Music From A Crossroads Of Cultures

This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them.

A FEW centuries ago, Bukhara was a Central Asian hot spot. An ancient city on the silk route between China and the West, just north of present-day Iran and Afghanistan, Bukhara developed a cosmopolitan culture of the Near and Far East. Its traditions drew from Persia, from nomadic Turkic tribes that wandered the steppes, from the bustle of trading cities and the calm of mountain villages; its music was shaped by classical Sufi poets and generations of Jewish court musicians. The Bukhara emirate was taken over by the Soviet Union in 1920, becoming a part of the republics of Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan. But its music and dances were preserved, and tomorrow at Merkin Concert Hall, New Yorkers will have an opportunity to hear Bukhara’s traditional music, or shashmaqam, along with the region’s folk songs and dances.

The featured singer will be Fatima Kuinova, who was one of the Soviet Union’s leading traditional musicians before she immigrated to the United States in 1980. She was named a Honored Artist of the Soviet Union after World War II and toured the length and breadth of that country for a decade. She performed before the Shah of Iran and at one of Stalin’s birthday celebrations at the Bolshoi. In New York, Mrs. Kuinova works with a group called Shashmaqam, and tomorrow at Merkin Hall, it will include a second singer, Borukhay Davrayev (who also plays the Central Asian tar, or plucked lute), along with a doira (frame drum) player and a second tar player. The concert will also feature Central Asian dances by Firuza Junatan.

The repertory of traditional pieces called shashmaqam has a long, tangled lineage. In the Tajiki language, a dialect of Persian, shashmaqam means ”six maqams”; a maqam is a cycle of musical pieces, a mini-suite, and each cycle is usually divided into instrumental and vocal sections.

Each maqam is also a kind of melody, somewhere between a tune and a scale, roughly analogous to an Indian raga. Like other Middle Eastern music, shashmaqam revolves around minutely inflected melody and rhythm rather than harmonic development.

But unlike its closest relative, Persian classical music, shashmaqam uses no improvisation.

Since the 1920’s, when

Soviet folklorists and musicologists began to study shashmaqam, it has been transcribed and taught like a classical repertory – virtually frozen for half a century.

Mrs. Kuinova grew up in Tadzhikistan and started singing as a teen-ager in school choirs and at festivals in Dushanbe, the capital. She sang over Soviet radio as early as 1941, performing folk songs and classical music. During World War II she sang concerts for soldiers all over Central Asia and in war zones, and in 1948, she was named an Honored Artist. A year later, she began studying shashmaqam, working with Moslem and Jewish musicians and learning the repertory both from transcriptions and directly from traditional singers. Her daughter, Isabella Ibraginov, recalled that her mother and other shashmaqam singers would often visit one another’s houses to ”eat, drink and sing.”

For Mrs. Kuinova, who spoke Russian with her daughter translating, the texts of the shashmaqam songs are as important as the melodies. Many of these texts date to the 15th century and deal with courtly and mystical love. ”The words are not something that was written even 100 years ago,” Mrs. Kuinova said. ”They come from centuries ago, and they are very deep and very precious. When I sing, I think only about the deep words and the music and how to connect them and present them to the audience. Each time I sing a song, it is a different experience, a different feeling.”

By the time she came to the United States, joining relatives who were already in New York, Mrs. Kuinova had retired from touring. In New York, she hadn’t expected to sing again in public. But Theodore Levin, then a Columbia graduate student working on a dissertation on shashmaqam, discovered that Mrs. Kuinova was in New York and introduced her to the Ethnic Folk Arts Center, which works to preserve and disseminate the music and dance of immigrant communities. ”We were bowled over,” said Martin Koenig, a director of the center. ”We were struck by the virtuosity.”

‘Really Thrilling Moment’

Since then, Mrs. Kuinova and other Bukhara musicians have been performing publicly and privately around New York for both Jewish and Moslem listeners. She has sung at New Year’s ceremonies for Afghan and Iranian groups and at bar mitzvahs and engagement parties for Bukhara Jews. Singing for an Uzbek group in Brooklyn, she revived folk songs she hadn’t performed in 25 years. In the last few years, she has also been singing for listeners without direct links to Central Asia, with her daughter introducing and summarizing the songs.

”It is a really thrilling moment when American people understand what I am singing,” Mrs. Kuinova said. ”I had never dreamt of that.”

The shashmaqam concert will be at 8 P.M. tomorrow at Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th Street. The box office will be closed until 7 P.M. tomorrow; tickets will be available from noon to 4 P.M. tomorrow at the World Music Institute (109 West 27th Street, 206-1050). Admission is $10; more information is available through the Ethnic Folk Arts Center (691-9510) and the World Music Institute, which are co-producing the concert.


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