Three ensembles provide a remarkable sampling of sounds rarely heard in the West.
By Don Heckman, Special to The Times
The music of central Asia is among the most unfamiliar in the world to Western ears, the region’s isolation furthered by the many decades of Soviet Russian rule. But that lack of awareness is not a reflection on the quality or character of the remarkable music from countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
UCLA Live’s presentation of “Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia” on Friday night at Royce Hall offered performances by three very different ensembles. Each illuminated a different aspect of the area’s many gifted performers in a display of melodies and rhythms whose surprising accessibility underscored the musical universality that reaches into the most remote corners of the globe.
First up — the Badakhshan Ensemble — was a seven-person collective from Tajikistan performing selections based on folk rubai (quatrains) and the classic poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. Their music was filled with dynamic twists and turns of rhythm and melody, especially when singer Agnazar Alovatov explored the spiritual sentiments of the maddoh style and the clarion voice of Soheba Davlatshoeva arched its way through complex mazes of microtonal melismas.
In the group’s final ebull- ient number, Davlatshoeva’s graceful dance movements were countered by the enthusiastic physicality and ghijak (spike fiddle) playing of Jonboz Dushanbief.
The Bardic Divas, announced in the program as four female vocalists, were actually limited to performances by Ulzhan Baibussynova and Ziyada Sheripova, trailblazers in breaking through previously male-dominated musical traditions.
They accompanied themselves on the lute-like dombra and dutar, their contrasting vocals striking, sometimes recalling the tight-throated singing of the Bulgarian women’s choirs, at others soaring with supple lyricism and bird-like expressiveness.
The final ensemble featured Alim Qasimov, Azerbaijan’s foremost singer of the complex music known as mugam. Although mugam belongs to the broad area of Middle Eastern modal-based music, it is also a classical expression that can rival the improvisational excursions of Indian music and the procedural structures of Western classical forms. In the suite-like forms chosen by Qasimov and his partnering singer, his daughter Fargana, the results were virtually symphonic in their multilayered organization and intricacy. Qasimov’s extraordinary improvisations, often matched by Fargana’s equally compelling musical lines, were masterful examples of the style’s mesmerizing blend of virtuosic, octave-stretching singing, intense expressiveness and magical, on-the-spot inventiveness.
The success of this exceptional evening, featuring many players never before heard in the West, was enhanced by the decision of the co-producers — the World Music Institute and the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia — to include video projections of brief documentary clips about each of the ensembles as well as supertitles of the gripping, sometimes unexpectedly humorous, poetic lyrics.