Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

Mark Sabbatini By

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Banishment from the country takes effect with the publishing of these words.

Assuming otherwise is foolishness in Turkmenistan, the most repressive and two-sided country of the scores I've visited seeking jazz in the most remote and unusual places on Earth.

Brilliantly lit marble monuments and unerringly smiling faces camouflage a serpent's nest that strikes instantly with any hint of my being a journalist. It's officially treason, punishable by life in prison, to write negative impressions about the world's most hostile nation toward the press except for North Korea.

Still, musically there's intrigue here. And it's a place that, uh, knows how to listen even if people frequently talk very quietly.

Coming here may seem like questionable judgment, but for a person who's favorite novel is George Orwell's "1984" the lure was irresistible. The post-Soviet dictatorship of President Saparmurat Niyazov, who cast himself as the prophet-like Turkmenbashi ("father of the Turkmen"), is a 15-year span of decrees and excesses seen as the pinnacle of political tragicomedy, the fiefdom of a deranged man trying to bring Las Vegas or the Land Of Oz to the parched Central Asian desert.

"It is not known whether Niyazov has read Orwell but the Ministry of Fairness is certainly very like a structure described in detail by the English writer," the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote in 2003. The same year another Russian newspaper, Moskovskiy Komsomolets, wrote "George Orwell can hardly have suspected that the country of the all-seeing Big Brother he invented which, in his story, was somewhere in Central Europe, is actually in the heart of the Orient—it is Turkmenistan."

A contest or fiction writer would be unlikely to surpass his eccentricities: Renaming the month of January after himself, bread after his mother, the year 2003 after his father. Prohibiting ballet, opera, car radios, lip-syncing and most public playing of recorded music. Requiring doctors to pledge allegiance to him instead of the Hippocratic Oath and banning the diagnosis of many communicable diseases. Closing libraries outside the capital of Ashgabat on the assumption rural dwellers are illiterate (or, as he told a foreign leader, the illiterate are easier to rule). Forbidding television news anchors from wearing makeup because he said he couldn't tell men from women when they did (they also begin broadcasts with a pledge that his/her tongue will shrivel if he/she slanders the country, flag, or president). Banning beards, possibly because he couldn't grow one. Demanding people give up "unsanitary" gold fillings and chew on bones instead, as he saw dogs doing as a child (today's population wouldn't know—he banned dogs from the capital because he didn't like their smell).

The impacts are equally bizarre. An economy of scale where an hour of Internet cafe access (in one of only two places, under police watch) costs the same as three one-way plane tickets (although residents may wait futilely for days for them due to a massively flawed ticketing system). Fountains gushing non-stop around vast buildings and monuments that are mostly deserted, while families in stifling desert heat go without power and wait hours for a trickle of water to fill a bucket. Facilities such as a ski resort on the arid foothills of the Iranian border, a massive amusement park in the center of Ashgabat and stunning mosques either mostly or completely empty, while schools and hospitals wither without basic equipment and staff.

The oddities could consume the length of this article many times over. But for my trip the goals were:

1) Assess the music scene in a country with so many restrictions on modern performance, but supposedly a reverence for it's cultural history.

2) See if, following the unexpected death of Turkmenbashi from heart failure last year, there are signs of future progress. Some music restrictions have seemingly been relaxed as the country attempts to lure wealthy tourists. Even this effort is hesitant, though, as there's concerns about monitoring more people and that a larger pool of travelers means more potential sources for negative comments to the outside world.

It's not like this was a fool's errand from a jazz perspective. The country of 5 million people shares much of its cultural heritage with Turkey, which has a strong and identifiable presence, and the scene in adjacent countries like Azerbaijan is surprisingly vibrant. Instrumentals with heavy doses of improvisation are among the most popular forms of traditional music. The day before my arrival a pianist at a jazz bar in Uzbekistan said he was a native of Ashgabat and, in his extremely limited English, gave the impression there were players to be found.

So I booked a tour package through a Central Asia travel agency, complete with a stay at a five-star hotel, an easy request since Ashgabat (population 700,000) has more of them than London and they're all mostly vacant. But it's a long process that's the only realistic way a lone Westerner can get in. Even then there's plenty of potential land minds anybody able to search Google could seemingly expose (link number three for my name begins "Mark Sabbatini is a destructive force in music journalism"). But the process was less challenging than I imagined, mostly consisting of many back-and-forth emails to deal with simple questions during a period of several weeks.

