk music from the Altai region of Siberia, a region I haven't even mentioned! Altai borders Mongolia, the Xinjiang province of China, and Kazakhstan; not surprisingly, the music on this disk sounds a lot like the musics of Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Kazakhstan (not to mention Tuva): throat singing, plucked strings, jaw harps, and a lot of wonderful melodies.

Ensemble Bürler, Traditional Songs of the Kazakhs, Vol. 1
The artists on this work also come from the Altai mountains, only on the Kazakh side. Along with the wonderful melodies and beautiful (even stirring) ballads found both here and on the Bolot & Nohon album, this work also features examples of Kazakh improvisations called (do you remember?) aitys.

Gevorg Dabaghyan, Miniatures: Masterworks for Armenian Duduk
Dabaghyan is a master of the duduk, Armenia's national instrument. His playing here is incomparable; it's the disk I share with friends when I want to introduce them to Armenian music. See my review of this disk

Egschiglen, Sounds of Mongolia
This group has been performing traditional Mongolian music for years, and they've released a number of CDs, all excellent. For whatever reason, this one is my favorite. It's just about the happiest album I've ever heard, and it's filled with songs that I find myself singing on all occasions (even though I know absolutely no Mongolian).

Sevara Nazarkhan, Yol Bolsin and Gozal Dema
Nazarkhan is an excellent artist who has taken the musical heritage of her native Uzbekistan and transformed it into a modern context. Yol Bolsin is a Real World disk, like City of Love above. It's great for those who don't know much about Central Asia. But I really prefer the more traditional Gozal Dema. Either way, you can't go wrong with Nazarkhan. See my review of Yol Bolsin here.

Salamat Sadikova, The Voice of Kyrgyzstan
Sadikova has one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard. See my review of this wonderful disk here.

Shoghaken Ensemble, Traditional Dances of Armenia
See my review of this disk here.

The Uyghur Musicians from Xinjiang, Music from the Oasis Towns of Central Asia
Here's some wonderful music from Xinjiang. It is reminiscent of Kazakh and Mongolian music, but there's also a very strong Chinese influence felt, as well. It's an interesting work.

Various Artists, Asie Centrale: Traditions Classiques
This is a collection of shash mugam pieces. Most of the artists here (Turgun Alimatov and Monajat Yultchieva, for example) are discussed in great detail in Theodore Levin's book (see below). If you want traditional Central Asian music, then this is probably the one essential disk.

Various Artists, Afghanistan Untouched
See my review of this indispensable disk here.

Various Artists, The Hundred Thousand Fools of God
This is the accompanying disk that comes with Theodore Levin's book of the same name (see below). It a great companion for Levin's work, but it's also a great disk in its own right, with some utterly amazing performances that span the gamut of musical styles in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Various Artists, The Music of Armenia
This is a six-CD collection (each disk is sold individually) that demonstrates, once and for all, why Armenia's musical heritage is as strong and as rich as any in the world. Included in the collection are disks focusing on sacred choral music, medieval music (my personal favorite), music for the duduk (performed by Gevorg Dabaghyan, no less), music for the zither, folk music (performed, in part, by the Shoghaken Ensemble), and a collection of songs from the disputed Nagorno/Karabakh region.

Various Artists, The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan
If you want to get one CD of Central Asian music, then get this one. This contains music from every corner of the old Silk Road regions, from Armenia to Japan. Featured here are some of the very best artists Central Asia has to offer, including Turgun Alimatov, Jurabek Nablev, and a host of other people that Theodore Levin (the album's curator) and about 50 other people know and love. Be one of those 50. See my review of this disk here.

Various Artists, The Secret Museum of Mankind: Central Asia
This is a collection of recordings made in the 1920s in Central Asia. It's an important historical document, but it's also a great collection of first rate (though scratchy) songs. Various Artists, Tuva: Among the Spirits: Sound, Music, and Nature in Sakha and Tuva: This is one of my all time favorite albums. It's possibly the best collection of field recordings ever made. See my review here.

Various Artists, Tuva: Voices from the Center of Asia
One thing that people say about Among the Spirits is that there is very little throat singing. Well, if you want throat singing, then get Voices. Not only is it loaded with throat singing, but the liner notes also give you a detailed explanation of how throat singing is performed, how it is learned, and what role it plays in Tuvan culture.

Essential Books on Central Asia
Theodore Levin, The Hundred Thousand Fools of God
This is the only book ever written on Central Asian music that isn't an ethnomusicology dissertation. Luckily, it's a really good book, offering an astute analysis of traditional music in Transoxiana: its history, its role in contemporary life, and the struggles that performers have in maintaining these traditions in the face of an increasingly westernized culture. But there's more to this book than just these things. It's also a great travel guide, offering a glimpse of life in Central Asia both during Soviet times and in the post Soviet era. For another, it's a very personal journey for the author, who has spend much of his live immersed in Central Asian culture.

Lonely Planet's Guide to Central Asia
Lonely Planet puts out travel guides on every part of the world (even Antarctica). Their Central Asia book has just been updated for 2004, and it's an invaluable resource even if you don't plan to ever travel to the region. It features a very long and very detailed history of the region, a careful analysis of the many people and cultures, a whole host of amazing photographs, and a lot of fun facts and other curious details. It's a great read, and it's one of the few up to date resources you're likely to find on the region.

There are a number of travel books (as opposed to guides) written on Central Asia. I can't go into the details about all of them, but here's a brief rundown of three. The first and (probably) best is The Road to Oxiana by the Brit Robert Byron, published in 1937. It's one of the best travel books ever written, really; it reads like a Dos Passos novel.

In the 1980s, another Brit, Geoffrey Moorhouse, came to Central Asia at the request of the Glastnost Soviets and wrote a rather depressing book about the region called On the Other Side; it's interesting as an historical document, but Moorhouse is such a pompous asshole that it's hard to really take his criticisms seriously.

Yet another Brit, Colin Thurbon, wrote an even more depressing book in the 1990s about post-Soviet Central Asia, The Lost Heart of Asia; in it, he details the poverty and depression and corruption that set into the region after the Russians left. It's a very good book, but, as I said, it's a sad one; luckily, Thurbon is a sensitive and eloquent writer, so this work is easier to stomach than Moorhouse's.

Chingiz Aitmatov, The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years
This is the only novel by a Central Asian I've ever read (and one of the few that has ever been translated into English). It's a weird combination of Soviet realism, science fiction, history, and anthropology. Set in Kazakhstan, it tells the story of a group of people living in the middle of the Steppe, near the Soviet space launching area, who must take a journey to bury their leader near the Aral Sea. It's a sad story, but it provides a glimpse into Kazakh life and Soviet culture that is nearly impossible to acquire from a history or travel book.

If you want to learn the history of Central Asia, then there are two books worth checking out. First, there's Rene Grousset's The Empire of the Steppes. This gigantic book examines Central Asian culture (and, indeed, all Eurasian culture) as a struggle between the nomadic warriors of the steppe and the pastoral people of more fertile lands. It's an amazing book. Another amazing book is Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game, a book that traces the 19th century struggle between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia.

Finally, I have to mention Philip Marsden's The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians. It tells the author's story of his travels throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the Caucaus region and his discovery of Armenian culture in each place he visits. It is a wonderful book that I recommend to any student of mine who asks me for advice on furthering his or her education.

By: Michael Heumann
Published on: 2004-08-16
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