Uzbekistan: Music of Khorezm

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Unesco
ALBUM TITLE: Unesco Collection
WORKS: Uzbekistan: Music of Khorezm
CATALOGUE NO: D 8269

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While the mystery of Bulgarian voices has long turned to familiarity, the magic lingers on. The choir that caught everybody’s imagination is one among many. If you don’t get enough of the open, unvibrant tone, fine tuning and in-your-face expression, the Philip Koutev National Folk Ensemble will keep you enthralled, singing as one from the heart. Koutev is the name of the predominant composer and a reminder of how firmly rooted the tradition is. ‘Folk’ applies to the material and character, but the songs use classical polyphony and diatonic harmony tinged with piquant clashes. Like choral music from a swath of south-eastern Europe, right across to Armenia, they make a genuine synthesis of art and popular lines that Western Europe has never quite matched – try listening to Holst after this.

Result, hundreds of choirs whose vitality makes the English equivalent sound wishy-washy, its modern repertoire out of touch with common humanity. As listeners lose faith in the home-grown product, they find what they thought they had lost in ever more unlikely places. ‘Gregorian Chant Meets Buddhist Chant’ sounds like a cynically devised title for a growing market. In fact it is a live event that took place in Japan when an Italian group joined local monks to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In truth the chants meet only in a short, superimposed encore.

Plainsong starts, rather woodenly sung, then the Tendai Shomyo chant follows with its continuous movement between pitches, staggered entries sliding to a unison, and intense male ambience (none of your Christian softness). There’s no musical common ground, but an expressive and textual kinship which must have made the occasion moving. It certainly made the audience move: the first few minutes sound like a sanatorium concert, and that’s before the sneezing starts. Namdziliin Norovbanzad, the singer of Mongolian ‘long song’, is said to have been more powerful in her younger days. You would not guess that from the first recording of her big range of pitches and techniques: measured vibratos, tone-wide trills, intense and penetrating attack in an ornamented pentatonic mode. She is supported by bowed and plucked strings and a flute, which have some racy tunes of their own.

The final song ‘relates the story of a camel’; evidently it does something awesome, but the secret is kept for those who know the language. The rest of the issues here sample a series of UNESCO collections made over several decades. They are scrupulously chosen and explained, some pretty specialist, but all abounding in the real thing. In the Vietnamese the choice has a sequence of ritual and religious music, mostly Buddhist, with violent instrumentals and energetic singing, followed by easier-going songs from the theatre. Alongside the sparkier numbers is a gracious lamentation, elegantly formalised, and, on a 16-string zither, a free lyrical improvisation, unfortunately truncated.

The Khorezm region of Uzbekistan shows Islam triumphantly surviving the godless Soviets, in a sort of cultural sampler. Here we have marriage traditions, women’s music, classical recital pieces, fast and exuberant folk dances with chorus, and, to start, an epic narrative declaimed with bold flair. Styles and melodies relate to Arab and Indian traditions and the instrumental highlight features the double reed Koshnai, a loosened-up, braying oboe which can bend pitches and dynamics with abandon. Widest in their appeal will be the African issues. As you follow the different sizes and shapes of lyre around Ethiopia and Sudan, their tone running from sombre, reflective buzz to energetic strumming, there’s hardly a drum in earshot.

The Ethiopian disc includes urbane, aristocratic music with bägänna (lyre), softly and persuasively sung by Alemu Agar, and continues with more exuberant rural performances. You can catch a village weaver’s theatrical, fancifully characterised lovers – he sings to boost his cloth sales – and some bellowing vocals over sophisticated bowing on the spike fiddle. The two-disc Sudanese tribal mini-tour features astonishing ensembles of gourd trumpets and flutes with rather unvaried textures from the Ingessana and Berta. It’s the Gumuz who were persuaded to share the most varied and exciting performances, with blown gourds, Indian-style double-ended drums and gleefully ululating women.

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They climax with songs and dances from one of those occasions where the entire population joins in. Really you get only the half of it if you can’t see as well as hear. But for anybody who has had the luck to encounter a real village celebration, this will conjure up the missing sensory input: the smiles, the smells, the full, irresistible works.