The Sharq Taronalari Festival of International Music takes place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan every two years. This year was the 12th edition, and my 4th time in attendance. I am happy to report that this has to have been the best one yet in my experience. As usual it provides an opportunity to hear music not generally well represented on the festival stages we are more familiar with. Central Asian artists abounded (from ALL of the ‘stans) along with acts as far-flung as a kokle playing and singing group from Latvia, a virtuoso harpist from Mandalay and a duo from Fiji.
I was there along with a group of journalists, presenters and all-around world music junkies to enjoy the fantastic festival, and to go forth and spread the word about it. Luckily for many of us, we were put up in the same hotel with many of the musicians who were performing there. This meant lots of great conversations and late night jam sessions.
While I am planning to create a mini documentary about the event, I also want to start posting full performances from the get-go. So here is the first installment; Pakistan’s Akbar Khamisu Khan, who plays the alghoza, a double flute. One flute plays a drone while the other plays melody, and as one might expect, it requires circular breathing to keep the sound going. Although his father was also an honored and decorated player of the alghoza, the son is very much a master of his instrument in his own right, and the sound he gets is mesmerizing and powerful.
In this post I am starting off with him and his group playing in their hotel room. (Keep watching for his performance at the Registan; it’s the second half of the video.) It is not anywhere near as impressive a setting as the Registan which you will see in the beginning, but I was able to get a nice clean sound in the hotel room, something I was not sure I would be able to get in a live concert situation. Also the first song he played was the sufi classic “Allah Hu” made popular by the remarkable qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, so why not start off with a crowd pleaser?
He is accompanied here by Muhammed Khan on the dholak (drum) and Muhammad Talib, on a most unusual instrument, the Benju. It reminds me a bit of that strange Swedish instrument the nyckelharpa, but it is not bowed; rather it is plucked or strummed. It seems to have made its way from Japan, where it is called the taishōgoto, and found a place in Pakistani music, where it sounds very much at home.
The festival is also a competition, and so there was an international jury that had to make decisions about awards. I did not envy them their task. As you will see and hear in the coming posts, the level of musicianship was high, and I would have been hard pressed to decide who was best.