Iranian Musical Culture in Central Asian Environment

Foundation for Iranian Studies
The Annual Noruz Lecture by a Distinguished Scholar of Iranian Studies
March 22, 2002

Jean During CNRS (Paris/Strasbourg)
Iranian Musical Culture in Central Asian Environment
A comparative approach

There is a tendency in the humanities to pigeonhole disciplines according to linguistic and geo-political areas. Ethnomusicology, once called comparative musicology, follows the same tendency. Yet if music is a science, and not only an art, it has to be comparative, since science is comparative. Fârabi, the founder of ethnomusicology, shows us the path: his view encompasses a large cultural area: he refers to the Greeks, compares the instruments and the intervals of different nations, and he makes a distinction between the music of the Muslim lands in general and the others.

Studies about Persian music (what we call, sonnati) and even about the diverse regional musics of Iran (mahalli) are quite numerous, and it is not my intention today to elaborate on specific points. It seems to me that what is still lacking is a general view that sheds light on the situation of Persian music in time and space. Unfortunately, the history of Persian music is still to be written, particularly the period from the 16th to 20th centuries. I have no intention of working on that topic but I would certainly like to hear about the discoveries of some young Iranian scholars in this field. Here, I would like to talk about Persian music, or, more specifically, the musical traditions of Iran, in a larger geographical space and cultural sphere.

But, how should we approach our subject? Ethnomusicology, as I understand it, is an extremely large and constantly redefined discipline. It resembles linguistics, because music works like a language with its phonology, (sounds and intervals), morphology, syntax, grammar, prosodic and metric rules, etc. One can study a music under a philological or literary perspective, as a text in its form and genre, its rhetoric, its thematic, its symbolism. (For example, the structure of the ghazal is obvious in the Persian radif, and to a lesser extent in the Transoxanian maqam.) It is also possible to study music under a purely anthropological perspective (without even listening to it or considering its content), as a social practice and phenomenon: what is the life of an artist; how is the public reacting. We can also approach it as an art, aesthetically: how is a piece of music constructed, what are its norms, how does it appear different from other pieces, what gives it its unique quality, are new creations accepted or not, etc. This perspective is curiously lacking in present day oriental cultures, though it seems to be appearing in Iran in the past decade or so.

Any of these approaches is interesting in itself. They become even more interesting when they combine to create consistencies and junctions between different levels. Yet my purpose here is more ambitious: it is to look at Iranian music borrowing from comparative literature, anthropology and ethno-linguistics. I would like to examine Persian musical culture in the mirror of the neighboring cultures in order to discover what makes its specificity, what these cultures have in common, and how they differ from each other. Beyond mere erudition and the intellectual satisfaction that may reside in sketching out a model, my purpose is to raise some deeper aesthetic questions. By understanding what the others do, or what their ancestors were doing, the artist can open new ways. One of the typical traits of Iranian musicians is that they are always looking for innovation, but they do not go beyond the borders of Iran. Their approach is always endogenous: they search their inspiration in their own folklore rather than studying the system of their neighbor’s art music, contemporary systems that are close to those used in Iran a few centuries ago.

From this last remark, you will notice how an ethnomusicologist can become an art critic, while his discourse becomes normative. This is natural because if we are interested in music as science it is because we enjoy music and we enjoy it as an art.

This introduction was meant to give you a clue to the field of research of an ethnomusicologist, a species of the homo academicus whom you have not often the opportunity to meet and to invite in your distinguished learned society.

Now, let’s come to our subject.

After having spent 9 years in Iran a long time ago, I have now been living for more than 3 years in Central Asia, in Uzbekistan and its surroundings, observing the local musical practices with the eyes and the ears of a musician trained in the Persian tradition.

In the popular domain, mainly in the Tajik culture (countryside of Tajikistan as well as cities like Bukhara), we find many similarities with the musics of Iran: same modes, same rhythms, same melodic shape and style. In Bukhara, a remarkable entertainment repertoire, probably from Khorasani origin, has been preserved by the Iranian community.

In contrast, between the Persian and Transoxanian art musics there is a considerable distance. Yet if a composer and great scientist like Abdolqâder Marâghi could have taught in Samarkand and have followers in Cairo, it is because in his time the music of the Middle East and Central Asia were quite close. That is no longer the case: the traditions of Bukhara, Khiva, Khojand, Kashgar are in a way closer to those of the Istanbul or the Maghreb than to Persian music. This paradox deserves to be elucidated, a task which would require much investigation and discussion.

