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25 Apr, 2006

Sevara Nazarkhan


Fans of Sevara Nazarkhan might be waiting for news from her. It has been long time since we heard about Sevara.

As far as we know, she is recording a new album at Real World Records. Release is scheduled for Autumn 2006.

The history of a lone woman singing and accompanying herself on a string instrument is ancient. It is a familiar image in manuscripts and miniature paintings from Iran, Turkey, the Middle East, and China, the countries and regions of the legendary
Silk Route

. In places that evoke the exotic, like Bukhara and Samarkand – the cities of modern day Uzbekistan – music was advanced and courtly. A female singer and instrumentalist epitomised high culture.

Sevara Nazarkhan, a twenty-five-year-old, Uzbek singer, songwriter and musician, is a direct descendent of this past. Her instrument is the doutar — a fifteenth century, two-stringed, Central Asian lute that is plucked not strummed. When music was the preserve of shepherds and lonely wayfarers, the strings were made from animal intestines. As the

Silk Route

became better established and the dried fruits and animal skins that Marco Polo carried were traded for gems and Chinese porcelain, the strings were woven from silk. The doutar has a warm, dulcet tone. In Sevara’s hands and voice an ancient tradition breathes.

Her album Yol Bolsin (Where Are You Going) for Real World is a meeting place between the old and the new. Along the

Silk Route

, even today, some traditions haven’t faded. Folk songs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries underpin the popular music of the region. Unlike the west which has no musical equivalent, centuries-old maqams – cycles of vocalisation and instrumentation – are performed and danced to by old and young alike. This music has never been rediscovered or benefited from a ‘back to the roots’ retro movement, since it is as current today as it was hundreds of years ago. With the line between entertainment and ritual blurred, music played at toi, wedding parties or family and community festivities, and at bairam, national or regional celebrations, has been incorporated into the full body of life, not relegated to consumer consumption. As a result, the Spice Girls sit side by side with peasant songs. Time and music actually do stand still in Central Asia.

This dichotomy exists within Sevara’s own oeuvre. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, she is a pop star. Her first group in 1998 was a soulful women’s quartet. During this period, she also sang in the city’s popular arts café, Taxi Blues. A year later, she released her debut album and established herself as a solo singer. Despite her choice of western musical forms, her roots are apparent. Sevara’s father, formerly a vocalist of European classical music, headed the traditional music department in Tashkent radio before his retirement. Her mother teaches traditional string instruments and is the director of an extracurricular music school. From 1998 to earlier this year, Sevara studied voice at the Tashkent State Conservatoire, where folk music is a rigorously taught and transmitted musical art under the country’s formidable singers and ethnomusicologists. It is not unusual for Sevara, a slight, striking woman with long, dark hair, to be stopped on the street by her fans who thank her for her music.

These are the people who will be surprised by her choice of material – folk, Sufi and peasant songs – on Yol Bolsin. The first track, Yor-Yor is a traditional song to a bride about moving into the home of her husband and his parents. According to custom, this song’s lyrics are improvised, but Sevara sings a popular version, which advises the new bride not to feel like a stranger. If music is a social document, songs like Yor-Yor represent the halfway point between the city and the rural countryside. Other songs on the album are dominated by natural imagery: the white snake in Sevara’s favourite song Galdir, or the steps that become flowers in Yol Bolsin – symbols for heartache and freedom.

Today when Uzbek women get together in towns and villages to sing and socialise, many of their songs are about alienation, separation and unrequited love, but then women’s emotions under Islam are usually about watching or being watched – rarely touching. While Russian colonial rule in Uzbekistan was harsh and brutal, for women who had been living strict Islamic lives prior to the Soviets’ arrival, the change in government, and impact of young Uzbek reformists amounted to social emancipation. Women are used to asking for what they want and getting their own way. Yol Bolsin and Yallajonim (My Dearest Song) capture the emotions of hopeful, purposeful – not arranged – love.

Most of these songs are rooted in the Near and Middle East, where the instrumentation, whether on doutar or doira, a women’s small, flat drum, follow patterns of vocalisation. The quarter note, considered ‘false’ in the west because there is no classical counterpart, is one of the foundations of the region’s music. Oral poetry in particular has a special significance in Uzbekistan, where the term for male bards, bakhshi, also means healers who use music as a conduit to the spirit world. It is the same in the Chinese book of Changes, I Ching, where music is considered a mystical link to the ancestors. Along with Marco Polo’s treasures, spirituality was one of the more interesting goods and services that travelled the Silk Route’s 5,000 miles of history, from the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an over the steppe, oasis and desert byways that lead to the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire.

With such a monolithic history, modernity can be easily sidelined. Yet, Sevara, the pop star, is no stranger to popular music trends. With samples, electric guitars and keyboards Yol Bolsin didn’t fully begin to flower until record producer Hector Zazou, from France, immersed himself in the tastes and smells of contemporary Uzbekistan. Sevara jokes that she forced Zazou to eat, drink, and dress Uzbeki – and always central to this experience is pure tradition. For the album’s doutar-playing, Sevara borrows the hands and experience of Toir Kuziyev, a master of instrumentation. The results are a collection of evocative songs recorded in Tashkent and Paris and finally mixed in the Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire. Yet Yol Bolsin remains outside time and essentially Central Asian.

Two of the songs, Moghulchai Navo (Moghul Melody) and Soqinomai Bayot, which refers to a particular rhythm-pattern of the doira, utilise the classic form of the Shash (Six) Maqams; while Yol Bolsin and Adolat Tanovari (Song of Adolat) could easily be tweaked into a groovy dance remix. As the last track Alla (Lullaby) lingers in the air like a soothing dream or a crisp, starry night found no where else but on the mountain passes of the Silk Route, the real lesson of Sevara’s unique musical journey is that time morphs beyond convenient segments of past and present. It is a never-ending Möbius ribbon of emotions, sounds and ideas.

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