In December 2012, Berta Davidova, the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan, a remarkable singer who made a solid contribution to the national art, would have turned 90. Her life and work are covered in academic papers, numerous television shows, and a film-concert called “Berta Dovidova kuylaydi” [Sings Berta Davidova]; there is a record and a CD of the masterpieces of traditional Uzbek music professionally performed by her. The present author is hopeful that these recollections of her late mother-in-law, as impartial evidence, would inform our knowledge about Davidova’s outstanding personality and be of interest to the reader who is familiar with the art of the singer.
Berta Davidova (her real name was Billur, which means “crystal”, but only her close relatives called by this name) represents the oral tradition of ustoz – shogird [teacher to student] system of professional training. She never studied at a conservatory and did not know notation, but the school of vocal performance she went through as a singer could be envied by many a performer with a formal education certificate. Among Davidova’s first teachers were bastakor Imomjon Ikramov, the author of the “Munojot” song that made her famous: he personally rehearsed it with her; and the renowned masters of maqom Fazliddin Shahobov, Shonazar Sahibov, and domla Zirkiev. But all her life she considered Yunus Rajabi her most influential Teacher. He was the one who introduced her to the secrets of maqom singing, and, for the first time in the history of maqom, which was never performed by women before, entrusted shube (the solo numbers) to Berta Davidova in a recording of a Bukhara Shashmaqom by an all-star cast of the maqom performers’ ensemble.
Berta-opa often mentioned that Rajabi was giving a lot of attention to vocal technique, not permitting her to force the audj (culminations) with an open, throaty sound; to the skill of using diaphragm – the so-called nasal singing; and to the correct distribution of breath during long hanga chants. (Not an expert in vocals, I regret not having recorded these methods then). Persistently working to achieve the desired result, the teacher sang phrase after phrase together with her, accompanying them on either a tambur, or a dutar, beating the most complex usul (rhythmic formulas) on doira [tambourine], and Berta, with her impeccable sense of rhythm, reproduced them accurately on the same doira. Rajabi also paid much attention to lyrics, explaining their content and complex, polysemantic imagery.
Telling about her training sessions with Rajabi, Berta-opa always noted that the learning of maqom had not started immediately. For quite a while, the teacher was introducing her to folklore material and the songs of bastakor performers, where she could use the skills acquired when she was a soloist in the Radio Committee folk instruments ensemble conducted by Dani Zakirov. Based on her own experience, the singer claimed that maqom performance requires not only a mature voice, but also certain life experience. She believed that an artist, who never suffered emotional pain, would not be able to feel the spirit of maqom, comprehend its essence and meaning, and communicate it to the listener.
The validity of the statement is proved by an interval of almost thirty years between the recordings of “Munojot”. The first version (1949), filled with exultation of the young voice that effortlessly deals with vocal complexities, is different from the widely known later recording (1975) that communicates the focus of the experience master on presenting the dramatic character in the most refined finish. Artistic principles borrowed from her teacher and complemented with her own practice Davidova tried to apply to her work with conservatory students learning traditional singing; she did not always agree with the syllabi and often criticize them in terms of their practical relevance.
Valuing her profession highly, she bore the title of the People’s Artist with dignity and pride. In my memory, she never accepted offers to perform at wedding parties, although, given the singer’s enormous popularity, there was no shortage of them. She refused to benefit from this way of earning money, so common in the artistic environment, not because she was too rich – her rate for a solo concert at that time was little more than 19 roubles; neither did she own a luxury apartment or a country house. It is just that the atmosphere of the nuptial feast did not match her perception of maqom art and the special mission of its bearers. However, as a guest, she agreed when asked to sing something, and could even dance, leaving all the cash that was coming her way to the party musicians.
Berta-opa prepared for her appearances on television very carefully and responsibly (in the 1980s, when she no longer gave concerts). She herself put her concert costume in order: attire in Fergana style, with a light coat of striped bekasam [textile blend of cotton and silk], white satin or crepe-de-Chine dress, losim pants, a silk scarf worn smartly across, lacquered kaush shoes, and traditional jewellery. She rehearsed, accompanying himself on doira, first softly, and then, as her vocal chords warmed up, in a full voice; she never sang before the concert, relaxing and concentrating on the upcoming performance. All this reminded me of the charity concert preparation by the heroine of Ivan Bunin’s remarkable story “Favourable Part”.
Having phenomenal musical memory that could store long and complex shube, Berta-opa sometimes had difficulty remembering lyrics – ghazal in old Uzbek and Persian/Tajik languages. This brings to mind one humorous episode. Television producers were preparing a program dedicated to the poetry of Babur, if my memory is correct, and Berta-opa had to perform a piece based on his verses. By that time, she no longer worked, that is, was not is shape for a concert all the time. The proposal came unexpectedly, and there was not enough time for preparation. The solution was as follows: I found a piece of wallpaper left after renovation (in those days paper of the desired format was not readily available), Berta-opa wrote the text in large letters on the reverse side, and the rehearsal began. I acted as a prompter, holding the text before her eyes. In the text, a strange word ‘povza’ appeared with certain intervals, and when I asked Berta-opa about it, she said, “Here musicians play, and am silent”. The ‘povza’ meant ‘pause’ in the vocal part! During recording, the text with ‘povza’ was held behind the camera, and the performance ran without a hitch. This was not the only funny incident in her career. With her characteristic sense of humour, Berta-opa recalled one outdoor concert, when, performing rather complex and lengthy audj, she suddenly felt some kind of midge flying into her mouth! “I had to swallow it! Luckily, I didn’t choke on it, and the audience saw nothing”.
