A Singer From Ferghana by Marius Kociejowski

Monâjât Yultchieva has duende. She has more of it than any singer I have seen or heard in recent times. She sings into being whole landscapes. She is Uzbekistan incarnate, or, rather, Uzbekistan’s sweeter side, an Uzbekistan without its Tamerlane. One day, perhaps, I will be wafted there upon a woman’s voice. The songs Monâjât performs come out of a centuries-old tradition that is at once courtly in substance and mystical in essence. The aesthetic core of this music is the Shash maqâm, the repertory of Central Asian classical music, much of which builds upon the works of the great poets such as Nawâ’i, Fuzuli, Hafez and Jami. The relationship, in the Orient, between poetry and song is absolute. A Naqshbandi Sufi, Monâjât lives up to her first name, which may be translated as “prayer” or “supplication” or “ascent towards God,” although, in truth, I have been given to understand, usually with an approving hum in the voice of whoever is telling me this, that it describes a state of grace close to untranslatable. She herself has spoken of how its meaning has made her attentive to every plea there is, and also of how it infuses her songs and the manner in which she performs them.

Almost as hard to render in prose is what her music does to me. I may have found a key, however, and appropriately it is situated at a meeting point between European and Oriental cultural traditions. Occasional Daliesque flourishes, overblown metaphors and molten similes aside, Federico García Lorca’s “Play and Theory of the Duende” remains the finest approach to any discussion of a subject that may be said to hinge on the inexpressible. When speaking of duende Lorca comes at it from various angles, not defining but alluding rather to its properties. Manuel Torre, after hearing Manuel de Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife, remarked, “All that has black sounds has duende,” and Lorca goes on to say, “These black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the mire that gives us the very substance of art.” I am hesitant to add to what is already a poetic synthesis, but another property of duende is that it penetrates us so that it becomes part of our inner, wordless language. Or, rather, it reaches through to what is already there, fully prepared to receive, the soul as receptacle. Our junk culture has been responsible for producing a great deal of static interference. The channels are blocked with cheap surrogates, and, if one looks at popular culture in particular, the tendency now is to emote, to pull deeply from surfaces, which, for a second or two, are provided with an illusion of depth—an idiotic shriek masquerades as profundity. The danger here is that too much static may spoil forever our appetite for the pure.

Lorca names some of the great artists of his time, all of whom had duende, many of them voices we can scarcely imagine, while others have been preserved on vinyl, although even here we are dealing with aural facsimiles. Duende depends to a great degree upon physical presence, and although it is to be found in every culture, in every genre, nowhere is it more readily discernible than in musical performance. One knows it is there, not with one’s mind but with one’s whole being. Certainly duende cannot be willed, and even the most technically skilful musician may lack it. With commercial pressures brought to bear, a great number of performers have not been allowed to ripen naturally and have therefore been robbed of the possibilities of duende. They are forced to become their own aural facsimiles. Also, duende is the one term by which it is possible to encompass quite different, sometimes opposing, musical genres. Dinu Lipatti, when playing the third movement of Chopin’s Sonata in B minor, demonstrates duende. Maria Callas, when she leans over the body of the man she has just stabbed to death, most tellingly with a single stroke, and sings, “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma” (“And all Rome trembled before him”), demonstrates duende to a degree that has not been repeated in that particular opera since. The great blues singers have duende. Bob Dylan, when not mugging his own silences, has duende. Billie Holiday, whose voice, a friend of mine tells me, “scrapes heaven, scrapes hell,” has duende. So from where does it all come? Again, Lorca, citing an old maestro of the guitar, writes: “The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.”

I first learned of Monâjât Yultchieva in Theodore Levin’s The Hundred Thousand Fools of God (Indiana University Press, 1996), which is not only an invaluable record of his musical researches in Transoxiana but also a superb travel narrative. Tucked in, at the back of the book, is a CD of recordings he made of the singers and musicians he met on his travels. It was a single track, “Bayât-i Shirâz Talqinchasi,” a classical rendering of a poem by the sixteenth-century poet Fuzûlî, which led me to Monâjât’s two major recordings. At first the music was difficult to listen to, seemingly spasmodic in its architecture, but there was something in the alto voice that haunted me. Certainly there was nothing that smacked of “world music”—a doubtful category at the best of times. There was virtually no concession to Western taste. Several hearings later, the apparent discontinuities were either gone or had entered, and enlarged, my musical vocabulary, making this a sound I would henceforth need. I am reminded here of my first hearing of a very different music, Arnold Schoenberg’s setting of Stefan George’s poem beginning “Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten” (“I feel an air from other planets blowing”). If Schoenberg’s String Quartet no. 2 in F-Sharp minor opened onto a rather chilly universe, the door itself was lovely to pass through. The thrill of the new is an experience that becomes, with age, increasingly scarce. I consider Monâjât’s concert at the Purcell Room, on June 13, 2004, and my subsequent meeting with her, one of the great aesthetic experiences of my life.

