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Relatively quickly, jazz has found a home in the traditional tunes of this mountain country.by Jamila Sujud 14 July 2014
DUSHANBE | What do you get when you combine the doira, tablak, and gijak – traditional instruments in Tajikistan – with the improvisation of jazz?
That’s the question the band Avesto has been asking, and answering, for years, synthesizing contemporary jazz with traditional Tajik music to tell stories about their country.
Avesto folds melodies from across Tajikistan’s region – from the sedate tunes of Badakhshan in the southeast to the rhythmic compositions of the northern Sughd province – into jazz to create what has become known as ethno jazz, a genre popular enough to support a festival in Dushanbe each year in mid-May.
The festival’s growing attendance – from 1,500 in 2009, its inaugural year, to 2,200 this year – is evidence of the genre’s increasing appeal in Tajikistan and, some say, throughout Central Asia.
“We can proudly say that the development of ethno jazz in Central Asia began thanks to Avesto,” the group’s singer, Takhmina Ramazanova, said. She recalled that on the band’s first appearance at a festival in Bishkek in 2009, it was the only group performing ethno jazz tunes.
By the next year, she said, “we met colleagues from other countries in Central Asia who had adopted our practices and started trying to perform ethno jazz.” This year, the group conducted master classes at the Dushanbe festival.
Although jazz first made its way to Tajikistan in the 1960s, the success of a group like Avesto became possible only as attitudes toward Western music relaxed – and possibly as Western music has adapted itself to Tajik norms.
In the 1960s jazz was considered bourgeois by the country’s communist rulers. Some performers adopted elements of the genre, but no one became popular playing something clearly identifiable as jazz until singer Parvin Yusufi came on the scene in the late 1980s.
Avesto followed in the late 1990s, as young people’s exposure to Western culture increased in the post-Soviet period and jazz was given a chance to blossom. The group took top prizes in national and regional competitions and was signed to German record label Double Moon in 2001.
Still, it is a heavily Tajik version of the genre that is usually played here.
“If I’m playing ethno jazz, I improvise in falak,” Ramazanova said, referring to a style of music central to Pamiri culture in parts of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan that is concerned with universal human themes such as life and death, happiness and despair, love, longing, and peace.
“Tajik music has many rich tunes, which should be used” in ethno jazz, she said.
Jasur Khalilov, Avesto’s bassist and artistic director of the Dushanbe Ethno Jazz Festival, echoed those sentiments.
“Tajik music is an inexhaustible source for creative work,” said Khalilov, who also teaches at the Tajik National Conservatory. “The synthesis of jazz and ethnic music produces the best compositions.”
Despite its growing acceptance, jazz is largely the province of city dwellers in Tajikistan. For it to catch on more broadly, Khalilov said, the country needs to offer formal training in the genre, as well as regular festivals, competitions, clubs, seminars, and media coverage.
The ethno jazz festival aims to fill some of those gaps, with master classes, laboratories, and performing slots reserved for unknown musicians. The roster grows each year, reaching 17 bands and performers this year from around Central Asia and from Russia, Germany, Austria, and France.
Among them was a popular group called Charkh, which combines Pamiri folk music and rhythms with jazz, Sufi songs, and other world music.
This year’s festival also saw German multi-instrumentalist Roman Seehon and Nick Katsakis, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe who plays saxophone, share the stage with Avesto.
Also spreading the gospel of jazz are two venues that opened in Dushanbe this spring.
Twice a week in April, one of them, the Cotton Club, brought in the crowds when it hosted Yusufi, the country’s most famous jazz singer. In an interview after one performance, the 44-year-old singer said she was introduced to jazz at 15 by her brother, a jazz and blues fan. It was Western stars such as George Benson, Al Jarreau, Sade, and Diane Schuur who inspired her to take up the genre, she said.
Amal Khanum Gadjieva of Dushanbe’s Bactria Cultural Center, a co-organizer of the ethno jazz festival, said jazz is becoming more popular in Tajikistan.
“Through jazz we can communicate with other nationals or citizens of other countries,” Gadjieva said. “But when we hear ethno jazz, we can see the other side of jazz: this kind music is built on a national base.”
That is where groups like Avesto come in, making itself an ambassador for Tajik folk music abroad and for jazz at home.
In its foreign trips, especially to Europe, the band tries to introduce its national culture, vocalist Ramazanova said. “We have to be proud of our Tajik music – we have beautiful, rich, and melodious music. Tajik music has harmony. Even in very a simple tune you can hear it.”