Sevara Nazarkhan, 2012
Sevara's acclaimed 2002 debut Yol Bolsin ('Where Are You Going') is a collection of traditional, folk and peasant songs from Uzbekistan, a country that formally broke with the Soviet Union in 1991 and has worked hard to reassert its rich cultural identity ever since. Music is a priority: imbued with echoes of Persian classical music and the meditational Sufi tradition, traditional Uzbek music takes the form of age-old poetic songs called maqams. Many such maqams are as well-known in Uzbekistan as those of the country's now booming - and gloriously cheesy - pop industry. Within which, coincidentally, Sevara Nazarkhan happens to be a major player.
"Our youth listen to a lot of traditional music. These are songs they grew up with. We don't dismiss them as boring as some Western cultures might." Sevara pauses, sighs. "Traditional music has been tested by time and generations, too," she offers. "It is always travelling and developing, which in turn pushes me to go further and experiment with other sounds."
Some of the traditionalists were surprised by her choice of material - folk, Sufi and peasant songs - on 'Yol Bolsin'. The first track, Yor-Yor is a traditional song to a bride about moving into the home of her husband and his parents. According to custom, this song's lyrics are improvised, but Sevara sings a popular version, which advises the new bride not to feel like a stranger. If music is a social document, songs like Yor-Yor represent the halfway point between the city and the rural countryside. Other songs on the album are dominated by natural imagery: the white snake in Sevara's favourite song Galdir, or the steps that become flowers in 'Yol Bolsin' - symbols for heartache and freedom.
Today when Uzbek women get together in towns and villages to sing and socialise, many of their songs are about alienation, separation and unrequited love, but then women's emotions under Islam are usually about watching or being watched - rarely touching. While Russian colonial rule in Uzbekistan was harsh and brutal, for women who had been living strict Islamic lives prior to the Soviets' arrival, the change in government, and impact of young Uzbek reformists amounted to social emancipation. Women are used to asking for what they want and getting their own way. Yol Bolsin and Yallajonim (My Dearest Song) capture the emotions of hopeful, purposeful - not arranged - love.
Most of these songs are rooted in the Near and Middle East, where the instrumentation, whether on doutar or doira, a women's small, flat drum, follow patterns of vocalisation. The quarter note, considered 'false' in the west because there is no classical counterpart, is one of the foundations of the region's music. Oral poetry in particular has a special significance in Uzbekistan, where the term for male bards, bakhshi, also means healers who use music as a conduit to the spirit world. It is the same in the Chinese book of Changes, I Ching, where music is considered a mystical link to the ancestors. Along with Marco Polo's treasures, spirituality was one of the more interesting goods and services that travelled the Silk Route's 5,000 miles of history, from the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an over the steppe, oasis and desert byways that lead to the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire.
With such a monolithic history, modernity can be easily sidelined. Yet, Sevara, the pop star, is no stranger to popular music trends. With samples, electric guitars and keyboards 'Yol Bolsin' didn't fully begin to flower until record producer Hector Zazou, from France, immersed himself in the tastes and smells of contemporary Uzbekistan. Sevara jokes that she forced Zazou to eat, drink, and dress Uzbeki - and always central to this experience is pure tradition. For the album's doutar-playing, Sevara borrows the hands and experience of Toir Kuziyev, a master of instrumentation.
The results are a collection of evocative songs recorded in Tashkent and Paris and finally mixed in the Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire. Yet 'Yol Bolsin' remains outside time and essentially Central Asian.
Two of the songs, Moghulchai Navo (Moghul Melody) and Soqinomai Bayot, which refers to a particular rhythm-pattern of the doira, utilise the classic form of the Shash (Six) Maqams; while Yol Bolsin and Adolat Tanovari (Song of Adolat) could easily be tweaked into a groovy dance remix. As the last track Alla (Lullaby) lingers in the air like a soothing dream or a crisp, starry night found no where else but on the mountain passes of the Silk Route, the real lesson of Sevara's unique musical journey is that time morphs beyond convenient segments of past and present. It is a never-ending Moebius ribbon of emotions, sounds and ideas.