The musician and specialist in Central Asian music, Razia Sultanova, who lives and teaches in London, arranged for me to interview her compatriot. Monâjât suggested we meet at 8.30 a.m., which startled me, and, quite frankly, I expected, at best, an audience of twenty or thirty minutes. What I got instead, and in the most cheerless of London guesthouses, was three hours of uninterrupted talk. At forty-four, Monâjât is a woman of profound beauty, of a kind I have observed in many Sufis, particularly in Damascus, a spiritually informed beauty added to which both body and mind seem to be in a state of constant alertness. There is no slouch whatsoever. Monâjât is from the farm, a kolkhoz in the eastern province of Ferghana. A humble woman, she has travelled many thousands of miles, but with respect to her universal fame and where her true art lies, not so much as an inch from her native region, which she considers the most beautiful place on earth.

Also present was Monâjât’s spiritual and musical mentor, and head of the ensemble that backs her, Shavkat Mirzaev, a virtuoso player of the rabâb, a small five-stringed form of lute, which his father is credited with having introduced to Uzbek music. The story of his and Monâjât’s musical relationship has been described by Levin and others, and is a demonstration of the Sufi doctrine of silsila, the chain of learning or transference of knowledge from master to student. I shall summarise the beginnings of her rise to fame. Monâjât had auditioned for a place in the Vocal Department of Tashkent Conservatory. She was rejected by the Western-trained examiners for singing out of tune. Mirzaev, an instructor in the Department of Oriental Music, found her in the hallway sobbing. It just so happened that he had passed the door of the examination room a few minutes earlier and recognised from the timbre of her voice a quality uniquely suited to the music that he had made it his mission to preserve. It was then that he invited her to become his student, but only on condition that she submit absolutely to his teaching. This she did, gradually perfecting her technique, and now Mirzaev is happy to be in a supportive role. When speaking of her own musical development Monâjât likens it to a baby taking its first steps, and in the same way one’s parents are the first teachers so Mirzaev was hers, taking her from the mere surface of a song deeply into its inner structure. She describes the fateful meeting at the conservatoire as something God had written for her. “If that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be here today and I wouldn’t be performing and I wouldn’t be giving this interview now.”

I began by raising with her the issue of duende, saying that it was through my re-reading of Lorca that I was at all able to speak of her art, and that although duende was universal I wanted to connect it to her “Sufi voice,” which she describes to Levin as being like a prayer to God. “When you sing quietly, it’s more powerful than singing loudly,” she told him. “People who are praying don’t pay attention to anything else.” I asked her whether her ability to reach such heights was due to religious experience, in which case I wondered if one could always count on being in God’s presence, or whether it was purely a matter of discipline.

“When I perform the songs, when I go into the meaning of the words, I feel something rising up from within. I am halfway between heaven and earth. The musical training helped me to realise the spiritual state, which in turn helps to convey the songs to the audience. Shavkat Mirzaev taught me how to pronounce each letter of each word in the song, and how to breathe properly in order to give them the most impact. It was during this period of training that I arrived at this stage, and then, of course, the spirituality, the power from within, and the training, both of them are mixed and cannot be separated. So I consider them as one, as coming from the same place.”

Mirzaev added, “The state of losing oneself, or ecstasy, is like getting drunk, but it is not like the drunkenness that comes of drinking alcohol. A person drinking alcohol forces himself to get drunk, but this is different because it comes naturally during performance. In earlier times, it was achieved by performing zikr. People would connect to God and lose themselves. For the singer, the challenge is to get everything inside and to convey it from there to the people. If the singer feels it, then the audience will feel it as well. We have an Uzbek saying, ‘The flour doesn’t matter; what really matters is the wheat from which the flour is made.’ For the singer, that wheat, that root, is physically situated in the stomach, which helps one to breathe, and also it is in the throat. There are different styles you can sing from your stomach, from your throat and from your nose, but most important is the soul of the singing itself.”

