Lesson 1: South and Central Asia–Genres of Music

Let’s start our exploration of the musical genres of South and Central Asia by touching upon the music of Central Asia, which developed over several thousand years during which the region, though almost all landlocked and almost impenetrably vast, was a literal crossroads for merchants, travelers and rampaging maraudersThe Silk Road was a network of trade routes that crisscrossed the region, ultimately connecting China with the West. (Get your bearings: a map of the Silk Road.) This jumbling of people and purposes led Central Asian music to develop fluidly, placing great value on diversity.

Most Central Asian music is built around the concept of a “maqam,” which is the system of relationships between notes that determines how a particular composition “feels.” For the musically-minded among you, this is somewhat akin to the Western concept of “scales,” though it’s more directly analogous to the idea of “modes.” Whereas a scale merely refers to the particular relationships between notes that sound differently, a mode, like maqam, has more to do with the mood or impression generated by the way a particular set of notes sounds when played together.The music of various regions of Central Asia differs in mood based upon each part of the region’s unique history and therefore features different maqamat (plural of maqam). The following list from National Geographic’s entry on Central Asian Classical music may, upon first glance, seem confusing, but read it carefully, and follow the YouTube links to examples of each music, and you may start to get a sense of the way multiple cultures fused their musics over the centuries to develop unique maqamat:

“Regional traditions of Central Asian maqam include:

— SHASH MAQAM (six maqams), which flourished in the historically multicultural cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and whose performers and audiences included Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Central Asian (“Bukharan”) Jews. Listen to a shash maqam on YouTube, and make sure to look at the description of the video for a history of the shash maqam.

— KHOREZM MAQÂM, linked to the feudal city-state of Khiva; Ferghana-Tashkent maqâm, which was cultivated by the nineteenth-century rulers of the Qoqand Khanate. Watch the “khorezm” dance from Tashkent. (Khiva and Tashkent are in Uzbekistan.)

— the UYGHUR ON IKKI MAQAM. On ikki (“twelve”) maqam comprises a related but somewhat more distant complex of styles and repertories that may well have followed its own course of development over many centuries in the oasis cities of what is now the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Watch a Uyghur dance based upon the maqam.”

If you want to delve deep music from the region and happen to find some extra change in your couch cushions you should get your hands on the nine volume Smithsonian Folkways set, “Music of Central Asia”, which will introduce you to Tengir-Too from the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Homayun Sakhi, master of the Afghan Rubab and, of course, Bardic Divas. Woo hoo! You should also open your ears to The Silk Road Ensemble, an extraordinary collection of Central Asian musicians that came together with the inspiration of cellist Yo Yo Ma.

We have to go only slightly south from Central Asian countries like Afghanistan to end up in Pakistan and then India, a fact that’s actually essential to understanding the different between two primary genres of South Asian classical musicNorth Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic) musics are both based upon many similar concepts but are also as fundamentally different as the North and South Indian cultures from which they arise. The most common and most simplistic (though not altogether untrue) explanation for the difference between Hindustani and Carnatic musics is that historically Northern India has had more cultural interchanges with Central Asian peoples, especially with Muslims, than has the South. When Northern Indian music developed in the 13th and 14th centuries it did so hand in hand with the Islamic-inspired musics of Afghanistan and Persia. South Indian music rose in the 15th and 16th centuries in relative isolation.

Both Hindustani and Carnatic compositions twist and turn and can come across as labyrinthine, but at the heart each relies on two basic concepts: rag, the way a melody develops from note to note, and tal, a composition’s rhythm. Since we introduced maqam as a melodic concept above let’s dig a bit into the rhythmic essence of taal.

“Taal,” which literally means “clap,” somewhat corresponds to meter in Western music though “tala” don’t operate according to a linear concept of measures. Instead, tala exist in the form of cycles. Each taal cycle has a particular number of beats and repeats many times over the course of a composition, allowing musicians a framework and fundamental jumping-off point for improvisation. For example, Hindustani classical music’s most common taal is “Teental” a 16 beat cycle that is composed of four groups of four beats. Other taals include:

— Deepchandi taal, 14 beats divided 3-4-3-4

— Ektaal, 12 beats divided 2-2-2-2-2-2

— Jhaptaal (at about 1:50), 10 beats divided 2-3-2-3

— Kaharva taal (performed by six year old Harshwardhan Sharma) 8 beats divided 4-4

— Rupak taal, 7 beats divided 3-2-2

— Dadra taal, 6 beats divided 3-3

Thanks to WorldMusicGuru.com for most of the above YouTube demonstrations of the tala.

Tabla players communicate the many ways to drum a taal by creating a “theka,” which is a particular arrangement of tabla strokes known as “bols.” (For an overview of these concepts check out WorldMusicGuru’s video introduction to Hindustani rhythm.)

Explore these genres of music from South and Central Asia:
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