Popular Music in Uzbekistan: Overview of the Background

Issue #3-4 • 1630

An insight into contemporary musical culture of Uzbekistan is impossible without looking at the diversity of its popular styles. Genres and forms such as pop song, disco, show and entertainment programmes, music performed during festivities, and video soundtrack not only are central for concert performances, but have also penetrated the domain of traditional music – folk sayil – festivities and even nuptial bazm. Given rapid development of these forms, they are understudied; there has been no research into the history and theory of mass culture music of Uzbekistan. Moreover, press and specialized publications often feature negative criticism expressed by experts (art historians) of this domain of contemporary musical culture. Specifically, there are views that most specimens of music of the young people (such as rap and hip-hop, which have recently developed in Uzbekistan) and pop songs are inadequate art-wise and more often than not are mere imitation of Western pop music.

Just like other complex issues related to the matter of preserving and developing spiritual values, the current status and development trends of the national pop music require that the history of evolution of this forms in local culture be studied. This article is the result of the author’s academic research in this area.

Popular Music in Uzbekistan: Overview of the Background

The origins of mass musical culture, in particular the art of popular entertainment, are usually associated by scholars with the performance of strolling musicians and actors of Antiquity and Middle Ages: French jugglers, German Spielmann, English minstrels, Russian skomorokh, and Central Asian kyzykchi-maskharaboz. Note, however, that these traditional performances in which a song and instrumental tune played a significant role, differ, to a certain extent, from pop music forms that evolved much later, namely during New Age, driven by cultural changes brought about by bourgeois revolutions. These are the English Music Hall, French cafe chantant and variety-show; in Russia it was Gypsy romance, in America a minstrel show, review and jazz, which first appeared in major cities (capitals, ports or trade/administrative centres), and more specifically, in city restaurants, public houses or other entertainment centres (London taverns, Moscow inns, New Orleans saloons, Paris cafes) and subsequently moved to open stages of city parks, concert halls and theatres.

Popular Music in Uzbekistan: Overview of the Background

To bring clarity into the matter it should be noted that there is a fundamental difference between early forms of popular entertainment and the forms of festive artistic culture which appear outwardly similar to the former. As one may know, festivity art forms, having appeared during early stages of human civilization development, occupied a special place in history throughout the entire history of humankind. Reflecting major moral principles and ideological foundations of each historical period, they always stand as events of religious or national significance; whereas the art of popular entertainment emerges during periods of radical changes in public consciousness, specifically, on the basis of mass spread of secular worldview. During that period serious transformations occur among the population of major urban centres. On the one hand, the class of bourgeois, the new proprietors holding political and economic power is being formed; on the other, there emerges the class of industrial workers (mostly broken peasants). Having rejected classical art forms (which developed among aristocracy) and at the same time alienated from traditional folk culture, these classes stimulate the development of new forms of art culture. One of the characteristic features of the latter is the aesthetic criterion of its ability to entertain, unsophisticated content and simplicity of form.

Similar processes could also be observed in some cities of Turkistan during the last quarter of the 19th century. Once made part of the Russian Empire, Tashkent, Samarqand, and cities in Fergana Valley start seeing serious changes. Russian military fortresses and new industrial enterprises are being built, ethnic and social composition of the population is changing, and new quarters (The New City) appear where Russian government officials, traders, merchants, entrepreneurs, craftsmen, workers and intellectuals reside. At the same time the activity of local entrepreneurs and traders is intensified, especially with the completion of Central Asian (1899) and Orenburg-Tashkent (1906) railways. The development of new industries, and markets filled with cheap imported manufactured goods caused a decline of local cottage industry and the transformation of some craftsmen into factory workers. In that same time, centuries old and established social and class system is being gradually destroyed, some elements of democracy appear, such as periodical press, and the art is seeing the evolvement of new secular European-type forms (theatre, cinema, variety).

During that time in Tashkent, Fergana (then the name of the city was Skobelev), Andijan, Namangan, Samarqand and other cities new public centres appear; specifically, new music centres. Let us take a look at some evidence from that period. Quotations below are taken from the records of conversations and interviews with folk musicians taken by the staff of the Research Institute of Art History in 1930-1960 and kept in the Institute’s manuscript fund.

Popular Music in Uzbekistan: Overview of the Background

“From the age of eleven Abdusoat Vakhobov, hearing Nabi-samovarchi play, began to play dutar… Nabi-samovarchi, when performing his professional functions (of a tea-maker), had an opportunity to listen to many singers and musicians playing musical instruments who worked in his tea-house. …Abdusoat joined one of the groups of musicians. They responded to numerous requests to play music in the old Tashkent, their main “stage” being a tea-house. That tea-house was located in Kunchilik makhalla (neighbourhood) in Beshyogoch district”.

