Samarkand Adventure

The Sharq Taronalari International Festival

by Laurel Victoria Gray

This is the second of two articles describing the author’s involvement in the Sharq Taronalari International Festival in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Concerts in the Registan

Each night we went to the Registan to hear some of the finest musicians of the East share their art. Some of the music was quite familiar, such as the offerings from Egypt and Jordan. The classical Egyptian orchestra did have one innovation—a cellist—which blended well with the sound of the group. Egypt also featured a female singer with a voice like thick dark chocolate. Greece’s entry was a Pontic folklore group which included a team of young male dancers. And one country, Malaysia, surprised us when the musicians set up on stage with all the instruments used in classical Arabic music and began playing from this traditional repertoire. “It is Egyptian!” exclaimed Fatih, the Egyptian judge. The performance reminded us just how far Islam had spread throughout Southeast Asia, bringing Arab culture in its wake.

The Korean selections were unusual and haunting, requiring amazing vocal control. A Japanese singer accompanied herself on traditional drums in an impressive performance. The delegation from Vietnam sang such sweet, gentle songs that I began to cry when I realized that my own nation had made war on these people. The girls were so tender as they sang their country’s folk songs, while holding large lacquered umbrellas in charming poses. How often I had heard about Vietnam while growing up, yet how little I knew of this land. Such was the power of music that it gave me my first glimpse into the soul of this people.

China’s featured singer, Xie Lin, was a soprano of great virtuosity. But also impressive was a young Mongolian singer who performed in the traditional married woman’s costume, complete with a huge headdress and colorful robes Dr. Shanno Khurana, India’s first serious woman composer, presented songs from the fourteenth century which were extremely fitting in the surroundings of the Registan. Turkey provided a stark contrast. Two scantily clad female pop singers wowed the audience with their hip-swinging performances, but their use of “playback” technically disqualified them from the competition.

Israel’s delegation featured a Yemenite female singer with a voice reminiscent of Ofra Hazah. During her first number, rendered a capella, she deftly manipulated a heavy veil, framing herself while she sang. The presentation also included dances by members of the famous Inbal Ensemble, which I had first seen over twenty years ago. I later discovered that the group’s director was well-acquainted with my dear friends Lola and Dima Akilov, talented Tashkent dancers who had emigrated to Israel several years ago.

The performers from the Central Asian countries were among my favorites. Tadjikistan entered a male ethno-pop singer who had a dance troupe of lovely young girls with him. They were exquisite. One young dancer walked backwards on her knees while in a backbend. (I immediately tried the move that night in my hotel room, bruising myself on the furniture.) But, from an aesthetic viewpoint, I found the combination of electrified music and jumpsuit-clad dancers alongside folkloric costumes to be a bit discordant.

The Kirgiz, Kazakh, and Turkmen delegations also made their contributions. The three Turkmen performers brought visions of the past to life as they sang their ancient songs. I could easily imagine that a thousand years ago a lonely shepherd sang the exact same tune sitting in front of his yurt on the desolate steppe.

Most intriguing was the Kakhaz delegation from Russia. Although their name resembles the word kavkaz, they did not come from the Caucasus, but were instead an Altaic group akin to the Buriyat Mongols. The men wore fabulous fur hats with tails hanging down the back. The women singers performed charming little dances with delicate hand and arm movements, a reminder that many of the motions associated with Arabic dance come from a place far to the East of Egypt. Some of the pieces sung by the men involved the famous vocal technique known as “throat singing.”

Not surprisingly, the Uzbek performers were magnificent; they were on their home turf. Clad in long velvet robes embroidered with gold, they were the essence of Oriental splendor. The famous singer Munadzhat Yulchieva presented the highly emotional and dramatic katta ashula or “big song.” It echoed throughout the Registan, and even the old buildings seemed to wake up.

Our friends in the “American” delegation also had their chance to shine. They received an extremely warm reception as they confidently walked out on stage to give a performance which successfully combined fine musicianship with artistic presentation. The songs included special lyrics referring to the occasion of their return to Uzbekistan. Ilias Malaev displayed his virtuosity in song while Mukhabbat touched everyone with her rendition of a delicate lullaby. Izra Malakov also sang the katta ashula, threatening to peel tiles from the medressahs with the vibrations produced by his voice.

Laurel Victoria Gray, Crimean Tartar Costume, Uzbekistan

My birthday, August 30th, fell within the dates of the festivals. My Samarkand friends—Lola, Mubarrak, Najme, Momorasul, and Mansur—treated me like royalty and showered me with gifts, including a scimitar and a gold-embroidered red velvet dress and pants. Somehow the Uzbek officials also got wind of the occasion and planned a special luncheon for me. The Minister of Culture, Khayrullo Djuraev, and the Mayor of Samarkand, Aziz Nosirov, presented me with a porcelain tea set commemorating Tamerlane’s 660th birthday. The members of the jury all sang “Happy Birthday,” perceptively sweetened by their native accents, and I found myself afflicted with a considerable lump in my throat. “I am so blessed to have such a birthday, in such a place, surrounded by such people,” I later told fellow juror Shanta Singh. “And you are also blessed to have the consciousness to appreciate it,” she wisely noted.

