Leaping a language barrier

From The Ann Arbor News

Video and supertitles will help audience understand music from Central Asia

Saturday, October 20, 2007

News Special Writer

World music has found a ready audience in the United States, but experiencing the real deal in concert is not always easy. Much is lost in translation – both to the stage and for an audience of non-native speakers.

“Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia: Nomads, Mystics and Troubadours,” which arrives at the Michigan Theater on Wednesday under University Musical Society auspices, promises a different experience. It comes hard on the heels of the release of CDs/DVDs of the performers as part of the Smithsonian Folkways’ “Music of Central Asia” series.

Supertitles and documentary video of the artists on site before they appear on stage to perform – shots of the Badakhshan Ensemble performing in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikstan and Afghanistan; the Bardic Divas in Kazakhstan; and Alim and Fergane Qasimov (the best-known of the musicians) in Azerbaijan – allow the audience an unusual window into the musical material. These are but two features that distinguish this collaborative project of the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia (think cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s “Silk Road Project”) and the World Music Institute.

“The texts are so important,” said Ted Levin, curator of the “Spiritual Sounds” tour, “and when the audience knows what’s being said, specifically, they react in different ways. It’s more like the audience at home, and the performers perform better.”

Levin, a Dartmouth ethnomusicologist and Aga Khan consultant, has been studying Central Asian music since 1977. He was executive director of the “Silk Road Project.”

Levin just arrived back in the U.S. from Azerbaijan last week. His arrival, like that of some of the performers, was delayed as he attempted to sort out visa problems. Some proved intractable: two of the four Bardic divas, from Qaraqalpakstan, could not convince the U.S. consul that they would return home and so were not permitted to leave.

“Getting the people onto American soil has never been as hard as it is now,” he said in a phone conversation.

Even with the two missing Bardic divas, the concert is rich fare. Alim and Fergane Qasimov, respectively father and daughter, and respectively well-known (he participated in the Silk Road Project) and up-and coming, represent a national tradition, the art music known as mugham and the rural bardic tradition. The members of the Badakhshan Ensemble, like Bardic Divas Ulzhan Baibussynova and Ardak Issataeva, represent regional traditions.

Noted Levin, “Even in the capital region of Tajikstan, the music of the Badakhshan Ensemble is not known.” The ensemble’s trance-inducing mystical songs stand in contrast to the epic, solo traditions of the Bardic Divas. Baibussynova is the singer of epics – a pioneer in a formerly male domain; Issataeva performs lyrical songs that were once the province of men but are now accepted as women’s material as well.

Finding these musicians and supporting the cultural legacy they embody is critical, said Levin.

“Just as in the West, what you find is a competition, a free cultural marketplace,” he said. “Commercially backed music is appealing to a wide taste community and sustains itself through fashion. Other kinds, rooted more in tradition or traditional spirituality, are more on the margins.”

PREVIEW: ‘Nomads, Mystics and Troubadours’

Who: Alim and Fergane Qasimov, the Bardic Divas and the Badakhshan Ensemble.

What: “Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia.”

When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

Where: Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St.

How much: $16-$40, University Musical Society Box Office in the Michigan League, 734-764-2538, online at ums.org, and at the theater 90 minutes before performance.

Related free event

Lecture-demonstration, led by ethnomusicologist Ted Levin, curator of the “Spiritual Sounds” tour. “Mystics, Nomads and Troubadours in Central Asian Music,” with performers from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Qaraqalpakstan and Tajikistan. Wednesday, noon-1:30 p.m., Palmer Commons Forum Hall, fourth floor, 100 Washtenaw Ave.

The Ann Arbor News


Author: ismailimail

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