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'Pamiri Music Will Not Die'

From lullabies to funerals, everything that happens in the high mountains of Tajikistan is done to music, bandleader Ikbol Zavkibekov says.

by Dengiz Uralov 8 August 2013

The Pamirs, mightiest mountains of the old Soviet Union, form the backbone of the ancient Badakhshan, a region of unique musical and cultural survival. Early in July, a number of Pamiri musicians returned to their homeland for the sixth annual Roof of the World music festival in Khorog, the chief town of the Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province.


In the Tajik part of the Pamirs, about 140,000 speakers of various Pamiri languages have preserved their cultural identity for centuries. Iranian tribes settled here in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C., managing to remain independent throughout the incursions of Alexander the Great, the Arab Caliphate, Turkic and Chinese empires, Genghis Khan and other invaders until finally being absorbed into the Russian empire. Then came the Soviet era, when the people of the Pamirs enjoyed a measure of autonomy, although they also came under pressure to use Tajik to the detriment of the less common tongues spoken there.


During the Tajik civil war in the 1990s, Lali Badakhshan, a movement devoted to preserving the autonomy of Gorno-Badakhshan, joined forces with the United Tajik Opposition. The region eventually secured its autonomous status, but at the cost of severe damage to the infrastructure and the road network, and as a result many Pamiris emigrated. Since the 1997 peace settlement, Gorno-Badakhshan has remained the one of the most isolated and restive parts of Tajikistan, and potentially a trouble spot for the central government. A year ago, government troops engaged a former warlord and suspected crime boss in a fierce gun battle in which at least 40 people were killed, most of them civilians.


In the Soviet period and since, this mountainous land bordering Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan nurtured many famous performers. Gurminj Zavkibekov, an actor and musician, built a personal collection of musical instruments in Dushanbe and opened the public’s eyes to the richness of Pamiri musical traditions.


Later, Daler Nazarov was the first to fuse traditional Pamiri rhythms and melodies with Western instrumentation. Lidush Habib, considered the finest of the modern Pamiri bards, was the first to use contemporary themes until his career was cut short by his death in 2002.


Among the performers who made the arduous, all-day drive from Dushanbe to Khorog to play at this year’s Roof of the World festival were Temursho Imatshoev, on a rare visit to his ancestors’ homeland, and Shams, one of the most popular groups in Tajikistan today.


Like Nazarov, Shams, led by Gurminj Zavkibekov’s son Ikbol, play Pamiri-Western fusion, sometimes using Western, sometimes local instruments. Ikbol Zavkibekov spoke with TOL in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.


Ikbol ZavkibekovIkbol Zavkibekov


TOL: Tell us about your relationship to the Pamirs and their music.


IZ: I grew up in the family of People's Artist of Tajikistan Gurminj Zavkibekov. My father was born and grew up in the Pamirs. Throughout his life, he collected musical instruments. As I grew up, I was surrounded by these instruments, as well as the many visitors who came from the Pamirs. Of course they all played music in our house, and that was very inspiring for me. Slowly, I began to get involved in the instruments and started to play a little. I got my first musical inspiration from the music that came from the Pamir Mountains.


TOL: What sets Pamiri music apart from the music of other places?


IZ: The musical culture of Tajikistan is very rich, and each region has its own musical forms. And Pamiri music, naturally, is very different from the rest. First of all, it uses specific rhythms unlike anything in other regions. The instruments are also quite different. Musicians in the Pamirs use ancient instruments. They can be considered "cult instruments" – the Pamiri rubab and tanbur. They are fretless instruments with gut strings. I have never encountered such instruments anywhere in other countries.


Pamiri music itself is rich in a variety of genres. Everything that happens in the mountains is done to music. There are songs for every occasion: lullabies, weddings, funerals. There is instrumental music. There are genres with a religious orientation, for example, maddo. In maddo, music and rhythm have an impact on a person; they cause him to enter into a trance. It is a spiritual, Sufi music. Maddo musicians never use instruments with steel strings, such as the sitar and gidzhak. They play the Pamir rubab, tanbur, and daf [a kind of drum]. And the Pamir songs are sung to lyrics from classical Persian poetry and Tajik literature, mainly the poetry of Shams Tabrizi [13th-century Persian poet and Sufi teacher, mentor to the revered Sufi mystic Rumi.]


TOL: What are the main challenges for those who try to keep the music of the Pamirs alive?


IZ: In this globalized world with its modern music, young people are forgetting about folk music. They pay less attention to folk traditions; fewer people want to play and sing. But Pamiri music will not die. In the Pamirs people can't live without music. Music accompanies all the processes of everyday life. True, there is a tendency for professional musicians to leave the Pamirs. Life in Khorog is hard and so they move to the capital. Some, because of financial difficulties, give up music and travel to Russia to work on a construction site.


TOL: How does Pamiri folk music influence the music of your group, Shams?


IZ: Shams draws its inspiration from Pamiri traditional music. Although our musicians are interested in world music, too. For example, our percussionist Zarif studies Indian music. The songs that we play include Pamiri scales, and many of our lyrics come from traditional genres of the Pamirs.


The song "Pomir Kuen" (“Pamir is Home”) is about the Pamirs, the different areas and their people, about the mountains, about the motherland. This song was written by Lidush Habib. This is Pamir urban folklore. Habib played this song on guitar, but we made our own arrangement.


TOL: What were your impressions at the first show in the land of the Pamir after a two-year hiatus?


IZ: I watched some videos from our gig at the Roof of the World festival. I looked at our guys, and saw that we were all so inspired, probably because it was a kind of setting where a lot of people just listened to us. We felt at home. And people did not just want to dance, they wanted to listen to us. As a result, there was a good rapport and we were really inspired. We have not had many such experiences.

Dengiz Uralov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Tashkent.


Ikbol Zavkibekov photo courtesy of the musician

Shams video courtesy of Bactria Cultural Center/Z. Oripova, M. Platonova

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