That night I wore my new red velvet outfit to the concert, feeling every inch like Bibi Khanim, Tamerlane’s favorite wife. Travis presented me with a garland of marigolds, and I thought things couldn’t get better until one of my favorite singers came to the stage. Sharom Nazeri has a voice that is a gift from God, but his humble demeanor is quite different from the peacock strutting of Persian male vocalists in America. The classical Persian orchestra was fabulous, and I dove into the sound with relish, completely transported to another time and place.

Travis also had a surprise that night. Just two weeks earlier she had performed an interpretive dance piece at our Santa Fe concert held in connection with the Central Asian Dance Camp. The work, entitled “Dakini,” was set to a Persian drum solo. After the concert, Travis came up to me quite breathless. “That’s him! I’m sure that is him!” she exclaimed excitedly. A drummer’s style can be as distinctive as a human voice; she immediately recognized the sound. “Check your notes and see if his name is listed among the musicians,” she suggested. We found the confirmation. Travis eventually got to meet the drummer and thank him for his work. The magical force of music had brought together a dancer from America and a drummer from Iran to shake hands in Samarkand. It would seem that the Age of Miracles has not yet passed.

That night we were feted at a banquet at an ancient medressah on the outskirts of town. Compared with the darkness of the surrounding countryside, the view of the courtyard framed narrow doorway gleamed with the jeweled tones of a Mughal miniature. I stepped across the threshhold into a spacious garden decorated for the occasion. Our friend Momrasul, a professional choreographer, was also there. He got Travis and myself up to dance, demonstrating movements characteristic of Samarkand styling, and we eagerly took advantage of the impromptu lesson. Members of the Lazgi Ensemble were also there, giving us a chance to brush up on our Khorezm dance.

The following night we heard a performance by a twenty-year-old Azerbaijani singer, Simara Ivanova, which left everyone speechless. Playing a frame drum, and accompanied by two male musicians, this unassuming young woman quietly began to sing the songs of her native land. Then, unexpectedly, she launched into a mugam, her voice resonating throughout the Registan. The sounds flowed and rippled like the surface of a river lapping up the very shores of our souls. To speak during such a performance would have been sacrilege; we could only look at each other and shake our heads in disbelief.

After the concerts each night I would mentally review the performances and add to my notes. But I really began to despair of ever being able to decide between so many stellar talents. As Maya Angelou says, all comparisons are odious. How would we ever be able to judge?

Death of a Princess

The morning after the last concert, I entered the judges’ dining room to find several of the women engaged in serious conversation. “We are discussing the news about Princess Diana,” explained Shanta. “She has been in an automobile accident and Dodi is dead. Isn’t that sad?”

I was stunned. I felt, like everyone else, that Princess Diana lived an enchanted life and would always remain young and beautiful. As other jurors entered the room, they gave us updates, since our hotel got CNN. Finally, we learned of her death and the atmosphere in the room palled. We continued with our work but everyone was affected. When Mr. Ganbat, my Mongolian dance partner from the opening night, entered the room to answer some questions about his ensemble, he too commented on Diana’s death. Later, one of the pretty young women from the Indonesian delegation also became teary-eyed when speaking of the late princess. Our tiny world community had shared joy; now we were sharing sorrow. I thought about the remarkable woman who had made such an impact on people from all over the planet and recalled a wise saying: The only true measure of our words and deeds is the love left behind when we are gone.

Tomb of the Prophet Daniel

We had some time off because of the celebration of Uzbekistan’s sixth year of independence. Travis, Arslan, and I wandered back over to the shops inside the Registan to look for costumes. A kindly man there invited us to see a tiny museum within one of the rooms. It contained historic photographs of old Samarkand and effectively revealed the huge amount of restoration work that had been undertaken on the Registan. One wall displayed a map which showed the location of the tomb of the prophet Daniel. Although I had heard Daniel mentioned on previous trips to Samarkand, I had assumed it to be legend. How could an Old Testament prophet end up in the wilds of Central Asia? But the enthusiastic museum curator assured us the place existed and explained that after the Mongols destroyed the ancient city of Afrosiab (for which our hotel had been named) the region had been blighted. Tamerlane wished to bless the land with the baraka of a revered saint and arranged for the prophet’s remains to be dug up and brought to Samarkand. Arslan, who was Samarkand born and bred, admitted that he had never been there. “Stick with me, kid, and you’ll go places,” I teased.

