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Jazz with a Touch of Pilaf

A young jazz group in Uzbekistan seeks to take the form forward, in part by looking back.

by Dengiz Uralov 14 February 2014

The seeds of jazz were planted in Uzbekistan in the 1950s and 1960s via American radio and vinyl records. They continued to grow despite Soviet-era bans and persecution, the emigration of musicians during perestroika, and a widespread ignorance of the form in contemporary Uzbekistan.


Recently, some inventive musicians crossed jazz with Uzbek folk music, yielding an unusual fruit.


Jazzirama, the first album from a young jazz group in Tashkent by the same name, caused a sensation among critics and the country’s small band of jazz fans when it was released in December. For the first time, jazz had spoken with an Uzbek accent.




“Nowadays it's not easy to develop a new, original jazz language,” German composer Moritz Gagern said in an email interview. According to Gagern, who worked on a project in Uzbekistan in December to mix progressive rock and Uzbek folk music, the idea of combining jazz with traditional music is no longer new and seldom “leads anywhere,” but he praises Jazzirama as an exception.


Jazz has been trying to “speak Uzbek" since the mid-20th century. Like rock ’n’ roll in the 1970s and 1980s, jazz was the music of the marginalized in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s. In the midst of the Cold War you could get fired from your job, expelled from the Communist Party, or even sent to prison for the "imitation of imperialist music.”


That did not deter pianist Vladimir Safarov and his trumpet-playing brother Gennadiy. They were among the first jazz musicians in Uzbekistan, starting their first band in 1958. In 1968 they managed to launch the Tashkent Jazz Club, still the only organization in the country that stages events where jazz musicians gather to play and socialize.


"The main teacher for us in those years was a great jazz voice of America, Willis Conover,” Vladimir Safarov writes in his memoirs. "Every day at 1:30 a.m. we listened to the jazz program [Jazz Hour] on the Voice of America. Often with an accordion in my hands I tried to find the melody and new chords. That was our school.”


In those years it was almost impossible to buy vinyl records or sheet music for jazz compositions. Over time the Soviet authorities relented, and by the 1970s Uzbekistan was hosting major jazz festivals that attracted famous musicians from the West. By the time of its independence, jazz music had firmly taken root.


But since then, the members of Jazzirama say, the genre has stood still in Uzbekistan. There are few professional jazz musicians; older players have not kept up with current trends, and a new generation has not come up to replace them.


“Ironically, now jazz is ‘semi-legal,’ not in terms of any ban on its performance, but in terms of the attitude of the musical establishment,” said Sanjar Nafikov, Jazzirama’s keyboard player and co-founder.


“Classical musicians in Uzbekistan look down on the word ‘jazz,’ ” Nafikov says. “I don’t see much interest in the study of jazz among the young generation. Maybe because their teachers don't present jazz culture as the equal of classical.”


Jazzirama is an Uzbek word meaning “hell’s heat.” Uzbek musicians use the word to describe their feeling of “drive,” roughly the equivalent of “groove” or “funk” in English. The group was started in 2011 by Nafikov and saxophonist Saidmurat Muratov, students at the country’s only music conservatory.


The band members say their main task is to promote Uzbek folk music, using a fusion of jazz, avant-garde, and other contemporary styles – an approach that grew out of the environment for jazz musicians in Uzbekistan.


"We live in a vacuum,” Nafikov said. “There are very few musicians who are interested in jazz. Foreign musicians rarely come from abroad; all the information we get is from the Internet. Therefore, we can’t play American jazz. To play it, you need to go to the U.S., and the environment around you will give you the right feeling for jazz. But we have our own environment, and it's different. It’s an eastern city, eastern traditions. It’s Tashkent.”


Jazzirama’s players say their music consists of two worlds: the real world of Uzbekistan and the imagined world of jazz, which opens for them only through recordings of great musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker.


What sets the group apart, according to Gagern, is the way its melodies develop through “the special force of the drums” and “the groove of the whole band that often derives from the piano but then extends to all instruments.”


“The colors of Uzbek traditional music, instruments, and singing uniquely melts into this language just as the architecture of an old mosque melts into a busy intersection with cars, Soviet-style buildings, and unfinished skyscrapers somewhere in Tashkent. And the level of musicianship is very high,” Gagern wrote.


Jazzirama draws on shashmaqam, an ancient genre of Uzbek and Tajik folk music, and on folk epics. “We try to analyze the principles of the structure and melodies in shashmaqam,” Nafikov said.


The band’s album was released in a small run of only 200 to 300 copies, with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The musicians do not even know how many copies were sold.


“We’ve just begun to get involved in the music business, and we don’t have enough knowledge of marketing and promotion of the records. We didn’t do much advertising for that album. We only deal with the music,” Nafikov said.


Not every critic was as effusive as Gagern.


“The disc doesn’t inspire any great emotions,” said Maksim Sobolevskiy, a blogger and well-known musician from Tashkent. “It lacks surprises and passion. Certainly, it’s quality work, and if you’re a fan of ethno-jazz, it will be interesting for you. But I wouldn’t use this album to introduce people to ethno-jazz music.”


Jazzirama’s musicians say they would like to pull Uzbekistan from its cultural vacuum and invite in jazz musicians from abroad. But they don’t wish to emigrate, as many other artists from Uzbekistan have.


Nafikov said their music is “deeply connected” with patir, a traditional Uzbek bread, and pilaf. “And I don’t know where in the world I can taste it as well-prepared as here.”

Dengiz Uralov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Tashkent. You can listen to Jazzirama tracks at Sanjar Nafikov’s Soundcloud page. Home page photo by Dengiz Uralov.

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© Transitions Online 2014. All rights reserved. ISSN 1214-1615
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