In modern times Central Asia as a musicological unit can be defined as the area extending from Afghanistan north of the Hindu Kush, including the Badaḵšān mountain range on both sides of the Afghan-Soviet border, all of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan in the west, Kirgizia and Chinese Turkestan in the east, and Kazakhstan in the north. The northern part of this area for over a millennium and a half has been inhabited mainly by Turkic peoples, so that musical interaction with Iranians has been restricted to the southern regions. Therefore, for present purposes only this southern area will be considered.
Tajik folk music. The broad term Tajik is often used to cover all Iranians of Central Asia. Musically the term “Tajik” can be broken into two major divisions: mountain Tajik and lowland Tajik tradition. The mountain Tajik tradition includes that of the Tajiks of Badaḵšān in Afghanistan and the adjacent Hisar (Ḥeṣār) and Karategin (Qarategīn) regions of Soviet Tajikistan. The natives of the Wakhan valley in Afghanistan seem to preserve an archaic version of this musical culture, while the position of the Soviet Pamir peoples is not entirely clear. The folk music of the lowland Tajiks is best known from Afghan “Turkestan.” The situation within Uzbekistan is less studied. The Persian music of eastern Khorasan (Mašhad, Torbat-e Jām, etc.) shares some characteristics with this branch of Tajik music but is best considered part of the folk music of Persia proper. In the city of Herat the dominant musical forms had been rather similar to those of neighboring Khorasan until the 1310s Š./1930s, when the Indianized music of Kabul began to transform the scales and melodies of Herati music (Baily, 1976, pp. 49-55).
The musical characteristics of the mountain Tajik tradition are: narrow melodic range, minor and augmented seconds, frequent use of parallel fourths on lutes and fiddle, frequent use of seven beat meters, strong influence of quantitative verse on musical meter. The dominant melodic genre is termed falak, which can be performed in free or fixed rhythm, vocally or instrumentally (Sakata, pp. 152-68). Major instruments are the two-stringed unfretted lute dambora (danbara), bowed ḡīčak (ḡāyčak), tūlak (fipple flute) and dāyera (Taj. doira; frame-drum). Pamir peoples also play the plucked rabāb (Taj. rabob). Musical characteristics of the lowland Tajik tradition are: somewhat wider melodic range, but with concentration on one tonal center; few minor and augmented seconds; seven-beat meters are uncommon; musical influence of poetic meter are less common than in mountain Tajik tradition (Slobin, p. 210). Major instruments are the Turkestan dambora (larger than the Badaḵšān type), the fretted Turkestan tambur, having six metal strings and sympathetic strings (played in Badaḵšān as the setār), the dotār (with varying numbers of frets and strings in different regions), the ḡīčak, the dāyera and the zīrbaḡalī (goblet-drum). The music of the latter has been deeply influenced by the Uzbeks, as seen for example by the use of syllabic verse in teahouse songs, which are also sung in Uzbek, and by the absence of augmented second scales (Slobin, pp. 161-77).
Uzbek folk music. Uzbekistan can be divided into four major musical zones (Karomatov, pp. 49-52): southern (Qäshqä Darya-Surkhan Darya), central (Bukhara-Samarqand), northwestern (Khwarezmian), and northeastern (Farḡāna valley-Tashkent). The Uzbeks of northern Afghanistan largely share a musical culture with the lowland Tajiks. The southern Uzbek area is home to nomadic Uzbek tribes who show little influence of the urban maqām tradition, which is, however, very much in evidence in the central region. The maqām influence is also seen in Farḡāna, particularly in the a capella genre kättä äšulä (lit. great song) performed by two male singers. However, the northeastern region also contains recently settled tribal groups, whose music shows connections with Kazakh music, and to long-settled pre-Uzbek Turkic subgroups, whose musical affinities have yet to be determined. Ḵᵛārazm, musically dominated by the city of Ḵīva, shows heavy influence of the local maqām. Uzbek rural genres include the olän, sung antiphonally by a man and woman, the wedding song yar yar, the qošuq, the läpär, and the dance-song yällä. Regions under urban influence also have the äšulä. Oral epic (dāstān) is sung with dombirä accompaniment by the specialist termed baḵšī. The two-stringed, fretless dombirä is today found most commonly in the southern region; elsewhere the dominant instrument is the dotār. Both instruments have extensive repertoires independent of vocal genres or of dance music.