A woman who has entered a predominantly male culture, Monâjât is revered by her countrymen, who are fully aware that during the period of Soviet rule, when its apparatchiks sought to destroy or neutralise local cultures, it was, to a great extent, the women who helped preserve musical traditions. There have already been a number of great female Uzbek singers, such as Zaynab Pâlvânova, who drove their stakes into ground previously forbidden to them, namely the great classical repertoire. I wondered, however, whether, with even these distinguished predecessors, Monâjât had found immediate acceptance.

“When I came along there wasn’t really that much division between male and female singers. The division was of a more local nature, within the family. My father, because we did not have any performers in our family background, at first did not want me to become a singer. It is not a job for a woman, he said, so he wanted to stop me from entering the conservatoire. My uncle, hearing my voice, saw immediately it was unique and he told my father that my voice didn’t belong to him but to the Uzbek people, and that neither he nor anyone else had any right to put a stop to it. After hearing that, and because my father respected my uncle, he let me go and prayed for my success. When I first came before the audience it wasn’t too hard because I was already used to performing at school concerts. I had some background as to how to act on stage, so people did not have any problem in accepting me.”

“When you were growing up in Ferghana, were you aware of the classical tradition? The Soviet regime was suppressing it, right?”

“The tradition wasn’t completely suppressed. It was still permissible to perform the works of great poets like Navâ‘i and Fuzûlî, but any passages containing the words mai or sharob, both of which mean ‘wine,’ or any mention of God, these had to be removed. After all, God belonged to the beliefs of an ancient and backward people. The wine in Sufi literature is obviously not the alcoholic drink—it is the love of God, and the people are considered to be the receptacle for that wine. The Soviets didn’t understand it that way, of course, and also, it was not allowed to propagate the idea of drunkenness, even if it were a part of normal life. We had to replace those phrases with words from other parts of the song. Still, we were allowed to perform those songs. Each period has its own pluses and minuses, its own positive and negative sides. Again, going back to the Soviet era, the removal of the words ‘God’ and ‘wine’ may have been a strong form of censorship, but strangely it also helped the music. The performers were few, but all of them were of far better quality than today. It was as if by putting boundaries on the traditional songs or the types of songs that could be performed, the performers, in order to preserve their quality, were forced to choose only the best ones. That’s why poor singers weren’t allowed on stage. So the struggle against censorship forced the performers to improve themselves. It wasn’t enough just to be able to perform on radio or television. As for myself, Mirzaev didn’t let me perform for two years, not until I had mastered my technique. At the time, it upset me to think that people with less powerful voices than mine were singing everywhere, but now I realise that without his control, the self-motivation and the constant training, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

“Sometimes a dictatorship preserves the very thing it tries to destroy, but when we talk about freedom, or, rather, an excess of it, the boundaries are removed and the tradition suffers from exposure.”

“We have another saying in Uzbek,” said Mirzaev. “‘Gold remains gold—even when it is in the dirt it preserves its qualities.’ The real art of maqâm or traditional music cannot be destroyed or controlled by any force or movement because whatever people try, whatever liberation there is, whatever happens, there are people who will listen to those new songs and other people who will listen to traditional songs. It is the same as when looking at a drawing by Raphael or Michelangelo. An ignorant person will see an ordinary picture, but in order to understand the difference between it and rubbish you need a trained eye. It is the same with music. In order to understand its qualities you have to have a trained ear, which is why, many years ago, the children of kings and shahs were educated in music and the other arts, not because they were supposed to become artists themselves, but in order to be able to distinguish between pure and fake art. Everything depends on the training people receive.”

I remarked on the fact that Uzbek pop music was now absorbing aspects of the classical tradition.

“Pop music has it own completely different route,” Mirzaev continued. “It has different rules, especially as regards rhythm. Nowadays, people think that if they perform maqâm in their own style they will become famous, and so they try to mix pop and classical music. This is totally unacceptable. Maqâm is the art of performing from the throat. You have to be able to produce different types of sounds. Consider it as being like a diamond or ruby, which has many edges—the voice too must have many different edges. When you look at the stone from one side and slowly turn it, you will see the colour change. If you like the previous colour and try to find it again, you won’t be able to. The more you turn this stone, the greater its variety. It is the same with maqâm. You never hear the same thing twice, which is what makes it sweet. You don’t get this with pop music, which concentrates on rhythm. The most important thing in music is not to destroy its tenderness.”