I listed my profession as a musician, since the word "journalist" in any context is a near certainty for automatic rejection even if you're a longtime former resident whose parents are buried there (true story). Freedom to walk the main streets in the capital was allowed, I was told, the rest would be a crapshoot involving an escort and probably lots of roadblocks to check identity papers. I told them my intention was to be conservative and remain within the city limits—repression or not, exploring one of the hottest deserts in the world during the summer, when temperatures can exceed 115 degrees, has no appeal for me.

I took no notes, only a few photos and generally avoid mentioning people's names here since they were unaware they were talking to a journalist. Additional information comes from email interviews and research (links provided where possible).

Also, while the hypocrisy there is deplorable, nearly everyone was exceptionally friendly, I never felt unsafe except for the few inadvertent slips about my profession and the architectural glow is impressive. Suggesting travelers avoid a trip on moral grounds is inappropriate since I didn't and viewed from a completely nonpolitical perspective it offers a much better than average bargain for travelers who enjoy Palm Springs-like desert getaways. Those willing to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth can experience a pleasant and reasonably priced luxury vacation that provides some benefits to a population in need of all the help it can get.

A Tale Of Two Pubs

Talk about the best and worst of times.

Live jazz is most easily found at two nightspots a block apart in the heart of downtown, according to my tour host and others. At the relatively simple and small City Pub, a lead singer and trio of instrumentalists were beginning to shift from their bar stools toward a small corner stage a few feet away when I dropped in on a Saturday at about 9 p.m. The owner/manager, maybe 35 or 40 and all hearty smiles, welcomed me in slightly broken English at the door when I asked if jazz was part of their repertoire.

"Yes, yes, they play many things—blues, pop, jazz," he said with a heavy accent that all but slapped me on the back, as a couple of the band members nodded in smiling agreement after conferring among themselves to figure out what I was asking. "Come on in; listen to some jazz."

At that moment I was an ideal customer, a rare outside visitor with money to spend. Then I did something beyond idiotic: In a moment of forgetfulness triggered by his enthusiasm, I did what I've instinctively done these past couple years of global travel and handed him an All About Jazz business card.

"I'm doing research about music here as part of a project about jazz musicians in remote and unusual parts of the world," I said. "Is it OK if I talk to them between sets and can you help if I need any translation?"

Ninety-nine percent of the time the response is enthusiastic at the thought of promotion for their business and culture. But the backslapping club manager looked at it, stiffened immediately and shoved it back at me. The chill was Arctic.

"We don't do anything like that," he said.

I apologized, said I'd mind my own business and grabbed a seat out of his line of sight. But he came over moments later and told me I needed to leave. Asking why did nothing except make it clear he was ready to physically throw me out if I resisted.

"I don't need a reason. I have the right to refuse to let anyone I want in" was all he'd say, varying the words only slightly a couple of times. "Goodbye."

I could hear the band on the street corner and I listened to about four or five songs in a bit of terror, since there's about three police officers along every side of every street. I could only imagine the consequences of their checking my papers or making inquiries in the club after seeing me come out of it so quickly. Thankfully, the band was doing a rock and pop set, and the officers didn't approach.

I'm also immensely thankful the manager reflexively gave my card the dead fish treatment, since I'd otherwise have been in nonstop terror about his giving it to authorities. Because outsiders must provide extensive information about their itinerary, where they're staying and who is sponsoring their visit, there'd be no trouble locating me.

I didn't fully grasp the danger I'd put myself—and him—in until a couple of days later. The saying "the walls have ears" is true to an unknown degree, with hotels and popular tourist gathering spots reportedly bugged and video cameras required by decree in all public places (if they're actually that prevalent I missed some). A Turkmen man cooperating with a BBC reporter last year was arrested with other associates and sentenced to seven years in prison on what they said were manufactured charges by security officials who planted weapons in their car. Human rights groups regularly report journalists have been imprisoned for lengthy sentences, sometimes tortured or killed in custody (although the death penalty is officially banned). Prison conditions are as bad as anywhere in the world, according to outside governments and individual narratives.