Using my perogative as a jury member to secure a car and driver, we headed out to the tomb after lunch. We discovered the winding road leading up to the shrine was well-tended and planted with flowers. The grounds were clean and well-kept; it was clear that someone cherished the memory of Daniel. We tied cloth onto a prayer tree by the tomb. Located outside of an ancient wall surrounding the site of Afrosiab, the place was imbued with serenity. I discovered a small opening in the wall and invited others to explore the man-made cave with me. Had this been some sort of sentry post? We didn’t know, but appreciated our excursion into antiquity.

We were quite alone at the shrine until an Uzbek family arrived with glass jars to take water from a nearby sacred well. The man explained that all the upkeep of the shrine was done by volunteers, an endeavor which earned merit in traditional Islamic society.

And the winner is…

Once our scores had been tallied, the most difficult work of the jury began. Several of the scores were extremely close. We also had many different prizes to award, not only first, second and third places, and the festival Grand Prize, but also special awards such as a brand new car. Making deliberations even more challenging was the fact that we did not share a common language so everything had to be translated which not only took up time, but created a continual noise in the room. It was hard to be patient, and after many hours, everyone was exhausted. I remembered the special cache of Starbuck’s coffee and Celestial Seasonings Almond Sunset tea which I had in my room, and ran upstairs to get it. I asked the waiters for our dining room to assist me, and they brewed several pots of tea while I used a French press to make coffee. I then served everyone, delighting in the chance to switch roles and play hostess for a change. The delicious scents worked as a sort of aromatherapy and everyone relaxed. (This being the East, the tea won hands down over the coffee in a taste test.)

At last we reached a decision. The young Azerbaijani singer won the Grand Prize and first place prizes went to India’s Shanno Khurana and Uzbekistan’s Muadzhat Yulchieva. Iran, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan also placed. A special Unesco prize for traditional music went to Korea, and the Turkmen singer won the new car. The “American” delegation was honored with a hand-made carpet.

After the awards presentation and the closing ceremonies we all returned to the hotel for yet another banquet. I realized that our magical island in time would soon disappear as we parted company. While I could still look forward to spending another two weeks with friends in Tashkent, I was sad to see the close of this memorable festival and hoped that I would be able to return when it was held again in two years.

Home again

My trip left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the festival had been an exhilarating immersion in the ethnic music and dance of the East which I so dearly loved. I had been blessed with the opportunity to hear performances by some of our planet’s most gifted musicians and had spent my birthday pampered in fairy-tale luxury. I had renewed acquaintance with old friends in Samarkand as well as making many new friends. But I felt somewhat disturbed by the new trend I saw emerging in Uzbek dance. Was my observation an accurate one? Was this the effect of increased Western, and especially American, contact? Was my own culture in part to blame for the increased modernization of this art? I wished that I could do something to reverse this trend.

Be careful what you wish for…Not surprisingly, about a month after my return from Uzbekistan I had a vivid dream: I was sitting in a concert hall watching Kizlarkhon Dustmukhamedova perform. “That’s my teacher,” I kept telling everyone. Filled with happiness, I awoke. Here was the answer to the doubt which had been nagging me. Kizlarkhon was the epitome of the refined, introspective styling which for me was the hallmark of Central Asian classical dance. Perhaps we, the American enthusiasts of Uzbek dance, could encourage a return to this older tradition by cultivating its development on our own shores. If our Western culture was part of the problem, perhaps we could be part of the solution. I discussed this with Travis and we decided to bring Kizlarkhon to Santa Fe for the Third Annual Central Asian Dance Camp.

The spirit of the Samarkand festival proved the incontrovertable power of music and dance. Now, more than ever, we are connected, and we can inspire each other with our art. The planet has truly become a global village. But while we interact to fuse our cultures in new, exciting ways, we need to remember our roots and to nourish the source of our respective traditions. The innovations of each new generation are like the new leaves that sprout yearly from an ancient tree. Those new leaves provide beauty and shade, but without healthy roots the entire organism will sicken and die. We are all linked together and what we do on one part of the planet impacts another, distant region. We need to be thoughtful in our exchanges. We share the burden of caring for the diverse, fragile treasures of world culture. Each dance tradition has its own wisdom that can nourish even those on a distant shore.

Wishes in Santa Fe can open a road to Samarkand and wishes in Samarkand may lead to who knows where. Yol bulsin. May the road be open.

Laurel Victoria Gray is an internationally acclaimed dancer, scholar, instructor and choreographer who has taught and performed throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Central Asia, and Australia. Her articles have appeared in many publications including the Oxford University Press International Encyclopedia of Dance, and the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, and Dance Magazine. She teaches Persian dance at the Iranian Community School and is Artistic Director of the Silk Road Dance Company.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.