“Are we not speaking, then, of a war against silence? If you consider the silence at the centre of all great art, which must always be there, then surely there can be no art without this silence.”

“The idea of a war,” Monâjât replied, “as you describe it, is really a force, a necessary flaw in our lives. It needs to be that way because without it, if you had only the one side, if you didn’t have any problems, economic or whatever, you wouldn’t feel the need to listen to music. A person would turn into a robot if everything were fine. So all these ups and downs are actually helping people live for something.”

“You are an optimist!”

“While for ordinary people silence is just plain silence, for philosophical or poetical people it goes a lot deeper, of course. As for my own personal feelings about silence, to be able to live within it, to develop within it, and to make people enjoy getting something out of that silence, is to give joy to the artist himself.”

Mirzaev added, “Silence is a music itself. So when I listen to silence and someone performs bad music, I am taken away from listening to and enjoying silence.”

“And to make a link to the previous subject,” Monâjât added, “the fact that pop music is now entering traditional music or maqâm is an attempt to destroy that silence.”

I had been struck by a powerful element of the erotic in Monâjât’s performance, which is not to say she undulates, ululates or oozes. On the contrary, she performs with considerable restraint. Such movement as there is, is mainly in the hands, which, as any flamenco master will substantiate, is the focus of a certain kind of dance. There is not a wasted gesture. When Monâjât sings she builds upon what she calls her “Sufi voice,” taking it from a position of near silence, caressing each sound as it is made, so that gradually it builds in volume, and although the sound becomes more powerful, more intense, it never loses its original softness. As I said, the effect is erotic. One has to move delicately here, but once again a Spaniard comes to the rescue. I have been looking at the poems of the mediaeval mystic, Juan de la Cruz, which, in their likening the union with God to that of bridegroom and bride, startle even modern sensitivities. Certainly one feels in his verses the presence of an Oriental breeze.

“So much of your music is mystical, a reaching towards God. I think in all mysticism, both Islamic and Christian, there is something erotic in the expression of the meeting with God. It is expressed in the language of eroticism, and certainly you get this in the poetry of Hafez and Rumi. Do you find it difficult or awkward to express this eroticism in music?”

A touch solicitous of Monâjât’s virtue, perhaps, Mirzaev cut in, suggesting that the erotic, or at least the Western understanding of it, had little place in our discussion.

“Our way of understanding music is as a more intimate, spiritual feeling towards God,” he said. “It is like the Ave Maria, which brings one to intimate terms with God rather than with the physical world, whereas to speak of eroticism is to begin on the lowest step. So we should forget about that term altogether because, even in its purest form, eroticism wouldn’t match the soul of the music. Music stays high above such things and is a kind of direct connection to God.”

I was quite prepared to accept Mirzaev’s strictures, but I wanted to put the question directly to Monâjât, who seemed happy enough to deal with the topic.

“First of all, I am a woman,” she replied. “Secondly, my goal is to convey the music in the most beautiful way possible, so that if the listener gets into a spiritual condition, it should be not only from hearing my voice but also from seeing me perform, which is why, when I’m on stage, I try to control my emotions and my spiritual state. In Uzbekistan, we have two mystical, more or less philosophical, schools, Yasavi and Naqshbandi, both of which are branches of Sufism. The first group think it is preferable to die, aged sixty-three, and to be united with God, whereas with the Naqshbandi the main idea there is for your hands to be at work and your heart with God, remaining both in this world and close to God. This idea grows into a philosophical rather than mystical concept, so when you speak of your beloved or your lover, actually what you are speaking of is a love of God, a God so beautiful that were one to look at something different, one would poke out one’s own eyes. If I were to look at a flower and say ‘how pretty,’ I’d be jealous, on God’s behalf, of anything that has a claim to beauty. Likewise, this whole notion of eroticism is one that is meant for God alone. In performance, the music, the voice and the words, all three of them should complete each other, should come together, and, when doing so, they bring about that eroticism which you describe. It is spiritual, though, not physical. When I sing I feel pleasure in hearing my own voice and in feeling the relaxation of the environment. Also, when my teacher plays his instrument and the sound coming from it is in harmony with everything else, this, too, brings me joy and pleasure. And how the public accepts the music is important as well. So the voice, the music, the words and the audience—when in harmony, they induce that spiritual, erotic feeling.”