In a more day-to-day reality, Radio Free Afghanistan reporter Faizullah Qardash described his experience while part of a delegation from Kabul a month after my visit as completely sheltered and supervised. He said aside from the official presentation by Turkmenistan officials the media was allowed to cover, he was unable to conduct a single interview or get any response whatsoever to even nonpolitical subjects. He was also prohibited from talking to any Turkmenistan citizens and officials ensured he didn't get the chance (the same is true in reverse, as local journalists cannot talk to foreigners without official permission).

"I don't know, maybe it was because I was part of the official delegation, but our escort did not let us to leave the hotel, even to go shopping," he told Radio Free Europe. "When I suggested going out, they said it's not allowed."

With my freedom still intact, I set off for the British Pub down the street, still a bit dazed.

It's a much more contemporary place, part of a group of clubs surrounding an outdoor courtyard with a cookout and yet more music. The atmosphere inside is an upscale sports bar with TGI Friday's prices only the privileged can afford, TVs turned to VH1 and a big picture of the Beatles behind the main stage. Clusters of English-speakers in business and casual attire packed the place, although the tables nearest the stage filled last. They devoured a menu of burgers, pasta, pizza, and fish and chips—plus, as seems to be the case in most of this part of Asia, a lineup of alcohol and tobacco longer than the food listings. For reasons not explained they didn't have the first few things I asked for, so I settled for tea—which did the British no credit at one of the few consumables they're good at as I ended up with a small pot of lukewarm water and a tea bag.

At least I got my timing right. I'd been there a couple of nights earlier and was told a rock band was playing that night starting around 10 p.m., but the Turkmeni Blues Band (or something like that) was scheduled Saturday. A jazz trio played several days before my arrival, a guitar threesome an expat businessman said had legit Django chops ("It was real jazz. I was a bit surprised"), but the blues band seemed to be closest related thing anywhere all weekend.

I got luckier than I might have hoped.

The opening set by the guitar/bass/drums trio was a West Coast/light mainstream jazz gig, similar to Lee Ritenour tackling Wes Montgomery standards on Wes Bound. The musicians looked to be in their early 20s, were clad in basic street clothes and had basic but functional gear.

The Ritenour/Montgomery analogy isn't casual—the trio's first song was something from the aforementioned album, with the guitarist punctuating lead lines with a mix of bent tones and chorused strums. After repeating a riff numerous times as a bridge he assembled a collection of short stories as a solo, mostly a progression of strums working their way up the fretboard, which he collapsed before moving onto a new tale. Aside from not really being linked and failing to end on a suitably high climax, it was much more accomplished than I expected.

He played it safer on "Fields Of Gold," doing an almost entirely lyric-based solo with a few tonal changes and strums. Also, his co-players weren't contributing anything except a rhythm section, a pattern continuing the entire set.

They tackled Latin by adding too much reverb to the guitar and Marley's "Wait In Vain" as background comfort food, but a slow end-of-set blues/fusion piece I didn't recognize featured the guitarist on a long progression of one-bar improvisations ending in note and chord twists. Again, there wasn't a central theme, but the overall impact was worthy.

They added a fourth player for the second set and launched into a heavy blues/rock with him singing something not in English. It continued during the next few songs and they steadily cranked the volume to the point of distortion. Others players were getting more involved, notably the drummer contributing far more elaborative backings and some energetic soloing, but my ability to appreciate it was eroding quickly. Plus the place was filling beyond comfort capacity and people, many shouting to be heard in the din, seemed ready to hit the dance floor discotheque style. So, as usual, when everyone else was ready to party, I hit the road.

At least I was over my first case of nerves, or at least enough so to be irked by taxi rates tripling in that part of town late at night. That's still cheaper than almost anywhere else in the world, but it's amazing what sense of entitlements people develop in a short time. We passed by the Presidential Palace and all the other buildings lit at their nighttime best, but after my earlier adventures I wasn't tempting fate by taking illegal pictures. If you've ever wondered what Vegas might look like if all the people suddenly vanished, what we drove through was a good facsimile.

Where The Odds Are Good Of Being Odd

Unlike Vegas, outsiders visiting Turkmenistan have a long history of beating the house.