The singer often told stories about concerts delivered during cotton harvesting, when performers went out “into the fields of the land”, as people used to call it. They usually travelled by trucks with open body (buses appeared later); with sides down, the trucks turned into a stage, and the driver’s cabin served as a dressing room. The audience coming to shiypan (an open terrace in the field camp) straight from the field accommodated themselves on the ground, sitting on aprons used to pick up cotton, while younger people climbed the nearby trees. There was no amplification equipment or microphones (at that time people had no idea about a lip synch!) – just live music and sound in the open air. The response of the audience, too, was live, not recorded, not programmed. “How did they clap their hands, calling us again and again, thanking us and inviting to visit them again! I always tried to sing at the top of my voice, to entertain and cheer them up”.
Her voice had a kind of magical power and indescribable timbre, sounding smoothly and naturally in all registers. It seems, however, that the secret of Berta Davidova’s singing talent was not so much in the excellence of her performing technique, but rather in her ability to sing with her heart, empathize with her characters, and create a dramatic solo show, convincing and winning the listener with the interpretation she discovered. Her gestures, the expression of her face and eyes, and the vocal techniques she employed were justified by the content of a piece, helping the singer “to burn human hearts with a word”. The audience responded adequately: I remember a foreign graduate student visiting with her son on holidays, who was not a musician and did not understand a word in Uzbek: he wept as he listened to “Fighon” (“Lament”) performed by her. In the days of television broadcasts featuring Berta Davidova the phone kept ringing with calls from fans, friends, and acquaintances. Those were the happy moments for her.
Davidova valued the recognition of her audience – people who approached her in the streets with expressions of gratitude and admiration. Sometimes this popularity had a comic side to it: the moment she arrived in the Alai farmer’s market and went to the stalls, prices went up at once, for the sellers knew that Berta-opa never bargained, upholding her image. Still, even among the merchants there were unselfish amateurs of her art. I remember an elderly woman selling bread who always brought her finest patyr to her favourite singer, never accepting money, despite the attempts to pay.
For Berta-opa another proof of people’s love was the much cherished yellowed letter from the people of Andijan that arrived to the Radio Committee in 1957 and was passed on to the singer by its chairman H. Ibragimov. The letter contained a request to broadcast the songs of their favourite singer more often, and a suggestion to reward her artistic achievements. In the same year the title of the Honoured Artist of Uzbekistan was conferred on her, and Berta-opa always believed that she largely owed it to her admirers.
Deep and sincere was the singer’s love for her home country. When awarded the El-Yurt Hizmati [Service to the Nation] Order by the President Islam Karimov, in all her interviews and public appearances she always spoke of her devotion to the country that nurtured her and to its people, whose art she served. This was her conscious position chosen once and for all, and she repeatedly rejected offers to leave the country. Once the top party leadership of Tajikistan approached Sharaf Rashidov with an official request, to which a negative response was given, first of all, by her. Once Uzbekistan became independent, Israeli officials repeatedly offered Davidova to return to her ‘historical homeland’; she also received invitations from her brothers – one in Canada, the other in Germany, and still the other in Israel. Yet she invariably answered: “Here I was born and happened to be of some use, and here I will die. Uzbekistan made me its people’s artist – so it will bury me the way it should be”. She, certainly, regretted that in the bloom of her art she could not go on tour abroad, as today’s singers and musicians do, but she never imagined her life outside her native environment.
The singer was as adamant in her choice between art and family. She had to part with the father of her only son due to the firm demand to abandon her profession and leave stage. Another attempt to fix her personal life also ended in a failed relationship: Berta’s second husband, one of the managers in GlavMosStroy [the Moscow Construction Administration] who arrived in Tashkent in the aftermath of the 1966 earthquake, invited her to move to Moscow where he had a nice apartment and comfortable life. Berta-opa recalled: “When Sharaf Rashidovich Rashidov learned about this, he invited us to his office and listened to our story. He had no objection to my move to my husband’s, yet he noted: ‘Your art is needed here. Your audience, the fans and admirers of your talent are all here. Think about what is more important to you, so that you don’t regret it in the future.’ I gave it a thought – and stayed…”
Berta Davidova is no longer with us, but the singer’s voice lives on in records, delighting the ear and aesthetic sense of amateurs of traditional music. Her vocal art has not yet been studied thoroughly, awaiting its researcher who, as we hope, will soon arrive. The Art of Berta Davidova, the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan, left behind as heritage of our nation is worthy of examination and careful research.