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Central Asia's finest musicians come to Pomona
Posted Nov. 7, 2007

Exotic sounds from Central Asia filled the Lyman Hall as 17 musicians representing different regions stopped by Pomona College Saturday night.

The “Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia: Nomads, Mystics and Troubadours” tour sponsored by the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia exposed the audience to music most had not heard of. The three music groups, comprised of the top musicians in the region, played different styles of music relating to the region they represented, from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to Tajikistan and Qaraqalpakstan.

Unlike the usual concert format that the tour was familiar with, this performance was more of an open rehearsal. Before the actual music presentation, there was a short introduction to the history of music in Central Asia given by Theodore Levin, curator of the “Spiritual Sounds” tour and professor of music at Dartmouth College.

“This is music that people have little opportunity to hear,” Levin said.

Following the introduction the first group came, took stage and sat in metal chairs lined up in a row. The Badakhshan Ensemble, like the other two groups present, were not in costume and did not play the prepared songs as in a regular concert. Because of the rehearsal atmosphere of the night, some of the songs played were accompanied by translated lyrics displayed on a screen while others were not.

“They’re not going to be polished but we’ll see how they work together,” Levin said before the group started.

Regardless of the format, the audience was amazed at the unique sound that came out of the group. Playing songs that have been for the most part uncompromised by outside influences, the music was pure to the region. Upbeat sounds coming from the percussion instruments were easily complimented by the stringed instruments. At times the strong vocal talents were overpowering, but added to the strength of the lyrics.

A particular crowd favorite was the third song, whose title translated to being “Foot on the road.” Accompanying the group was a female dancer who performed a dance especially made for the song. Her movements were fast, taking quick but short steps across the stage. As the tempo of the piece increased, her hands gave way from their locked position at her hip and her arms lifted and twirled as if caught by the wind.

A tough act to follow, the Bardic Divas was the second group to take the stage. The two women performed music historically sung by troubadours, a role traditionally held by men. Each woman sang a selection of songs that represented a stage in the development the music in that area from ancient epics to modern Islam influenced songs.

The first performer, Ardak Issataeva, performed epic songs that were rich in allegory. Her amazing voice had an operatic tone that complemented the music. The quick strums of the stringed instrument she played helped create the mood for the romantic songs dealing with many topics. One song described the pasturelands that nomads used to speak of.

After three songs, Ulzhan Baibussynova began to sing didactic songs that have a different feel to it. Instead of the rich imagery found in the epic style, Baibussynova sang songs that expressed an Islamic influence. The lyrics were more like narratives, expressing common truths and teachings like “he who speaks words of advice is a teacher” or “when your thirsty, water tastes like honey.” Her singing voice was a little more masculine and had a Celtic sound.

“I really enjoyed the second part. (They had) very strong voices, different but equally wonderful,” said Fran Leham, executive assistant to the Keck Graduate Institute president.

The last group, Alim and Fargana Qasimov, ended the night with a debut of an innovative piece arranged by Alim Qasimov. The father and daughter team, along with the other ensemble, played a piece that combined six songs dealing with the pain of love.

“This is the best musical performance I’ve seen in Pomona. It literally moved me to tears,” Anoush Suni, a Pomona College Middle East studies major said.

The father-daughter duo each had compelling voices that carried the mood of the song. Usually the songs called for only one vocalist, but Alim Qasimov decided to add a second voice. The facial expressions helped tell the story of a person in a dysfunctional love situation.

Although the piece was may have been a little too long, the ending was powerful enough to receive a standing ovation from a few of audience members.

The three groups started “Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia” in October, having performed in places from Carnegie Hall in New York to UCLA’s Royce Hall.

Andres Rivera can be reached at arivera3@ulv.edu.