Surnaychi (surnay player) Akhmajon Umurzakov, the Honoured Artist of Uzbekistan says: “My teacher worked in the company of court musicians. After the conquest and the collapse of Kokand Khanate (1876) the company broke apart, but with the construction of the railway (1896) it got together again. For a fee the company would perform at weddings and gatherings of well-to-do people, and during the month of Ramadan it played during bozori shabi (evening walks during the month of fasting). Our tea-house was situated near the railway station on a busy street, and the company earned great popularity in the city”.

People’s Artist of Uzbekistan G. Rakhimova recalled: “In the Military Assembly Park in Fergana there was a wind band playing in the evenings, which became very popular in the town. All musicians were handsome Uzbek young men. The one who stood out among them was nagorachi and dancer Muydincha”. (L. Avdeeva. Mukhiddin Kari-Yokubov.)

Ismat Lutfullaev recalls: “In 1912 on Beshagach Street in Tashkent musician Shamshiev gathered an amateur brass band that comprised 12 Uzbeks and 4 Tatars. After one year of training, Shamshiev started taking us to sayil and cinema halls, particularly to Uzbek movies shown at the “Khiva” cinema hall in Shaykhantaur. Together with the Uzbek brass band I also performed in the city park (presently the area around City Hall) before Russian audience. The repertoire of our band (16 people) included pieces such as “Usmoniya”, “Kashkarcha”, and “Waltz”.

Popular Music in Uzbekistan: Overview of the Background

The evidence above describes the evolution of new musical and performance traditions and artistic environment. Commercial basis of the bands’ performance and freedom in the compilation of their repertoire that comprised the most diverse pieces were the signs of essentially new and basically variety/popular art. Its forms, independent from rituals or religion, were largely of entertaining quality.

To justify the above, let us recall that these bands performed in front of the Russian-speaking audience and included popular and folk tunes of different nations in their repertoire.

Akhmajon Umurzakov says: “As part of Uzbek instrumental band, I performed at charity concerts organized in the Military Assembly Hall and in the Merchants Club in Kokand. At these concerts we performed “Na sopkakh Manchurii” [The Hills of Manchuria], “Krakovyak” [Cracovienne], “Yaponochka” [Japanese Girl], “Polka”… Our repertoire also contained many Tatar, Uygur and Arerbaijani tunes”. As known, this is one of the characteristic features and aesthetic principles of variety and popular art: in order to please different artistic tastes of the audience, concert programmes are made of different pieces.

Thus in late 19th century in the cities of Turkistan area ruled by governor-general (except cities in Bukhara Emirate and Khorezm Khanate, which remained independent from Russian Empire and preserved the Shariah foundations) the range of previously existing musical genres included other popular forms of musical performance. The music of family rituals and weddings, craftsmen’s gatherings (gashtak), traditional holidays (sayil) and religious rites was complemented by new, secular styles of concert and stage performance.

Popular Music in Uzbekistan: Overview of the Background

Based on the evidence compiled by musicians themselves, one can identify the following classes of performed material in the repertoire of these bands:

(a) Classical songs, i.e. songs that used to be performed by khafiz in the court ensembles and were based on maqom scales;

(b) Town songs. Musicians use the term in reference to different forms: new town folk songs (“Lum-Lum Mamajon”, “Gumbur-Gumbur”, etc); dancing yalla (e.g. “Dilkhoroj”, “Farghona tong otguncha”, “Ul parivash”); dialogue-based lapar (“Yallama-yorim”, “Omom yor”, “Gulyor”); as well as extended lyrical songs such as “Galdir”, “Tulkin”, “Eshvoi” and “Girya”;

(c) Instrumental dance tunes and lively, dynamic melodies (e.g. “Sinakhiroj”, “Munojot”, “Boljuvon”, “Mirzadavlat”, “Rajabiy”);

(d) Tunes of other nations, mainly dance or jest tunes (Azerbaijani “Omom dokhtur”, “Shepherd”; Tatar “Kalpagim” and others).

As we can see, the repertoire of these bands, in substantial part, was compiled of already existing specimen, now performed in new concert environment, rather than of specially created for them new pieces. Naturally, the fact that these were reproduced on stage and in the spirit of entertainment influenced artistic qualities, intonation and rhythm structure of the melodies.

Olim Bek

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