But for someone steeped in Persian musical culture, it is the nomadic musical culture that clearly reveals the distance between Iran-Turan on one side and the nomadic Turkic world on the other. The contrast between nomadic and sedentary music is striking of course, but looking more closely we begin to see how they exchanged with and enriched each other over the years, and what are their common bases. In a more esthetical than anthropological perspective, it is interesting to observe how a nomadic music settles down into a sedentary music and how a sedentary music nomadizes itself. This process can be summarized as follows for the sedentarization of nomadic forms: gathering of the musicians, consensual definition of the scales and rhythmic cycles, organization of the repertoires, constructions of great compositional works, distribution of functions. And for nomadization just the opposite: individualization, fragmentation, dispersion, and accumulation of functions.

I will try to sketch a broad picture of contrasts to elaborate a model by combining the different research perspectives I mentioned in the introduction.

Let’s first examine together the so-called classical Iranian tradition (sonnati) and that of Transoxian (maqâmi). In both cases we are here in urban contexts, sharing Iranian (in the largest sense) and Soghdian historical grounds, even when the populations are totally Uzbek or Uyghur. With the nomadic world properly speaking, (or what remains of it), and particularly with the Kazakhs and the Kirghiz, the gap is wider. Their world has even become foreign to the Uyghurs and the Uzbeks. However, until a hundred years ago, Turkic nomads had their camps at the gates of the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.

Let’s first describe the musical substance, just like linguists begin with phonology when they describe a tongue. Before having any idea of the grammar of these musical idioms, we perceive sounds, tones and timbres. Concerning the timbres, there is no significant difference: like in Iran, we perceive the sound of the metal strings, either bowed (kamanche, qijak) plucked (setâr, tanbur) or hit (santur, chang), then the drum (daf, dayra), the flute (ney, nay). Yet there is another element: the loud and resonant sound of the silk strings of the dotâr, a sonority of a probably nomadic origin which does not exist in the Iranian world: in Azerbaijan, Baluchistan, or Afghanistan they like clear and resonant sound. (In Afghanistan, the big dombra is an Uzbek instrument).

MUSIC : dotar (meme exemple avec paralleles)

However, the dominance is, like in Iran and India, the metallic and clear sound. Recently an Arab colleague wanted to invite Uyghur musicians to Beyruth. But after hearing them, she said that it will be difficult for the Arab audience to appreciate the sharp and clear voice of the tanbur, and advised to invite rather kamanche players whose instrument is more familiar to the Arabs. This kind of anecdote allows us to distinguish the basic Arabic taste from the Iranian and Central Asian one, even though the system of Baghdad music is close to that of Iran.

In Transoxiana as well as in Iran, one likes powerful voices able to reach the highest pitches. Though low voices are accepted, all classical composition must culminate in the high register, in a melodic movement called awj. Besides, the ornaments are totally different, in such a way that we can distinguish between the Iranian, Azeri and Kurdish (or even Caucasian) vocal styles on one hand and the Transoxian ones on the other. A good Tajik singer would find it very difficult to imitate the Iranian style, while he would easily sing in an operatic style. There are some singers who can do both.

By and large, the Transoxian ornamentation is close to the Indian one. This applies to instrument style as well: the lute player works on the string with the left hand to produce ascendant or descendant vibrato or legato. This contrasts with the Iranian pointillist ornamentation (the riz). With these common features, the Uzbeks naturally prefer Indian music to Persian.

MUSIC turgun

The Tajiks, in their turn, appreciate both of them, but of course, they feel themselves closer to Iran than India. These remarks become more pertinent if we remember that the founders of the Mughal dynasty were Uzbeks and that many musicians from the Great Khorasan were invited at the Mughal court. It could be under their influence that North Indian music is considered as syncretic, and not pure, by the holders of the so-called South Indian Karnatik tradition.

Still remaining at the surface of the music, let us say, at its phonological level, we note an important characteristic: the musical intervals are different. In short, we can say that there are no quarter tones, rob’-e parde, in Transoxian musics. All the scales can be more or less performed on a synthesizer, an accordion, or an electric guitar. Presence and absence of these kinds of intervals makes a clear cut between Near and Middle East and Central Asia and India.

