World Music Central website has published an article describing the biography of a known Uzbek singer Sevara Nazarkhan. The following is full text of the story.
The history of a lone woman singing and accompanying herself on a stringed instrument is ancient. It is a familiar image in manuscripts and regions of the legendary Silk Route. In places that evoke the exotic, like Bukhara and Samarkand – the cities of modern day Uzbekistan – music was advanced and courtly. A female singer and instrumentalist epitomized high culture.
Sevara Nazarkhan, a twenty-five-year-old, Uzbek singer, songwriter and musician, is a direct descendent of this past. Her instrument is the dutar – a fifteenth century, two-stringed, Central Asian lute that is plucked not strummed. When music was the preserve of shepherds and lonely wayfarers, the strings were made from animal intestines. As the Silk Route became better established and the dried fruits and animal skins that Marco Polo carried were traded for gems and Chinese porcelain, the strings were woven from silk. The doutar has a warm, dulcet tone. In Sevara’s hands, combined with her voice, an ancient tradition breathes.
Her album Yol Bolsin (Where Are You Going) for Real World is a meeting place between the old and the new. Along the Silk Route, even today, some traditions haven’t faded. Folk songs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries underpin the popular music of the region. Unlike the west, which has no musical equivalent, centuries old maqams – cycles of vocalization and instrumentation – are performed and danced to by old and young alike. This music has not been rediscovered or benefited from a ’back to the roots’ retro movement, since it is as current today as it was hundreds of years ago. With the line between entertainment and ritual blurred, music played at toi, wedding parties or family and community festivities, and at bairam, national or regional celebrations, has been incorporated into the full body of life, not relegated to consumer consumption. As a result, the pop songs sit side-by-side with peasant songs. Time and music actually do stand still in Central Asia.
This dichotomy exists within Sevara’s own oeuvre. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, she is a pop star. It is not unusual for Sevara, a slight, striking woman with long dark hair to be stopped on the street by her fans. Her first group in 1998 was a soulful women’s quartet. During this period, she also sang in the city’s popular arts café, Taxi Blues. A year later, she released her debut album and established herself as a solo singer. Despite her choice of western musical forms, her roots are apparent. Sevara’s father, formerly a vocalist of European classical music, headed the traditional music department in Tashkent radio before his retirement. Her mother teaches traditional string instruments and is the director of an extracurricular music school. From 1998 to earlier this year, Sevara studied voice at the Tashkent State Conservatoire, where folk music is a rigorously taught musical art.
Some might be surprised by her choice of material – folk, Sufi and peasant songs – that fill up Yol Bolsin. The first track "Yor-Yor" is a traditional song to a bride about moving into the home of her husband and his parents. According to custom, this song’s lyrics are improvised, but Sevara sings a popular version, which advises the new bride not to feel like a stranger. If music is a social document, songs like "Yor-Yor" represent the halfway point between the city and the rural countryside. Other songs on the album are dominated by natural imagery: the white snake in Sevara’s favorite song, "Galdir," or the steps that become flowers in "Yol Bolsin" are symbols for heartache and freedom.
Today, when Uzbek women gather together in towns and villages to sing and socialize, many of their songs are about alienation, separation and unrequited love, but then women’s emotions under Islam are usually about watching or being watched – rarely touching. While Russian colonial rule in Uzbekistan was harsh and brutal, for women who had been living strict Islamic lives prior to the Soviets’ arrival, the change in government, and the impact of young Uzbek reformists amounted to social emancipation. Women are used to asking for what they want and getting their own way. "Yol Bolsin" and "Yallajonim" (My Dearest Song) capture the emotions of hopeful, purposeful – not arranged – love.
Two of the songs, "Moghulchai Navo" (Mochul Melody) and "Soqinomai Bayot" (whichrefers to a particular rhythm pattern of the doira) utilize the classical form of the Shash (Six) Maqams. The last track "Alla" ( Lullaby) lingers in the air like a soothing dream or a crisp, starry nigh found no where else but on the mountain passes of the Silk Route. The real lesson of Sevara’s unique musical journey is that time bridges the distances between past and present.
Most of these songs are rooted in the near and Middle East, where the instrumentation, whether on doutar or doira, a woman’s small, flat drum, follow patterns of vocalization. The quarter note, considered ’false’ in the west because there is no classical counterpart, is one of the foundations of the region’s music. Oral poetry in particular has a special significance in Uzbekistan, where the term for male bards, bakhshi, also means healers who use music as a conduit to the spirit world. It is the same in the Chinese book of Changes, I Ching, where music is considered a mystical link to the ancestors. Along with Marco Polo’s treasures, spirituality was one of the more interesting goods and services that traveled the Silk Route’s 5,000 miles of history, from the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an over the steppe, oasis and desert byways that lead to the Mediterranean and Roman Empire.
With such a monolithic history, modernity can be easily sidelined. Yet, Sevara, the pop star, is no stranger to popular music trends. With samples, electric guitars and keyboards, Yol Bolsin didn’t fully begin to flower until record producer Hector Zazou, from France, immersed himself in the tastes and smells of contemporary Uzbekistan. Sevara jokes that she forced Zazou to eat, drink and dress Uzbeki – experiencing the purely traditional.For the album’s doutar playing, Sevara borrows the hand work and experience of Toir Kuziyev, a master of instrumentation. The results are a collection of evocative songs recorded in Tashkent and Paris. The final mix was completed in the Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire. Yet Yol Bolsin remains outside time and essentially Central Asian.