Sevara Nazarkhan, 2007
Sen - which means 'you' in Uzbek - sees the irrepressible, ever curious artist leaping boldly into contemporary writing and production. This is the album Sevara has always wanted to make: a looping, shimmering, beats-laden gem underscored by traditional instrumentation and, with Uzbek-language lyrics provided by past and present Uzbek poets, sent soaring by her unforgettable voice.
"I don't think in terms of contemporary versus traditional or Western versus central Asian," says Sevara, 31. "I live in all those worlds. I'm lucky: when I feel fed up with modern life I can luxuriate in the beauty of tradition, with the music my folks presented me with. Other days I can indulge myself by playing around with sounds, by having fun experimenting, exploring and sometimes," she adds with a grin, "even panicking."
With the exception of two long-time favourites, Bakhtimdan (a song of beauty and happiness) and the oft-recorded Uzbeki classic Kuigai (lent an extra dimension here), all the tracks on Sen were composed by Sevara. And all were produced by herself in collaboration with Russian electro-techno wizard Victor Sologub and the West Country's much-touted Bruno Ellingham.
"I simply love working with a kaleidoscope of musical bits," she says in her chatty, upbeat way. "That is my ocean to dive into. I choose lyrics very carefully. Uzbek poetry is intoxicating, emotionally-involving. It tends to lose its magic in translation; perhaps you have to be Uzbek to truly comprehend it. But the emotion and feeling are the same." Oral poetry has particular significance in Uzbekistan. It is the language of both the natural and the spiritual worlds, heavy on metaphor and delightful to the ear. "A flower or a star might represent a lover. A love song may be a hymn to God. It has always been like this: I use excerpts from a 13th Century poem written by the great poet Saadiy (Debochadan), just as I do a poem by the 16-year-old boy who approached me on the Tashkent metro a few years back (Tushim)."
Sen was created with touring in mind. Onstage, Sevara is a whirl of joyous, co-ordinated movement; her love of live performance is as palpable as her spontaneous, child-like nature. The sort of seize-the-day spirit, in fact, that saw her persuade the famously uncompromising Victor Sologub - late of Soviet post punk outfit Strannye Igry - to come on board and produce. Sologub is now an avowed fan for life. "I love Victor's mix of craziness and sincerity," Sevara says. "We met when I watched him recording his album in St Petersburg. I loved his ideas and the way he worked. So I phoned him up and asked him to come to Tashkent to do some programming."
Sen began as all great albums should: as a bunch of jams. Sevara's compositions evolved courtesy of a tight-knit band playing everything from twanging tanbur lute and rhythmic doira frame drum to keyboards and bass-guitar. Convinced and intrigued, Sologub visited Sevara's home studio in downtown Tashkent, in the city's quieter, non-industrial green belt. "It was days of fierce fighting, lots of arguments and lots of learning for me," she laughs. "We'd work on the songs. My band would play their lines. Then we'd lunch in a nearby Bukhara cafe while Victor would swim for an hour in the Soy, the canal that passes a few hundred metres from my home. Then we'd go back to work. There wasn't much time for fun, though I suspect Victor spent more than a few late evenings in the local nightclubs."
Everyone then decamped to Real World, where Sologub's inspired electronic treatments were carefully remoulded by the equally visionary Bruno Ellingham. Where Sevara, determined to pour exactly the right emotion and power into each and every track, re-recorded all of her glorious vocals - including all the backing arrangements - until they did precisely that. "There were never any constraints on me with this album," she says happily. "No one said 'we want this' or 'we want that'. Everyone at Real World was very supportive - maybe a bit worried, too, I guess." They needn't have been. "That freedom helped me create an album that I am very, very proud of."
Sen: a gorgeous, song-driven album, as melodious as it is danceable, as harmonious as it is edgy. An album that treads both traditional and contemporary paths. Which, for that matter, today's Silk Road does anyway.
"Is Sen traditional or contemporary?" Sevara Nazarkhan gives a good-natured shrug. "That's for other people to decide."
"But either way," she says, shaking out her long dark hair and flashing a dazzling smile. "Sen is who I am."
- Gorgeous Stuff Gorgeous stuff from pint-sized Uzbek singer Sevara Nazarkhan, who has long proved herself a charismatic live performer...Sevara uses her Real World signing to experiment, push boundaries and unleash creative urges...For state-conservatoire graduate Sevara, the daughter of classical musicians. tradition is as progressive as the techno beats it's intertwined with. Lovely. Jazzwise (UK)
- Utterly Compelling Strange and lovely electronic atmospherics cosy up to traditional instruments in the most enchanting way... the songs inhabit their own carefully honed universe, redefining the idea of the ballad, while also being groove-driven... utterly compelling. Independent on Sunday (UK)
- One of the world's leading singers Is this world music or pop? Are they mutually exclusive? Not if you are Sevara. File her under Electronica: world division.... Russian producer Victor Sologub uses both programmed rhythms and local instruments to provide an environment that encourages the adventurous singer to reach for and find melodies that soon become definitive.... This is Sevara's second international release and matches the achievements of the first, confirmation that she is one of the world's leading singers seeking effective routes to the ears of those beyond her nation's borders. Treasure and applaud her. Observer Music Monthly (UK)
- Stunning Sevara and her band recorded a bunch of songs in the studio using their traditional instruments and then called in the maverick Russian electro pioneer Victor Sologub to add his, frankly, mad beats and programming, turning the traditional into the modern in one stroke. The whole team then decamped to the Real World Studios where the equally visionary Bruno Ellingham (Merz, New Order, The Departure) could remould the songs to fit the 2 elements - trad and modern - together in a seamless and seemingly organic way. Determined to pour exactly the right emotion and power into each and every song, Sevara then re-recorded all her vocals until they expressed exactly what she wanted. The result is perhaps the most stunning mixture of ancient traditional music from a culture completely removed from ours, with the most modern and intricate western sounds that has yet hit the streets. Rough Trade online (UK)
- A lovely and original creation Her second album released here trumps her 2003 debut while applying much the same mix of traditional melodies and shimmering electronica spangled with antique lute. Production boffins have made the mix subtly funkier and spurred Nazarkhan to stretch her vocals, which tumble between yearning wails and seductive whispers. It adds up to a lovely and original creation. Neil Spencer: The Observer (UK)
- One of the great world music releases of the year Sevara Nazarkhan is one of the most genuinely gifted singers that the world currently has to offer, yet she has such a child-like enthusiasm and is so completely unpretentious that her irrepressible, ever curious nature leaves everyone that encounters her utterly entranced. 'Sen' is a looping, shimmering, beats-laden gem that will rightly be acclaimed as one of the great world music releases of the year. HMV on-line (UK)