I won’t elaborate on this topic about which I have written several articles, but let me just temper the previous statement. Actually, within Central Asia we find sometimes “Middle Eastern” or Iranian-Arabic-Turkic intonations, but these are precisely exceptions pertaining to Iranian cultures: Hence the Tajik lute (satâr) from the Chinese Wakhan, the ancient tanbur of Bukhara, etc. Complex intervals (of the 3/4 tone, or neutral tone genre) existed in the learned tradition of Transoxiana, but they have been erased with the Russian influence. A careful observation shows that between the Tajiks and the Uzbeks – who share the classical repertoire (in our days in two different tongues but formerly essentially in Persian), the Tajiks still manifest a taste for the “Persian or Middle Eastern » intervals whereas the Uzbeks don’t seem to enjoy them. There are even Tajik musicians who imitate the Iranian âvâz, which would be improbable in the case of an Uzbek. From these kinds of facts, we can assume that with the conservatories and Rssification the Old Turkic intonations gradually came to dominate the Iranian ones among the Uzbeks, whereas the Iranian intonations never disappeared among the Tajiks.

We can now say that the presence or absence of the neutral tone corresponds to a demarcation between the Iranian and the Turkic worlds. At present, we don’t find neutral tones among the Turkic people from Central Asia of either nomadic or sedentary origin. The Turkmens, Turcs from Khorasan, Qâraqalpâks, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Tatars, Bashkirs, Uzbeks (in present days) or Uyghurs, as well as the Khakas or the Tuvanians, ignore this type of interval.

(I aknowledge of course some exceptions. For instance a Kirghiz master to whom I gave an Iranian setar played a whole piece using a neutral leading tone. These exceptions require further investigations. On the other hand our statement is not reciprocal, that is: the neutral tone is not found in all the Iranian musical systems. The Baluchis never play it on their fiddle sorud-qeychak, though it appears on their flute doneli. The Ahl-e haqq from Kurdistan fret their lute tanbur almost on a western tempered scale, without any western influence.)

Anyway, this kind of semi-tone scale is found on all the Turkic long-necked lutes: the qyzylbash tanbur from Bulgaria, the western Khorasanian Turkmen and qâraqalpâk dotâr, the Anatolian cura, the Azeri sâz, the Uzbek and Uyghur dotâr, the Kazakh dombra , the kirghiz komuz, and the Afghani Uzbek dombra.

Let us have a look at the forms.

A striking aspect of the Persian classical music is the place left to free forms, measured or not, which are open to improvisation (âvâz, chahârmezrâb, etc.). In the other traditions of the Middle East composed forms (of the tasnif, or zarbi genre) are largely dominant, but a good space is left for the taqsim, the free improvisational style. (In India, too, improvisation is essential and compositions are mainly a pretext for improvisation). In Central Asia, this genre almost does not exist. We find non-measured melodies (Uzbek kata ashullâ, Uyghur muqam bashi), but even in these flexible genres there is not real improvisation.

What is striking here is the strength of the custom, of the rule: one performs what has been composed and if one wants to create something, it must be within the same forms and rhythms (osul), by imitating some previous melody (of course with some originality). A master expressed it in this sentence: “any melody is born from a melody”. The Bukharian Shashmaqâm (which symbolically has the same status than the radif in Persian music) shows the way: the same melodic line is successively worked through in five or six different rhythms: in 9, then 5, then 4 then 6 beats, with increasing speed, thus generating numerous distinct pieces. Moreover, from one maqâm to another, all the melodies resemble each other, differing mainly by their scale. It is an ingenuous imitation technique, which has been developed by the Central Asian masters.

You will never see a singer in a private gathering opening a Divân of Hâfez or a Masnavi or the like and start improvising a song. There, they sing a composition, a song, maybe with fine variations that require some inspiration and a real mastery, but the public never expects something personal or original; it just expects a perfect execution.