Part of the ancient Silk Route, it's a country numerous armies conquered on their way to someplace else, sort of like L.A. claiming Barstow on its way to invade Sin City. Part of the reason was the vast desert and recalcitrant nomadic tribes establishing their own historical niche as horse breeders made governing difficult. Russia finally conquered Turkmenistan in 1894, establishing its current borders in 1924 when it became one of the original six republics of the Soviet Union.

Although the country's inherent traits made it the detested Soviet stepchild, officials rapidly developed Ashgabat (whose name means "city of Love") into a contemporary European-style town because of its close proximity to British-influenced Persia. But a magnitude 7.3 earthquake on October 6, 1948, killed two-thirds of the city's 180,000 residents (Soviet officials claimed the death toll was 14,000). Among them was Turkmenbashi's mother and two brothers when he was age 7, making him an orphan because his father died in World War II. According to official news sources, which seem credible in this instance, virtually every building was destroyed and construction during the 1950s focused on quick and functional housing with little regard for aesthetics. Another 30,000 people died in an earthquake in 1974.

Turkmenistan became an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Niyazov, a career Politburo bureaucrat who became First Secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee in 1985, was appointed to the same title in Turkmenistan by then-Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. Niyazov quickly transformed himself into the demiurge Turkmenbashi, apostle of Islam and Turkmen culture (Blogmenbashi quips he may be the first Communist to be declared a prophet). He expanded the powers of his office, was declared president-for-life in 1999 by Parliament after he picked its members, and his new identity soon became associated with everything of meaning and plenty of insignificant things like table salt.

One of the most dominant amusing/tragic themes of his reign was constant vilification of post-Soviet Russia and its people, blotting from his official biography various aspects of his previous career and Russian-Jewish wife. In 2003 the Turkmen government canceled a dual-citizenship agreement with Russia, according to BBC articles, causing thousands of ethnic Russians to flee after losing their property. About 100,000 remained, but access to work has been dramatically reduced and universities are encouraged to reject them. Russian TV, radio and newspapers were also banned (this is no longer the case—my hotel's bar was tuned to a channel with a variety of Russian programs, including news and their version of one of those home/family swapping reality shows).

Turkmenbachi's more severe and bizarre decrees began in 2001 and they accelerated rapidly after an alleged assassination attempt on his motorcade in November of 2002 by political opponents. The Turkmen leader temporarily rediscovered a historical sentiment for his former homeland in announcing his intention to construct remote desert gulags similar Stalin-era labor camps of the 1930s for people who "lost faith and deserve universal disapproval."

"In their time, the ancestors of the Turkmens turned to this humane but effective measure, and it served to make society healthier, cleansing it of people who compromised themselves (and letting them) atone for their guilt with hard but honest labour," Turkmenbashi wrote.

Censorship resulted in an interesting list of words muted or cut from broadcasts beyond the infamous "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television," including "Lenin," "Soviet" and "vodka." Various feminine and medical terms were axed from soap operas, as was kissing, and most jokes cut from comedy programs, making them short and confusing. On the other hand, those responsible for national security oversight of broadcasts were among the country's best-paid workers and didn't have any layoffs for years, unlike most industries.

One huge industry is cotton, with production ranking 10th in the world as the crop is planted on half the country's irrigated land. To ensure there's a sufficient labor pool, teachers are sent to the fields instead of getting time to prepare lessons since harvest coincides with the beginning of the school year. Some used to hire laborers to replace them, but too many were troublesome so the practice is now banned. In Turkmenistan's favor, a U.S. government report on human rights in 2006 notes there is "dramatically less evidence of child labor during the cotton harvest."

Education is touted as a top priority with 10 years' worth deemed mandatory, but that's less than the average for other former Soviet countries and it was reduced to nine during the last years of the Turkmenbashi regime before being restored. Loyalty to the president supersedes factual accuracy; science papers by teachers, or instance, are basically songs of praise to their leader and they were forced to get them published or face lay cuts or dismissal. Because there are no science journals, teachers get into fierce bidding wars with newspapers they bribe to publish them. Schools have few, if any, textbooks and those remaining are from the Soviet era, with no opportunity for instructors or parents to buy their own. The dominant classroom text is the Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi's revisionist religious/history self-tribute (more on this shortly).

