In the midst of all the news about conflicts, sectarian tensions, and mutual recriminations the world over, a bit of good news is always welcome. That good news is coming from Central Asia, where the Jewish community has been living continuously, in some parts going back to 4th century A.D.
Much of the Bukharan community of Uzbekistan has immigrated to Israel and the United STates in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so much of the remaining community in the country consists of Ashkenazi Jews who have moved there during World War II and after. Nevertheless, the country is enjoying a surprising resurgence of interest in classical/traditional shashmaqam music, that was performed jointly by Jewish and Muslim musicians, unifying both communities around the shared culture that dates back centuries, all the way to the rich cultural exchanges of the Silk Road.
This year, marked the fourth annual musical festival called “Shashmaqam Forever”, which takes place in the United States, appealing to the significant Bukharan community in New York. The showcase of the richness of the tradition – marked by a wonderful performance of poetry, instrumental ensemble music, traditional dance, and songs – was hosted by the American Sephardi Federation, following a gathering in Queens’ Versailles Palace, where some of the most significant contributors to this movement were publicly recognized and their accomplishments introduced to the organizers and the public.
The concert was dedicated to the memory of the famed collector of musical heritage, Yunus Rajabi, which started with a film about his contributions to the preservation of the traditional musical genre, and was followed by a poetry reading in Uzbek and Tajik, by Roshel Rubinov, who was accompanied by a descendant of one of the most famous and influential musical families Tanbur Roman Tolmasov. Members of the Rajabiy family as well as other members of assamble performed a number of moving, and beautiful traditional pieces, followed by an award ceremony celebrating the input of the accomplished musicians and members of the community. The auditorium was completely filled; much of the community has a very strong cultural and emotional connection to the genre, which has not been completely displaced by Soviet Russian songs or contemporary pop music. In fact, Shashmaqam may be experiencing a renaissance, thanks to the efforts of the government, and the renewed interest in revisiting the unifying cultural roots which made the Uzbeki heritage and that of the other countries in the region so unique and fascinating.
Meanwhile, at a private luncheon gathering recognizing the cultural contributions of various performers and community members, the message from Ambassador Vahabov outline a number of exciting government-led initiatives aimed to not only preserve the heritage of this tradition, but to revitalize the movement across society:
First, the statement said, ” Maqam is an indelible part of Uzbekistan’s culture and history. It is a philosophy has an important place in the spiritual life of each of us. It’s a wonderful art, which thanks to its inimitability, as well as the cultural contributions of many great performers and poets is popular and beloved not just in our country, but also far from its borders. The most noteworthy proof of that is UNESCO’s recognition of maqam in 2003 as an an intangible cultural heritage of humanity”.
To that end, Ambassador further noted in his statement, the President of Uzbekistan has been supporting measures that would support the furthering of this art across the country. That includes the creation of the Center of the Uzbek National Maqam Arts. The Center will be actively involved in the rebirth and study of the performing and artistic schools and traditions of maqam. It will also include financial and moral support of maqam practitioners, educators, and subject matter experts. The Center will also organize educational practice events and concerts with the involvement of famous performers; and broad propaganda (PR) of maqam abroad.
Specialized educational institutions will include classes focused on the study of the art of maqam as part of their curriculum. The State Conservatory of Uzbekistan now has a chair of “The History and Theory of Uzbek Maqam”. Teacher colleges now have a new subject: “The Art of Maqam”. In addition, every two years, an International Forum of the Art of Maqam will take place in the city of Shahrisabze. Various appropriate infrastructural projects will be erected for that purpose in the Oksaroy Plaza. There will also be a grand reconstruction of the Palace of Culture. THe President has also dedicated scholarship prizes for such categories as ” The best Maqam soloist/musician”, “Best Maqam Educator”, and “Best Rising Maqam Performer”.
This important cultural development by the President of Uzbekistan is hopefully just a starting point for the wider recognition and further development of this movement. Interest for traditional arts and crafts of various countries is on the rise; these cultures should not only be preserved by the descendants of their originators but cross borders and be enjoyed by musicians and music lovers from all over the world. We hope to see other Central Asian countries follow Uzbekistan’s example in elevating this art form towards preservation and investing into its promotion and practice. I hope to see a time when Uzbeki musicians of all religions travel around the world performing concerts, and to see this beautiful music also influence fusion musical acts and movements, just as traditional Middle Eastern melodies have enjoyed this resurgence and adaptation by bands, groups, and individual singers from around the world.
I also think that this development is an important step in the rebranding of Uzbekistan and the entire region. Unknown to many of the Western countries, these states have enjoyed a rich and multicultural history that has been largely forgotten. Political and economic hardships and battles over influence by many rising hegemonies today are much more likely to make it into the news than the welcome step of these countries in asserting their independence through positive steps of preserving, rather than ignoring or destroying their cultural heritage, and welcoming their past traditions of peaceful coexistence and vibrant cultural exchanges. Perhaps, the time is coming for a new Silk Road – brought about not through gigantic infrastructure boondoggles or aggressive outside plans, but through educational and cultural meetings of hearts and minds, and openings towards trade, dialogue, and artistic evolution.