However, in practice, Persian (or Middle Eastern) and Central Asian approaches to music are not fundamentally opposed: the good performers arrange the pieces of their repertory according to their needs. They cut some parts, add some others, develop some melisma, etc. On the other hand improvisations in Persian music are often banal or mechanic, applying old well-known recipes. The essential difference is that here the artists and the public have the feeling, the impression, of being free, while there they feel the need to conform to well-defined models. A positive consequence is that it is impossible for a musician to mystify the listeners by pretending to be an inspired and creative artist. Tajik, Uzbek, Uyghur musicians must really know by heart hundred of pieces (of the tasnif, or zarbi genre), the singers must be able to accompany themselves with dâyra, rabâb, tanbur or dotâr. Some of them have composed dozens or hundreds of nice songs or pieces. Since the criteria of competence are very accurate, the level is high and in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan one finds a lot of qualified musicians, perhaps 10 or 20 time more than in Iran.

This kind of situation probably existed in ancient Iran, at least until the Safavi period. Old sources suggest that music was conceived more on the present day central Asian model than on that of the Qajar radif. Actually, the situation in modern Iran is atypical. Yet the case of a master like Abdollah Davâmi, who was a tasnif-khân is more relevant to the old school. I could witness that he didn’t appreciate the freedom with which young musicians performed the radif. He himself didn’t improvise, nor did his faithful disciple Mahmud Karimi. Had the Iranians followed this direction, provided that they developed and codified the tasnif genre (which is a simplification of the ancient genres), their music would have worked like the music of Transoxiana or Turkey. They chose another road, they developed a specific style; that’s fine, but beside the advantages of that, one must admit some lack or weakness. Of course, the choice of this style is related to the general conditions of musical practice. We shall allude later to the impact of these two kinds of music, to their commitment in social life and to the creative process it implies. (The toy)xxx

Let’s underline that the slowness of the changes, the conformity to the norm and the rarity of improvisation, are the rules of all rural music of Asia, including the professional nomadic traditions. It does not mean that musicians just satisfy themselves in performing the same thing and the same way. For instance, the Tajik bards have a very clear concept of originality of style: a great minstrel is the one who distinguishes himself by his personal style, who has opened a new way. According to this principle, in recent times there were 5 vocal schools in Transoxiana.

One can only compare what is comparable. We have done it briefly with learned musics of Iran and Transoxiana. It is also possible to compare the popular and learned music of a given culture, and it is even possible to find analogies between the rural cultures of Inner Asia and the nomadic ones. But if we approach the nomadic world with reference to classical Middle Eastern or Transoxian music, we will be faced with pure difference. That is, an Iranian setâr player (or an Arab luth player) and a Kirghiz komuzchi, on his 3 stringed lute, have nothing in common. Not only the music but the way they think it and hear it are different. The same difference will be found between a Kazakh minstrel (zhirau or akin) and a maqâm singer.
**MUSIC dombra / Kazakh girl

To modelize this contrast, I’ll briefly sketch the frame of a nomadic aesthetic as opposed to sedentary aesthetic. Here we will go beyond the musical domain in order to grasp a certain sense of time and space that characterize the plastic arts and seem rooted in the deepest cognitive structures.

Among the most obvious traits, let’s quote the following :

Sense of space

– taste for asymmetry in general, which is probably inspired from the natural environment, since symmetry is rare in nature.
– dominance of dynamic elements over static
– construction by accumulation of motives
– soberty of ornamentation
– unification of the function (for instance : gesture and music in the instrumental performance, poetry and music, song and instrument, etc.)

Sense of time

– Compaction, density, unification of the nomadic time, in opposition to the sedentary
– Speed, density of the speech flow, fast tempo, short pieces, a taste for virtuosity
– Speed implies flexible and fast forms creating an aesthetic of sober lines and a relative simplicity of the ornamentation
– Non-cyclic conception of the rhythm (either pulsed or not pulsed)
-No recurrent cyclic rhythms, therefore, non-dance

This table can be completed by the one you have in your hand, which opposes the nomadic world vision to that of the sedentary. In order to give some example of the nomadic aesthetic conception, I’ll come back to the point from which I began my lecture, and from there I’ll take another direction. As we said, the Turkic scales have no quarter tones (which make them simpler). This is not only a matter of taste, it is also linked to the fact that Turkic nomads have a taste and a strong sense of biphony, that is, to produce 2 sounds at the same time. This technique is a distinctive attribute of their music, especially in comparison with the Iranian intonations. As a matter of example, a Kazakh ney player (sybyzgi) can sing while he is playing; singers perform this famous diphonic song technique which produces 2 sounds at the same time in low and very high pitch. On their 2 or 3 stringed lutes, the Uzbeks, the Turks from Anatolia, as well as the Turkmen arrange all these melodies with a systematic parallel voice in octave, unison, third, fifth and forth. Yet this technique is reduced to the minimum in the dotar Iranian or Tajik dotar style.