Doctors are another occupation under duress, with the overall state of health care described by outside observers as deplorable even by impoverished Central Asian standards. Turkmenbashi ended free care in 2004 and replaced 15,000 nurses and other health care workers with soldiers whose medical training was unknown. He closed all hospitals outside Ashgabat in 2005, saying rural residents should be treated in the capital. Cutbacks also forced doctors to hire their own cleaning staff after the regular crews were dismissed, with the temps sometimes also administering shots and providing other care. AIDS and similar afflictions are officially nonexistent for all practical purposes. There's a significant drug problem, again unacknowledged officially, and such crimes aren't a focus of the many police crackdowns because arrests would result in undesirable statistics showing an increase in crime.

Nearly 90 percent of the population is Muslim, but Turkmens make and consume a lot of wine. Treatment of women is far from the most repressive on Earth, although they live under enough work and living restrictions, plus problems like non-enforcement of domestic violence laws, that boys are preferred by many families. Common girls' names are Besteir (enough) and Boyduk (fed up), according to an article by Paul Theroux in the May 28, 2007, issue of The New Yorker (only excerpts are available online legitimately, but (ahem, cough) his first-person article is required reading for anyone interested in the country.

Applying for a government job can be a real pain. In addition to a long list of personal data, prospects may have to provide obscurities such as the burial places of dead relatives going back five generations. Vacancies also don't always match areas of greatest need, with hockey and figure-skating coaches being of one of the biggest things sought by recruiters at a recent job fair.

It's possible to objectively put together a list of positives. Turkmenistan ranks fifth in GDP growth rate, according to the 2006 CIA World Factbook, and has the fifth-largest reserve of natural gas (hence the expats looking to profit). Their international political stance since independence is "permanent neutrality," refusing like Switzerland to take sides in conflicts. A decree in 2003 stated citizens will receive free electricity, natural gas, water and salt until 2030. Gas is maybe the world's cheapest at less than 10 cents a gallon, making taxis (any passing vehicle willing to pick you up—which usually happens in seconds) an incredible bargain at well under a dollar to go anywhere in Ashgabat.

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 turkmenmusic.com 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."

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 turkmenmusic.com 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.

He and his friends headed home afterward, partially because it was late, but also partially because he wanted to see if my interest in his music was sufficient that I'd return the following evening to hear him play, at which point we could talk more (that was also the night of the blues gig and, by the time it was over, so was the chance to see him again). It was a pretty obvious means of building up of trust, understandable when dealing with an inquisitive stranger. One of the girls in the group urged me to be careful about engaging in conversations with just anyone, since they might make police suspicious.

"We're used to seeing people (from other countries) in groups, not somebody on their own," she said.

Getting In Tune With The Future?

With a new leader, many are hoping Turkmenistan is changing its tune.

Some aspects of Turkmenbashi's totalitarianism and personality cult are being carried forward by Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, rumored to be the former leader's illegitimate son. He was elected president in February of 2007 with 90 percent of the vote in an election international observers said didn't meet standards of legitimacy. But some of the stranger decrees seem relaxed—taxi drivers have radios in their cars, to cite a random example—and efforts are increasing to improve relationships with countries in order to increase business and tourism.

"As the country has breathed an almost audible sigh of relief as the new leader has begun taking steps to reverse some of Niyazov's more retrograde policies, especially in education, the marginalization of Russian culture and language, access to the Internet and participation in the Virtual Silk Road Internet project, some observers have begun to think that he was breaking from Niyazov's despotic methods of rule, as well," notes the Turkmenistan Project. "Yet at the same time that the government has allowed some openings, it has sent a chilling message to local journalists to stop reporting news independently. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reports that seven RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan have had their land-line and mobile telephone lines blocked recently and say they are being followed by security agents.

The better face Turkmenistan is trying to present was evident during my trip but, as with people, makeup's ability to hide blemishes is limited and not completely authentic.

My arrival at Turkmenbashi International Airport, where a multi-language sign reading "We should glorify our motherland" greets passengers walking from the tarmac, was time-consuming but more pleasant than several other countries I've been to with strict travel restrictions. I was able to get a visa arranged by my travel agency upon arrival (about $100 or so), something apparently not possible until recently. The man at the immigration booth was pleasant and efficient within the limits of the paperwork required, giving me a warm "welcome to my country" as I departed.

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