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Boston Globe, October 12, 2007

Sixteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union supposedly threw open the doors to travel and cultural contact with the republics of Central Asia, the vast region of deserts, steppes, and mountains that stretches from the Caspian Sea to the edges of China remains a vague notion in Western minds.

It’s difficult to remedy this sort of cultural awareness gap in one swoop, but a blockbuster 10-city US tour called Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia, which arrives at Sanders Theatre Sunday, promises to go a good part of the way with a program that features urbane classical forms alongside folk traditions straight from rugged prairies where nomadic cultures survive.

Devotional music, nurtured in the mystical Islam that prevails in the region, shares the program with epic poetry full of racehorses and wise elders and forlorn princesses. And one group on the three-part bill, Bardic Divas, presents female musicians and singers performing a range of Central Asian styles.

In something of a multimedia barrage of exposure and education, each group is also the subject of a newly released CD/DVD package in an ongoing 10-part Smithsonian Folkways series called “Music of Central Asia,” supported by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. With the records come detailed, illustrated liner-note packages that offer background on the history, instruments, and musical styles of the region.

While the Bardic Divas are an ad hoc unit assembled specifically for this project, each performing in her own vein, the other two groups come from specific local traditions. The Badakhshan Ensemble performs mystical music and dance from the Pamir mountains, while the father-daughter duo of Alim and Fargana Qasimov plays mugham, the refined classical music of Azerbaijan.

The curator of the tour and record series is Theodore Levin, a Dartmouth College professor who has traveled to Central Asia and documented its music since 1974. Reached via e-mail while finalizing tour preparations in Baku, Azerbaijan, Levin points out that even a show of this magnitude can only begin to illustrate the diversity of Central Asian culture.

“Music in Central Asia has an extraordinary diversity of styles and instruments,” Levin says. “Tajik classical music is as different from Kazakh oral epic as Bach is from the Beach Boys. The main fault line is between nomadic and sedentary traditions. Nomads and sedentary dwellers have very different lifestyles and cultural values, and their music reflects those differences.”

The Qasimovs represent the urban end of the spectrum. Mugham bears similarities in history, structure, and sound to classical Iranian maqam (as the name suggests) as well as Indian ragas and ghazals. All reflect the spread of Persian influence across a broad swathe of Asia and share the approach of wide-ranging improvisation around a particular scale or lyrical theme. Backing the Qasimovs is a small group of traditional instruments: the tar and the oud, which are lutes; the kamacha, a fiddle; and the balaban, a type of oboe. The singers accompany themselves on the daf, a frame drum.

A huge star in Azerbaijan, Alim Qasimov works within the mugham tradition but is also expanding it with his collaboration with his daughter, an unusual pairing in a form that is mainly male and usually features just one singer. But as he says, also by e-mail from Baku, the duets also have roots in tradition.

“The kind of duets that Fargana and I sing existed in the past,” he says. “They’re quite common in Azeri folk music. Composers have been inspired by those folk sources and included duets in their compositions. But what we do isn’t so much antiphony as the attempt of two people to find a common musical language, a common musical path.”

“People seem to really like and understand it; they applaud, cry, cheer,” Qasimov says. “They’re interested in new forms of traditional art and ask us to experiment with still more new directions. These days a lot of young people are coming to my concerts. They say that when we perform, it’s not so much a concert, but a kind of theater.”

The fine points of cultural developments in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan may be somewhat remote to Western audiences, but Spiritual Sounds should have no difficulty in illustrating not only the deep roots but also the vitality of these different musical styles. Legacies of the Soviet period are also apparent, not all of them negative, particularly with respect to the development of music education and female participation.

“Throughout Central Asia, women have traditionally been active music-makers, but at least in sedentary cultures, female musicians mostly performed for other women,” Levin says. “That changed when Soviet cultural politics tried to bring European values and fashions to Central Asia. These days, there are a lot of female pop singers in Central Asia, and, as in the West, many of the best-known performers are women.”

A complicated operation to put together, with the need for visa and travel arrangements for 18 artists, many of whom still live in remote rural areas, Spiritual Sounds promises to lift the veil on Central Asian cultures and help make our understanding of the region a little less fragmentary.

“It’s not only the music of Central Asia that we know little about; the whole region remains an enigma,” says Levin. “But Central Asian music is its own thing. The melodic forms, rhythms, vocal styles, and instruments all come together to create a wonderfully unique musical world.”