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Back Roads Beat

Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

By Published: August 13, 2007
Descriptions of rhythm go into detail exceeding my comprehension, perhaps because scientists are commonly doing the analyzing.

"The rhythm of their musical works is somehow concealed within the music itself, enlivening it like the beating of an internal life pulse," wrote V. Belyayev, a scientist quoted at the site. "Thanks to this, Turkmen music, with regard to rhythm, is very free and has ample potential to combine within one and the same work various rhythms, sometimes with a capricious and whimsical sequence. The rhythms of Turkmen music, often very complex in themselves, (never mind the complexity of their combinations) pose a tremendous difficulty for those writing down Turkmen music. In the single dutar piece, 'Nagysh' as played by M Tachmurad, the rhythm changes 21 times, forming various blocks of rhythm, rhythm bars and semi- bars."

Compositions reply heavily on the Dorian, Phrygian and Mixolydian scales. Many of the traditional songs I heard were the two- or three-minute Pan-Asian ditties heard in U.S. restaurants and import shops, but they know how stretch out.

"Nowadays the term 'mukam' in Turkmen folk music signifies a group of developed instrumental pieces, pieces of music with a similar harmonic structure, or a complete performance of bakhsha and sazandar lasting some 10-12 hours," the site notes.

Most countries I've been to, even those with little current jazz presence, seem to have had one at some point, often between the 1920s and '40s due to influences from the burgeoning U.S. scene. I came away with none for Turkmenistan, albeit with what I felt were less than complete sources, and scouring the markets turned up almost no such recorded music past or present.

There is ample opportunity hear jazz albums from outsiders worldwide these days. A collection worthy of a decent U.S. store is at the Music Box about two blocks from the Russian Market (a huge indoor/outdoor bazaar selling pretty much everything to locals and outsiders alike), although it seems to be the only downtown location with worthwhile stock.

The owner scoured his Turkmen artists and came up empty during my initial visit when I asked about jazz, but when I returned two days later to look at traditional albums recommended by others he had discovered and handed me a single disc: Michael Charyev's Nurana (download MP3 of "Ashvin's Bridge"). His 16-member ensemble plays reasonably progressive fusion on modern and traditional instruments, with plenty of the native color sprinkled through. The better stuff tends comes later when subsets are playing, allowing the unique tones and phrasing to emerge better. But listeners need to plod through mindless and synth-heavy ethnic New Age that is unfortunately prevalent at the beginning, which would have driven me away had I given it a quick audition on my own.

I also obtained a few albums from a man working in the travel office of the five-star (of course) Grand Turkmen Hotel across the street, who had a sizable collection of in-country music on his computer. The best is, unfortunately, something readers are unlikely to be able to locate due to the band's Cyrillic name, "?????'??"" (the travel worker was dubious about whether they still exist). It's basically extended-length traditional folk with touches of traditional jazz from both classical instruments and what sounds like a few modern ones such as saxophone. I saw no copies of it or anything else for sale by the band and, given Turkmenistan's near-total nonobservance of copyrights, have posted a few of the better songs as MP3s here (song 1; song 2; song 3).

My in-person encounters with local musicians was limited, other than dropping into a couple of clubs long enough to hear them playing pop of little interest. I did encounter a college-age guy playing acoustic guitar late one night in a cafe at the edge of one of Ashgabat's artificially lush parks. He played mostly traditional Turkmen folk—vocals on some, not on others—to an audience of maybe half a dozen people who turned out to be mostly his friends.

A self-taught player who spoke decent English and was genuinely pleasant, if a bit wary of answering too many questions, I got the impression he works at the cafe and plays there when he has time off. He said a jazz song occasionally is heard on the radio, but he's not particularly interested in it as listener or player, nor does he know any musicians thinking of taking up the habit.

"There is a song I must play for you," he said with evident pride, noting it's rare to talk to an American. After my expressed interest in jazz, I thought maybe he'd learned some piece from the radio, but it turned out to be a light but roughly sung version of "Let It Be," the only English song he knew. Still, it was touching, one of the few moments I felt a local was making a sincere effort to offer something to an outsider for reasons other than commercial interest.

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