Turkmen folk music. The western part of southern Central Asia is inhabited by the Turkmen, relatively recent immigrants into their present territory, whose musical culture is drastically different both from the Uzbek-Tajik and from the Kazakh-Kirgiz culture. The best-known element in the Turkmen musical culture is the sophisticated art of the master singer-instrumentalists termed baḵšīs. Earlier scholarly attempts to connect Turkmen music with Persian music were based on insufficient data about the latter (Uspenskiĭ and Beliaev, chap. 6), although it is probable that the use of augmented-second like scales in Turkmen music is ultimately of Persian origin. There is a gap of several centuries separating the period when Marv flourished as an urban center and the settlement of this region by Turkmen tribes, so that a continuity of a medieval urban tradition is unlikely. The development of the baḵšī performing art is probably to be connected with the flourishing of Turkmen poetry in the 12th/18th century, the latter forming much of the baḵšī repertoire. Turkmen music exhibits great independence in scalar construction and modulation, intonation, vocal technique, and rhythm. The baḵšī ensemble is fixed, with a singer accompanying himself on the dotār, and a ḡīčak player; the Turkmen instrument is the spike-fiddle used also in the maqām music of Central Asia and Azerbaijan (Beliaev, tr. Slobin, p. 172). Melodies have several sections, sometimes employing different scales for each one. The vocal style is largely declamatory and prefers a high tessitura. The dotār has an independent repertoire of composed items that demand considerable virtuosity (e.g., Dövletler gïrḵ, Garrï gïrḵ, Gïrmïzï; Ibid: 173).
Urban art music. The urban art music (maqām) of Central Asia is the heritage of both the Uzbek- and Tajik-speaking peoples. The art music of modern Central Asia demonstrates certain broad similarities with the music of the Middle East in general but not very much with the music of Persia in particular, for instance, specific vocal techniques, a tendency to rhythmic fluidity or to complex syncopation, certain instruments as well as a broad concept of arranging composed items in a cyclical format. Nevertheless, despite these links with the Middle East basic differences also exist; for instance, most of the particular scales of Persian and Arabo-Ottoman music do not exist in modern Central Asia, and melodic structures are very different.
While it is true that in the early Middle Ages the cities of southern Central Asia shared in the musical life and thought of other urban centers of Islamic civilization, the progressive Turkicization of the area certainly affected the direction of urban music. It is not unlikely that aspects of the old urban musical traditions of the Uighur cities of the Tarim Basin (East Turkestan) persisted even in Transoxania outside of or even within the courtly environment.
The career of the musicologist Abū Naṣr Fārābī (d. 950) demonstrates the integration of the Turkic elite into the music of the Middle East, and in the ensuing centuries it would appear that at least on this elite level cities such as Herat, Bukhara, and Samarkand at times patronized professional music that was much the same as that performed in Persia proper and Baghdad (Wright, pp. 1-19). Manuscript evidence indicates that this music was still dominant in urban Transoxania until the earlier 12th/18th centuries (Rajabov, pp. 115-16). During the 10th/16th and 11th/17th centuries the dominant compositional forms of this music were the kār, naqš, and pīšrow (prelude). The major instruments were the lute (ʿūd), the harp (čang), and the reed-flute (ney). From the 9th/15th to the 11th/17th centuries musicological treatises were written in Transoxania in the Persian language, the most important being those of Zayn-al-ʿĀbedīn Ḥosaynī (9th/15th cent.), Najm-al-Dīn Kawkabī Boḵārī (d. 984/1576), and Darvīš ʿAlī Čangī b. Mīrzā ʿAlī (11th/17th cent.).
By the early 12th/18th century several important changes had occurred in the art music of Transoxania. A new series of concert suites were being created, grouped in six major cycles (the maqāms Buzruk, Rāst, Navā, Dogāh, Segāh, and ʿErāq) and hence named the Šašmaqām. In each cycle similar melodic material was developed in different rhythmic structures (ibid., pp. 123-37). In contrast to the concert suites of the Arab-Ottoman area the poetic meter of the texts determined much of the rhythmic structure. While the instrumental sections seem to show some continuity with the medieval pīšrow, the instrumentation has changed considerably. The ʿūd and čang have been replaced by the long-necked lute, tanbūr, accompanied by the dotār, and the ney was replaced by a transverse flute. The major constant element of the ensemble is the bowed ḡīčak (medieval kamān).
In the 13th/19th century the maqām repertoires were developed separately in the three Khanates—Bukhara, Ḵīva, and Qoqand (Ḵoqand). In addition the East Turkestan cities of Kāšḡar, Khotan, Hami (Qomūl), and Turfan had developed distinct concert cycles termed the “twelve maqāms” (Uighur on ikki muqam). While the scalar basis of the three Transoxanian maqām repertoires was essentially unified, the East Turkestani repertoires were internally divergent even with regard to scalar structure (Khashimov, pp. 149-60). Compositional forms in East and West Turkestan were distinct as well. After the creation of the Uzbek and Tajik Republics, the Bukharan Šašmaqām was moved to Tashkent and Dushanbe, with Chaghatay texts in the former and Persian texts in the latter. While parts of the Farḡāna maqām (and new compositions in this style) remain popular in Tashkent and in the Farḡāna valley, the Khivan maqām is less vital today.
For a music sample, see Čol Iroq.
For a music sample, see Falak-e Matam.
For a music sample, see Qāri Navā’i.
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Author’s unpublished field notes.
Originally Published: June 30, 1991
Last Updated: January 1, 2000
This article is available in print.
Vol. V, Fasc. 3, pp. 240-242
Walter Feldman, “CENTRAL ASIA xvi. Music,” Encyclopædia Iranica, V/3, pp. 240-242, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/central-asia-xvi (accessed on 30 December 2012).