Yol Bolsin, tastefully digitalised by French producer Hector Zazou, focused attention on a little known musical legacy. It also unleashed Sevara Nazarkhan on the world and led her to receive the 2004 BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music/Asia Pacific. Here, remarkably, was a woman who was not only a pop star back home - where her cassettes sold in the street markets of the capital, Tashkent - but a pop star intent on pursuing her own singular path. A daughter of classically-trained musicians and a graduate of the State Conservatoire, majoring in voice and the two-stringed doutar lute. A thoroughly modern artist who cites Bjork and Goldfrapp among her influences, who regularly blows audiences away (including those who saw her on Peter Gabriel's 2003 tour) with her rock goddess-like charisma.
- Come Into Our World - 15 essential world titles for retail Low key at the time of it's release a year ago, this has become one of the must-have world albums of the year. The reviews were fantastic and winning the BBC Radio Three Award for Asia is a wonderful recognition of this slow-burn success. Music Week (UK)
- ...Nazarkhan is possessed of a ravishing voice... It's exceptionally soothing and beautiful. Word (UK)
- ...an eclectic, heartfelt set of pleasant... ...folk and Sufi songs...Hector Zazou brings a distinctly 21st century sensibility to the project...understated and respectful-less Buddha Bar banality than the smart sounds of the Asian Underground. It's a compelling atmospheric backdrop for Nazarkhan and Kuziyez to weave their spell...Nazarkhan's voice is impressive, taking on her material confidently but not reverentially, not afraid to bring personal interpretations to the plate.' Global Rhythm (USA)
- Sevara...possesses a repertoire of beautiful original songs and a voice that is nothing if not spellbinding. ...For this recording...Nazarkhan was joined by several very talented players, in particular multi-instrumentalist Toir Kuziyev. Her music, inspired by traditional and Sufi songs, was tweaked in the studio with just enough electronic elements to expand the sonic palette without compromising the uncluttered grace of her sound. Without question, this is one of the most artistically real world-music titles of 2003.' Billboard (USA)
- CD of the Week '...Sevara Nazarkhan plays brilliantly with traditional and modern ideas of female identity, contrasting fire and ethereality, and creating moments of intense fragile beauty...French producer Hector Zazou space-warps the sultry twanging of the doutar lute, while giving free rein to Nazarkhan's beguilingly milky voice-letting the operatic pop idol and the other-worldly sufi chanteuse elide over gently throbbing digital grooves. What might have ended as generic "world soup" makes entrancing and highly sophisticated contemporary mood music. A major talent in making.' The Telegraph (UK)
- ...Loops and samples share the spotlight with the Uzbeki instruments, and over the top soars a quite unforgettable voice. Mojo (UK)
- Sevara's vocals have a gentle intensity and a caressing quality... ...in many of the songs and the music becomes haunting on repeated listening. Sevara is good to listen to and a bundle of energy on stage. Real World have found a distinctive voice here. The Standard - Metro Life (UK)
- ...with gifted producer Hector Zazou... ...adding subtle beats and trademark electronic shimmers, the result is a warm but eerily atmospheric album. A slow charmer.' The Observer (UK)
- Piccadilly Records - Record of the week - 17.2.03 Sevara Nazakhan's music is both accessible and hypnotic and not what you expect coming from Uzbekistan. Partly this is due to Hector Zazou's production which relies heavily on the melodies natural to Sevara's lilting voice, coupled with gentle rhythms, samples, electric guitars and keyboards. Mainly it's the dreamy multi-tracked vocals and traditional doutar-playing that gives "Yol Bolsin" its timeless, Central Asian feel and results in one of the most satisfying Real World debut's for quite a while. Piccadilly Records (UK)
- A Silk Road star 'The music is surprisingly accessible and Sevaras lilting voice, coupled with the gentle rhythms, creates a dreamy, hypnotic sound...' Wanderlust (UK)