MUSIC dotar

Playing melodies is at the same time an illustration of another principle of the nomadic culture: the combination or multiplicity of functions. A real nomad must be able to do everything alone in order to ensure his survival alone or with his small group in the steppe. A nomad musician is at the same time an instrument player, a singer, a poet, a storyteller, a comic, and, in the old times, he was an historian and a shaman. Turkish language, which is agglutinate, likes to combine two verbs, a circonstant and predicate, to provide a single meaning: qarap turdim = looking at, I stayed = I watched; satip âldi = being sold, he took = he bought. On the same, to signify Ré on a dotâr, one plays simultaneously Sol and Ré, to say Mi b one plays Sib+ Mib, etc.

I allude to the natural mobility of the nomads, opposed to the supposed stability of the sedentary. In all the music of the latter, a certain stability is given by a low-pitched drone more or less on the same tone. Just listen to the playing of the setâr in Persian music, of the Tajik-Uzbek or Uyghur tanbur: the bass changes very little, it is like a firm ground on which the melody moves. The utmost stability is found in Indian music where the drone sounds during all the performance, stressed by instruments that give just one note or two.


For the Hindus, this fundamental sound is the symbol of Brahma, the divinity itself. All the other notes take their meaning in the light of this fundamental tone.

Yet the nomads are animists and have another sense of transcendence. Their melodies do not rely on a stable vibration; the lower note moves constantly together with that of the melody itself, in parallel fourth or fifth. Now this instrumental technique is not compatible with neutral tones, it works only with regular intervals, those of the piano or the guitar.

At the extremes of the spectrum we find the Indian aesthetic and the Kazakh one, and between them a mixed area. This is the case of the Uzbeks, who by giving more room to the dotar during the last hundred years have nomadized their Irano-Soghdian art music legacy. The use of these moving tones in the lower register provides a Central Asian flavor to the Irani-Tajik tunes, in a way that sounds strange to Iranian or Middle Eastern ears. Conversely, it would be boring for an Uzbek ear to play these tunes with a stable drone. It is not by accident that when the Tajiks play the same compositions as the Uzbeks, they prefer a more stable drone. Of course Uzbeks are sedentary people and city dwellers like the Tajiks, but only from a few centuries back, and beside that, we can say that the dotâr represents the nomadic element of their instrumentarium, the sedentary elements being the tanbur (a long setâr), the chang (santur) the qijak (kamânche) and the dayra.

Let me be clear: the term “nomad” shouldn’t be understood in its specific ethnographic meaning, but as a philosophical and aesthetic concept, as elaborated by philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari. Great nomadism has disappeared long time ago, but it has left its imprint in the people’s mind. A nomadic style can survive for a long time after sedentarization as an apprehension of time and space left as a legacy from the ancestors’ lifestyle. It appears with strength in the playing of two long- necked lutes: the Kazakh dombra (2 strings) and the kirghiz komuz (3 strings). We have already mentioned the taste for biphony, but there is something more in the gestural dimension of this music. In some cases, it is as if the instrumental piece (kui, kuu) were designed to be watched as much as to be listened to. It is as if the inspiration stems from the gesture, the movement of the hand, rather than from an abstract musical idea; it seems that gesture can be an expression of thinking as well as a kind of dance. In some tunes, the movement of the hand takes a considerable part, not only to produce motives, but for its beauty in itself. We said before that nomads do not dance. It is true, but in the lute performance it is the hand that is dancing. In some so-called acrobatic pieces, the lute is played in all positions: in the back, on the shoulders, on the right, then on the left, flipped, crossing the hands, etc. as to demonstrate the technical mastery of the instrument. One should keep in mind that the lute is comparable to a horse, so the instrumental virtuoso performance is similar to the skill of the nomad riders or the way they travel on their horse. This could explain the rhythmic specificities of their music: it is like wandering on a horse: sometimes trotting, sometimes galloping, jumping over an obstacle, slowing down or accelerating going up and down a hill.