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Music and Dancing

Tajikistan has a rich musical heritage and, for those who are so inclined, there are ample opportunities to experience traditional forms of music and dance.

Classical music can loosely be divided into shashmaqam, the traditional Islamic style, and the Russian-influenced operas and symphonies produced during the Soviet period. Ziyadullo Shahidi (d 1985) is probably the most significant Tajik composer in the latter style, and a visit to his house museum in Dushanbe is the best way to appreciate his music and the cultural context in which he worked.

The Gurminj Museum is Tajikistan's de facto centre for ethnomusicology and houses an excellent collection of traditional instruments, including those used in Pamiri folk styles.

MUSIC AND DANCING by Robert Middleton

Ole Olufsen, leader of the Second Danish Pamir Expedition, 1898-99, was one of the first modern travellers to write about the songs, music and dancing of the Pamirs. In his report published in London in 1904 he commented:

These people are earnest and severe, a consequence of their hard struggle for very existence; they are rarely heard to laugh or sing, yet they are not devoid of taste both for vocal and instrumental music. They never sing in the open air during the summer; but in winter, at their parties and feasts, they exhibit their musical talents in the house.

Olufsen was not a musicologist and seems not to have grasped the central importance of music in Pamiri daily life, which is surprising for someone who demonstrated in other parts of his report a greater degree of cultural sensitivity. The second Danish expedition, about which he was writing, took place in the winter, and perhaps he had little opportunity to see some of the more joyful manifestations of Pamiri music. It is of course true that in 1898 the population had only recently been freed from Afghan depredations and Russian agricultural improvements (potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables) had not yet raised living conditions: the people may have had little occasion to be joyful. In 1908, the head of the Russian military administration in Khorog from 1902 to 1908, Andrei Yevgenevich Snessarev, a more sympathetic observer, was able to report that "the Tajiks are a gifted, energetic and active people, lull of initiative and capable of developed forms of social life and high culture ...' and was touched by Pamiri music.

We listen to the song that echoes towards us; the monotonous oriental scale, which you can hear to excess again and again in the Caucasus, in Persia, and in Russian Turkestan, changes here to what we might call a European scale, mostly in a minor key. There arc, however, not many such songs — they thereby gain in interest. If you hear them, you will instinctively say you have heard them before: in their legends and folktales you will recognize familiar scenes from sagas and epic poems. The same heroes, the same heroic deeds and miracles. The same lively and inquisitive imagination created them — perhaps they even have the same common origin as our own Kuropean tales.

In the early 1990s, again at a time of extreme food shortages, when the first western visitors came to the Pamirs they were welcomed in every village by music and dancing — and laughter.

Pamiri music is recognised today as belonging to a very ancient folk tradition, and is studied by musicologists from all over the world. Pamiri musical groups appear now in western concert halls and on television and recordings of their music are readily available.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) sponsors a 'Music Initiative in Central Asia' and their website provides a wide range of information on Central Asian music, including the musical traditions of the Pamirs, with a survey of the instruments and musical genres: many documents in pdf format can be downloaded. (See The website of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in London (part of AKDN) offers samples of Pamiri music ( 106046).

For Pamiris, music and dance are intimately linked; many Pamiri songs also contain both popular and religious elements, frequently referring to the Ismaili Imam. The pre-eminent vocal and instrumental genre of devotional music in the Pamirs is known as madoh, devotional songs of praise that can embody the spiritual power known as baraka. They serve several cultural functions and are also used with prayer and in the context of traditional healing.

Other Pamiri music includes: falak (song of fate), dargilik (song of separation — dargilik means 'melancholy'), lala'ik (lullaby), khalqi (traditional popular songs), ghazal (love songs, but can also be devotional), hikayat (versified stories) and munajat (supplicatory religious song). Dargiliks are normally sung in private settings, not at weddings or ritual ceremonies such as funerals. Many traditional songs are in a minor key.

The main instruments used in Pamiri music are the following:

Tavlak: a drum-type percussion instrument. The wooden or ceramic glass-shape box is covered with leather. The leather is heated before use and different parts of the surface produce different sounds. The tavlak is local to the mountainous regions of Tajikistan. It is used to accompany vocal pieces and folk music orchestras.

Daf: a drum-type wooden percussion instrument similar to a large tambourine. The daf is popular in all regions of Tajikistan. It usually accompanies other instruments in an orchestra or small group. In Pamiri musical heritage, the daf plays a very important role and is played during the most joyous of wedding music as well as to accompany songs of deep nostalgia. There is a daf in each Pamiri house and groups of women play complex rhythmic patterns to welcome guests.

Afghan Rubob: an ancient stringed pizzicato lute. The Rubob is popular in the musical cultures of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia It has many playing and resonance strings, 4—5 fixed frets and additional frets on the finger board. It consists of two sounding boards, one wooden and one leather. Fish skin is best for covering the board. The Rubob is used as a solo instrument and in folk orchestras. Very often it is played in pairs with the nay (flute) or the sitar. Musicians prefer the Rubob to be from apricot or mulberry trees.

Ghijak: a stringed bow instrument, which can have 2-4 strings. The ghijak consists of a spherical or rectangular box (made of metal or wood), sometimes covered with horse leather, sometimes only the original metal box. The bow is made of horse hair. It is used as solo instrument, as well as in string orchestras. In Badakhshan, it is mostly used for the dance melodies known as 'Rapo' and 'Kish-Kish'.

Nay: a longitudinal whistle flute, which is 30-35cm and has six holes. Apricot tree roots are preferred for making the nay. The Tajiks call the nay a 'Spring melody' instrument, because it is regularly played on spring mornings. It has two active pitches, which give it a very mild and pleasant sound. The nay is used in folk orchestras and is the most popular instrument among shepherds.

Tanbur: a long-necked lute with an oval lower soundboard covered with skin. Seven gut strings are attached to the peg-box and tuned with wooden pegs. The strings are plucked with a wooden plectrum.

Far (or tor): A stringed instrument similar to the Rubob, with a soundboard shaped like the figure 8.

Pamir Rubob: an ancient stringed short-necked lute. The box is covered with goat or cow leather. The strings are venous. The Rubob has a deep but very mild sound. The Pamir Rubob is very important for playing madoh.

Sitar (or sitor): a stringed pizzicato instrument, which can have from 5 to 14 strings. The sitar is popular in Badakhshan, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and is used as a solo instrument as well as in the traditional Badakhshan string orchestras. The box is of mulberry wood.

In addition to these typical Pamiri instruments, modern instruments such as the accordion are frequently used in popular singing and the ghijak is sometimes replaced by the violin.

The most important means of musical expression in the Pamirs remains the human voice, used with a characteristic throaty and sometimes nasal sound. Madoh are usually accompanied by Rubobs (or tanbur) and daf.

There is a saying in Tajikistan that the people from Leninabad (Sughd) govern, those from Kulob fight, in Gharm they pray - and the Pamiris dance. Certainly it is difficult to imagine life in Gorno-Badakhshan without the perpetual accompaniment of music and dancing. Every village has excellent musicians, young and old as well as expert dancers.

Men and women dance together, although there is no contact. Women perform as solo singers and occasionally as accordion players.

In the eastern Pamirs (Murghab district) musical traditions are very different. The main instrument is the komuz, with three wire strings plucked by the finger or by a plectrum. It produces a clear, penetrating sound.

The Murghab Kyrgyz are less fond of dancing than their Tajik compatriots in the Western Pamirs, but maintain a lively musical tradition.