Monâjât sings sometimes with a small ceramic plate, especially when performing the katta ashula, which translates as “the great song,” a description that will be clear enough to anyone hearing it for the first time. Its performance demands the physical well-being of whoever has to perform it, for such is its power and sheer vocal range. It requires the performer’s all, which is where the plate comes in, the positioning of it in front of the mouth acting as a kind of sound projection technique. Monâjât is the first woman to perform in this particular genre.

“Your plate, did you bring it from Uzbekistan? Is this a special plate?”

“Yes, it has a special meaning. Every artist or performer or painter, even an engineer, has his own style and image, and for me it is important to wear traditional clothes, to have my hair down as it is now, and so, to have that plate, always the same plate, contributes to the whole image. I don’t use that plate in the kitchen, and I would never ask for a different plate. I do not give it to other people to use. It is part of an image I am attached to.”

Mirzaev added, “For me, too, when a performer starts with something, it is important that he keep it, and get used to it, because it will become a part of the whole performance. I don’t give my rabâb, my instrument, to anybody. I won’t even let him touch it, especially before a concert, because then I’d feel it wouldn’t obey me. And the clothes I wear are especially for performance, and even the shoes I wear are the same ones I have worn since my very first performance with Monâjât. If they get rubbed down, I replace the heels.”

Monâjât nodded in agreement.

“The sense of image I was talking about earlier applies to actual performance as well. Coming back to the concept of silence again, some people advise me to dress in a more western way or to come up with a different hairstyle and to be, if you like, more attractive to the public, but what they do not realise is that if I were to listen to them, I would actually destroy that silence. If I were to succumb to popular demand and adopt a different image and style, then I will have destroyed the quality of the performance.”

“Okay, I promise not to steal your plate.”

“Thank you!” she said in English.

At the beginning of this piece I said one day, perhaps, I would be wafted to Uzbekistan on a woman’s voice, while failing to note, foolish me, that, in a sense, I have already been so. But why by this strange music in a language utterly incomprehensible to me? Which contains not a single word I could latch onto, not even the Arabic habibi, habibi denoting either love or love’s absence. Surely my hunger had already more than enough to feed upon, enough great music to see it through eternity and a bit more. A Bach cantata might be just the ticket, or a splash of Scarlatti, preferably with Mikhail Pletnev steering it brilliantly off course. I think what I hungered for was the purity of somewhere else. It may also have had something to do with the contaminates in our own culture, which, falsely perhaps, make one imagine the air is cleaner elsewhere. What clinched it for me, however, was duende, which is other than religion and which certainly is above language. And which is what makes the hairs at the back of one’s neck rise. All this is proof that the best art, always a powerful transformer, even before being understood, reaches into, and colonises, new spaces. After visiting with Monâjât I went for a walk in a nearby woods, and, most unusually for me, I put on a Walkman, and I listened to her music; and there, in that most English of spots, wild enough for a nineteenth-century poet to want to tame into verse, all of a sudden the trees became foreign to me, and the flora, for which, because I am horticulturally illiterate, I never had the English words in any case, seemed to demand fresh syllables; and, just then, for those few precious minutes, Monâjât Yultchieva’s radiance still upon me, two very different parts of the world began to merge. A couple of walkers, with their once-white cotton hats, walking sticks and thermoses, said hello to me, and, my brain full of the Orient, I wished I could have had for them, right there and then, the polite Uzbek response. 


Marius Kociejowski, poet, essayist and travel writer, lives in London. He has published four collections of poetry, Coast (Greville Press), Doctor Honoris Causa, and Music's Bride (both Anvil Press); So Dance the Lords of Language: Poems 1975-2001 was published in Canada by Porcupine's Quill in 2003. Most recently, he published The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool: A Syrian Journey (Sutton Publishing), The Pigeon Wars of Damascus (Biblioasis), God's Zoo (Carcanet), Syria: Through Writers's Eyes (Eland), and The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons & Other Prose (Biblioasis, 2014) from which this essay is an excerpt. 


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