Sevara Nazarkhan, Yol Bolsin

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Real World Records
Released: 2003

Listen at Real World Records; buy at CD Roots

Fusion is as combustible in music as it is in nuclear science. It's hard to get the diverse pieces of the musical genres together in just the right way to create something that is not only new and interesting but also faithful to the original genres. This is the dance that has shaped Real World Records since Peter Gabriel established the label back in the early 90s. His original vision was to give "world" artists a chance to be heard by a larger audience. This has worked to some extent, in part because the label releases Gabriel's own music and because the "world beat" music released by other artists on the label is usually given a glossy, Gabrielish pop sheen, making it more palatable to western ears (in the same way Harvey Weinstein edits and rewrites and otherwise commercializes "independent" films so that they can make money).

Of course, the argument against this "fusion" of traditional world and ethnic musics with the commercial world of pop and rock is not as simple as those critical of Real World would suggest. Take Uzbeki singer Sevara Nazarkhan, for example. She is trained in the classical music of Central Asia, and her primary instrument (aside from her wonderful voice) is the dutar, the two-stringed lute that is popular in the region. However, she is also a pop star in Uzbekistan, having recorded with both jazz groups and on her own. In some ways, Nazarkhan's musical heritage is influenced both by the traditional sounds of her Islamic, Central Asian culture and the musical hegemony of western pop and rock music.

What is apparent when listening to Nasarkhan's debut western release, Yol Bolsin, is that she is comfortable in both musical worlds, for this is, without a doubt, a perfect example of "world beat fusion." The songs are primarily Uzbeki traditional and folk melodies, though there are a few more contemporary numbers thrown in as well. Likewise, the dutar is featured prominently, especially in the beginning of "Moghulchai Navo (Moghul Melody)," where it provides not only the song's intro but also its key melodic line. There are also other Uzbek instruments featured here, especially the percussion instruments (big drums, snapping finger cymbals, stuff like that). However, these traditional elements are shaped and molded around the glowing warmth of samplers, synths, drum machines, and studio wizardry. Don't get me wrong--the music never loses its Uzbeki feel, but that feel is wrapped up in a modern, western package. Is this a good thing? Well, I suppose from a marketing standpoint I would say yes, since there's a good chance more westerners will listen to and enjoy Yol Bolsin than would ever listen to (much less enjoy) Theodore Levin's field recordings of traditional Uzbeki music (see such albums as Asie Centrale: Traditions Classiques or Bukhara: Musical Crossroads Of Asia).

This music was created in two different places: Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Paris. I don't know the specifics of these recording sessions, but I'd guess that the bulk of the traditional music was recorded in Tashkent, and the Paris sessions acted to "modernize" that traditional sound into something hipper and punchier. I'd also hazard to guess that Nazarkhan had more creative control during the Tashkent sessions than she did at the Paris sessions. Heck, I don't even know if she was in Paris for those sessions! And this, I think, is the crucial problem here. For I get the sense that it is the album's producer, Hector Zazou, and not Nazarkhan who is in charge of the album's overall sound.

This is, of course, not a new practice. Bob Marley and the Wailers' first album for Island, Catch a Fire, underwent a "modernization" at the hands of Chris Blackwell, who added rock guitar and organ overdubs onto some of the best reggae songs ever recorded. The results were hailed by some as memorable, but the tracks sound very bland and dated now (while the original version of the album--released a few years ago--is still as fresh as it was back then).

Now, Nazarkhan is no Marley; she herself would admit that. However, she is a very talented artist, and her music deserves a wider audience. Moreover, she is, as I said before, not simply a traditional artist in Uzbekistan--she releases pop music, too. For these reasons, Yol Bolsin is a success. It is smart, engaging, and entertaining. However, I think the album oversaturated production hurts the overall effect of this otherwise fine work. I can imagine a time twenty years from now when a copy of Nazarkhan's music--minus the electronic overdubs--will sound as if it were recorded yesterday, while this album will sound, well, like it was created twenty years ago.

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