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The Uzbek musician Sherali Jo’raev

“These guys really have it goin’ on, ” remarked Ken, the friend I happened to be traveling with in Central Asia in 2004. I gathered from context that he was referring to their music, which we heard everywhere we went: in the bazaars, the shared taxis, the tea houses and food stalls, and simply on the street. I did not disagree.

I don’t really know how our western cultural categories map onto those of Central Asia — but I guess there’s at least a rough correspondence in the category “popular music.” I refer to “popular” in the vein of the music that gets listened to (as opposed to music one chooses) during the course of a day: doing chores, getting places, or hanging out over green tea with milk and grape sugar served in little bowls.

The music sounded lively and inventive, rhythmic and “oriental” and yet somehow very “now”. It has a distinctive and indigenous musical sensibility, but it has also clearly undergone some of the effects of the modern recording studio. Certainly, the region had not so long ago come out of seventy years of Soviet domination, yet a tradition of popular regional entertainment seemed intact and thriving, and what Russo-Euro-Western influence prevailed was (I guess) largely restricted to the technical, and not the artistic, side of things.

We happened to be in the city of Osh, which claims to be 3, 000 years old, and lies in Kyrgyzstan at the eastern edge of the ethnically diverse Farg’ona (Fergana) Valley. At its large central bazaar, we stopped at a stall that sold cassette tapes manned by a young local lad with a haircut that can only be described as a reverse-mullet (long bangs, close-cropped elsewhere). I steeled myself for the wall of incomprehension that usually arises when I try to use my inadequate Russian, mis-remembered from lessons that have had several decades to fade.

Getting the gist of what I wanted (simplified by the fact that the stall sold only tape cassettes) he let us sample some of them on his boombox. Between Ken and I, we purchased a handful. One or two were clearly “published” in the sense that there were color j-cards and the tracks were printed on the tape itself; but most had laser-printed j-cards printed from a fixed template and no labels on the cassettes at all.

For me, the standout discovery among these was the voice and work of the Uzbek musician Sherali Jo’raev. I don’t know much about him, but I am happy to introduce my readers to his works thru the following series of YouTube links.

Here is Jo’raev with his band some time in the previous century looking for all the world like an Uzbek version of the Beatles on Sullivan:

youtube.com/watch?v=Nd4gfdO1QnY

He also does dance music:

youtube.com/watch?v=hoIhChu4OUU

Here is a slower piece, where he seems to be performing in a hotel lobby:

youtube.com/watch?v=xUvQUrM91-4

This one seems suspiciously like a command performance for dignitaries, but it’s from a multi-part video described as a “concert in honor of the poetry of Maulana Jalaliddin Rumi.” Its main failing is that it doesn’t keep the camera on the subject:

youtube.com/watch?v=CmGlNjANXbw

If you want to see the entire program from which the above was taken, I’ve assembled a playlist. The highlights for me are parts 2 and 7 (part 1 merely introduces the program and could be skipped if you choose).

youtube.com/viewplaylist?p=F32B6E642843A26D

My list isn’t close to exhaustive. A visit to just one of the links will reveal lots of other Jo’raev videos, which YouTube will helpfully suggest to you.