Friday, October 28, 2011

In review--On the Silk Road

Sevara Nazarkhan
Sevara Music

In 2003 I was introduced to the music of the Central Asian country Uzbekistan via a young folk-pop performer Sevara Nazarkhan.  I reviewed her Real World electronic album Yol Bolsin and felt enraptured by its exotic instruments, and snaky melodies and haunting stories. Then after enjoying that recording for a few months, I forgot about the doutar (Uzbek lute) player/songwriter/vocalist (granted I've reviewed 100s of albums since that time).  And in the background the musician recorded a total of 4 albums including her new independent folkloric recording Tortadur performed on all acoustic instruments.  

Her newest recording featuring Uzbek folksongs, some dating back to medieval times, played on traditional instruments features old world musicians.  In fact, the press release beat me to the punch by comparing these elder musicians to the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club.  Here again you have an all-star band, if you want to call it that, and you might say that Nazarkhan has not only returned to her cultural roots, but has also befriended her elders.

So how best to describe the music here other than tossing out the term silk road?   Similar to music of the Arab world and the Middle East, vocals lines feature microtones and oriental scales, and though the instruments sport Uzbek names, the musicians play reed flute, a zither, lutes, and a frame drum.  Since the musicians don't provide listeners with lyric translations, my guess is that some of the songs feature tragic stories, alternating with sacred text.   

At least that’s the feeling I pick up listening to Nazarkhan’s vocals.  Yet, don’t get me wrong, the songs emit beauty and elegance, even if it takes my western ears time to adapt.

In fact, I needed to listen to the recording several times before attempting a review.  Songs such as Sharob sound like lullabies or prayers due in part to Nazarkhan’s gentle vocal delivery.   The slow pace of the album gives a listener time to reflect and drink in the beauty of Uzbek folk songs in the manner that you might drink in the words to one of Rumi's poems.  Ei, Sarvi Ravon picks up the pace a little, but sounds too haunting for me to call the song uplifting.  The album closes with Qarghalar in which Nazarkhan sings in a whispery voice over a backdrop of drums.  The musician describes the album experience in the press release as, "It's a cry of my soul, but in a whisper."

I recommend Tortadur for people already familiar with music of the famed Silk Road.  Although listening to this album takes work, I believe that those efforts are rewarded with gentle-loving melodies performed on exotic instruments and sung by a mature and sensitive vocalist reclaiming her musical heritage.

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