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Back Roads Beat

Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

By Published: August 13, 2007
The problem is holes—big ones—exist in most or all such aspects. The free essentials are often in short supply and go to a population with 60 percent unemployment and scant, if any, wages for many with jobs. Turkmenbashi's projects have kept his country's wealth from benefiting the masses and the London-based human rights organization Global Witness claims he may have stashed as much of $3 billion in overseas accounts. The modern architectural overhaul came at the expense of traditional neighborhoods that were torn down and left homeless citizens in camps at the outskirts of town (Turkmenbashi's official take, "While reforming the economy, we moved consistently, stage-by-stage, thus avoiding possible negative implications").

Perhaps the most representative monument, from a good or bad perspective, is the 250-feet-high Arch of Neutrality, a large tripod topped with a large stature of Turkmenbashi that's reportedly made of pure gold and rotates during the day so it's always facing the sun.

The idolatry is also evident in the Ruhnama, the primary textbook for schools and source of test material for things like drivers' licenses. Failure to know it sufficiently can result in accusations of disloyalty.

"Ruhnama is the book of unity and togetherness," wrote Turkmenbashi in praise of his gospel. "It is the only source that will connect Turkmen's present and its past. Up until now, there were a number of words, special words, but not a whole word... Spiritual multiplicity, different mental perspectives, and different voices of the soul have been built upon this unity. The unity and togetherness inside becomes the pillars that keeps the nation together."

It's not clear reeducation has been entirely successful. An Ashgabat resident, interviewed anonymously by the nonprofit Turkmenistan Project watchdog group, greeted the news of a subsequent volume by expressing mock gratitude that "we have only two books to know, while Soviet citizens had Lenin's complete works to read!

English-language copies are supposedly easy to find, but I had no such luck and ended up getting a translation from the Internet.

Say what you will about Turkmenbashi's delusions and paranoia, casting himself as the reincarnation of the original Turkmen ancestor and prophet (Oguz Khan, after Noah's ark), but there's a couple of appealing concepts: 1) reading the Ruhnama three times is sufficient show of faith for admission to Heaven and 2) he's got a keen appreciation for tunes ("If you want to understand the characteristics of the states and nations, listen to their music; if you wish to know of the level of happiness in the family listen and see how songs and music find reflection in that household!").

The Ingredients For Jazz, Withering In The Desert

If Turkmenbashi's prose about music is true, his country is the runt of the regional family who's wearing hand-me-downs.

Turkmenistan's traditional music shares many similarities with Turkey, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, most commonly played on a two-string lute called the dutar. Traveling singers acting as healers and magicians historically performed a cappella or with the dutar, but it's also the primary choice for instrumentals.

"Improvised instrumental variations of songs are common," notes the Web site, which features dozens of free Turkmen MP3s in styles from classical to modern pop (the latter paying tribute to Turkmenbashi, of course). "The song 'Satashdym' played by dutarist P. Saryyev differs greatly from that played by M. Tachmuradov, although the two dutarists are pupils of the same player, Kel-Bakhshi."

The difference is Turkmenistan hasn't evolved into the modern age. Other Soviet republics greeted the end of their repressed era with freewheeling cultural revivals to various extents that generally increase as one goes West (Kyrgyzstan not much, Azerbaijan very much so). But Turkmenbashi's bans helped choke off evidence of similar evolution except for traditional and some classical that seems to be well esteemed and promoted.

Traditional music is similar enough to its neighbors I can't pick up nuanced Turkmen differences, probably the same vagueness that causes many Americans to see Thai, Japanese and Chinese residents simply as Asians. But the complexity of the compositions is undeniable and, reading descriptions at and elsewhere, it's easy envisioning reworking it into a jazz environment.

"An important feature of the structure of Turkmen instrumental folk music is its proliferation of variations within the couplet structure of a piece of music," the site notes. "The instrumental variations of song melodies tend to have an irregular rhythm. This is due to the manifold improvisations used in the performance of songs—interjections, words and syllables which serve to extend the melodic structure. And in instrumental performance these features seem to have been carried over."

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