Munajot Takes Texas

The National Singer of Uzbekistan Plays Austin In the pale twilight at the end of a surprisingly pleasant January Saturday in Austin, thirty or so neighbors, musicians, writers, and members of the local Uzbek community gathered in the Swede Hill backyard of Casey Monahan, the director of the Governor’s Office of Texas Music for an impromptu performance of some of the most exotic music ever heard in Central Texas.

Munajot Yulchieva, the National Singer of Uzebekistan and one of the few vocalists adhering to the Shash Maqam musical traditions which date back to the 15th Century, was in town visiting friends, and agreed to sing on the steps of the weathered carriage house by the alley.

A diva comparable in stature to Aretha Franklin—think Central Asia’s Soul Sister #1--Yulchieva emerged from the carriage house resplendent in a full neck-to-ankle native dress hewn of fabric of brightly-colored batik that reminded me of a Navajo design or an exceptionally ornate Grateful Dead tie-dye.

She played to instrumental tracks recorded by her band back home and apologized for the slight chest cold she was fighting. Once she began singing, though, those small problems were as immaterial as the white noise backdrop of traffic whizzing by on Interstate 35 interspersed with the occasional ringing of cellphones carried by the Uzbek men, and the distant thunk of helicopters landing at Brackenridge hospital across the freeway where the illuminated state capitol loomed as a backdrop.

All ears and eyes were transfixed on the tall woman with the striking cheekbones and tightly-braided black pigtails trailing down her back who held a porcelain saucer while the notes poured out slowly and solemnly, as if reciting a reverential prayer, which she was, in some cases. The saucer held a lyric sheet so Yulchieva could reference words of songs she described as Uzbek classics that have been handed down over the generations. But she later utilized the plate to oscillate her voice by holding it to the side of her mouth or waving it as she held a note, a sonic enhancement particularly effective in environments lacking electricity and a stage move like none I’d ever witnessed.

Yulchieva sang from the throat as well as the heart, in a fashion similar to Mongolian throat singers, but minus the voice-on-voice layering. Instead, she played it straight, delivering each note in a clear, confident voice. Despite the language barrier, no interpretation was necessary to convey the longing and sadness she evoked. By the end of the first song she reached an emotional pitch that mesmerized, and did wonders to affirm a fellow Uzbek musician’s assessment that she sings “like a flying dove, turning over in the currents of warm spring air."

She clearly could have been an opera star, but opted for being a homegirl. The reaction of some of the Uzbeks in the audience, who stood up and danced a dance that reminded this Greek of a syrtaki, were all the validation she needed for the career choice.

The rhythms and melody of the backing music were deliciously foreign to my sensibilities, although I detected strains of Greek bouzouki, Persian trance, Sufi poetry, and Indian raga in the ensemble of dutar (two-stringed lute), tanbur (three-stringed lute), gidjak spike fiddle, ney flute, and chang zither.

Yulchieva was joined for one song by Kamran Hooshmad from the 1001 Nights Orchestra who played oud behind her as she thumped out a skittering rhythm on the doira, the hand drum that resembles an overgrown tambourine without the cymbals. Then Yulchieva went solo, just her voice and her fingers dancing on the doira, and rocked the whole backyard.

“I’m sooo tired of western music,” the noted musician and producer Gurf Morlix had told me before Yulchieva took the stage. I now wholeheartedly agree.

Megaprops to Casey Monahan for putting the show on, his friend Dilmurat Azimov who arranged for Yulchieva’s appearance, and his daughter Mamura Azimova for translating Yulchieva’s comments to the audience.

The day before the backyard concert, Stuart Sullivan took Yulchieva into his Wire Recording studio to record new vocal tracks over existing recordings and to work out a few new numbers with Frosty Smith on snares and Kamran on oud. Can’t wait to hear that one.

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