Beards

The only four men in town with them....

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Dammit, I look good and am not going to buy another coat.

Practicing with Shaxzot and Oscar.  They start by teaching me the
Uzbek classical songs that we will perform at the concert.

I love the music. It’s similar to Persian music. Until Iran is
liberated and I can go study and play there, this might be the next
best thing.

Everyone seems pleased! Especially when we start working the bass
clarinet into the mix. And they are all about improvising. So, what
could go wrong?

I teach them two of the traditional Iraqi songs that we do with
Charming Hostess from the Bowls Project album.

Anatoly says: “Yes, this is good. But you must play Western songs that
the audience will recognize.”

I say: “I don’t usually sing.”

Anatoly, “Yes, you see you will sing.”

—-

Since I’ve demurred my whole life from learning anything functional
about chord structures, imparting to Shaxzot the secret theories of
blues, jazz and rock, via the non-musical Anatoly as translator has
been interesting. Maybe my mangled  approach will spawn a novel
musical movement here in Uzbekistan!

After the practice sesh, I had a lesson with the surnay master. Surnay
is a super loud double reed instrument, like a zurna. He blasted out
my ears. It was awesome.
He had two surnays, over a hundred years old each.
After intense negotiations, it’s agreed upon that I will put a
downpayment on a new surnay and the maker will start and have it ready
by the end of the week.

—-

Today I bought a chapay – a long purple velvet coat with
sorta-matching/clashing purple skull cap! I think I got a decent price
— $85,000 som.

I found out later that musicians are supposed to wear the shiny stripy
coats cinched at the waist with a fashionable stripy belt. And maybe
not the skull cap either, but one of the other kinds of Uzbek hats –
the black pointy kind. But dammit, I look good and I’m not going to
buy another coat.

—-

“Normal?”
“Normal.“

—-

Today we went to the university and practiced freebird, it don’t mean
a thing, heart break hotel and saints go marching in. We’ll pull it
together. Or not. Either way…

Then Rafiq “I am capitalist” took me to see his 21 hectare farm – just
in case I didn’t infer from the mountains cash in his office that he
makes a lot of money.

Cows. Goats. Dogs. Horses. Rows of corn, onions, tomatoes, apple
trees. Fish pond. Lots of croaky frogs hopping. Mules braying. Rafik
wants to build an “agricultural tourism” hotel with internet, sauna,
20 rooms.

The next day Rafiq asks me, “Yesterday, fishing?” To which I answer,
“Yes, your fish pond was very nice.” But what he asking was, “Today we
will go to the fish restaurant?” I figured that out when arrived at a
restaurant with some dead fish hanging from their tails out front.
Rafiq is a fantastic tour operator; however, more often than not he
confuses “today” “tomorrow” and “yesterday.” So, when he says
something happened yesterday, maybe that’s what you’re doing tomorrow.
Or vice versa. Or who knows. Once you get the gist of this, things
start making a lot more sense.  As a service to him, I’m trying to
clarify this for him, since he is a tour operator and all. This is a
big joke for us now. Incidentally, the huge bucket of fried carp is
delicious. And I don’t get sick afterwards. Winning!

Then back to Rafiq’s office to write program notes, press releases and
my welcome speech (everything must be translated into Uzbek, Russian
and Tajik). Then to my hotel for dinner, podcasts, reading Virgina
Woolf (“Orlando”), practicing. Gotta practice my singing… oy.

Uzbekistan | News report from one of the leading Russian language websites


Знакомьтесь: Джейсон Дициан и Charming Hostess




Uzbekistan | Kurt Cobain Effect

The music college here in Samarkand is a hive of activity. The school
has 900 students. The hallways are crazy. There are kids everywhere
with their doiras, tars, rubobs, violins, cochnais. They are
practicing in the halls, in every corner. In every room. Jamming out
in the back yard. Playing scales under the watchful eyes of
professors. It’s not clear if there’s any actual classes or
organization.

They take me to a room and sit me down. The director of the school
shakes my hand. Then, I realize that there’s sort of a tryout thing
happening here, with me as judge. First, the dutar players come in.
Maybe 30 of them in the room. And they all play some tune. Then they
leave and in are shepherded the rubob players. Then the nai players.
Then the Doira players. I’m sitting, stroking my beard, nodding my
head approvingly.

At the end, Anatoly turns to me and says, “what do you think?”  All
these teachers and students are looking at me. I’m not sure what
anyone told them about why I’m here. I really don’t want to start
pointing at people and it’s not like I have a plan or a clear vision.
I just tell him that I want to keep it simple – two musicians. Drum
and string instrument.

The next day, I’m starting practices with Shaxzot and Oscar – two of
the top players in the school. If you’d asked me ahead of time, I
wouldn’t have wanted to work with students. Masters please!!! But,
given the evolving nature of the project – that I would be putting
together an entire set of “experimental” music – it made sense to work
with some younger folks who would be open minded to try whatever I
asked of them. It ended up being the best of both worlds – these guys
totally shred, but they were also ready to try anything (mostly
because the director of the school told them they had to). Maybe they
lacked some of the confidences of legit masters, but I hoped that I
would compensate for that by instilling a sense of humor in them about
the whole affair.

Unfortunately, Anatoly didn’t exactly share that same sense of humor.
He was really nervous the concert was shaping up to be a flop. And
since he was my translator (Shaxzot and Oscar don’t know a word of
English), I think he wasn’t always passing along the gist of my pithy
Western musician wisdom.

Me: “Anatoly, tell them that as long as they rock on this one, it
doesn’t really matter what they play. Just tell them to rock.”

Anatoly: “Okay Okay.”

[Anatoly doesn’t say anything to them. Errr…]

Me: “Just tell Shaxzot to strum so hard that the strings almost break.”

Anatoly: “Yes, yes, I understand.”

[He still doesn’t say anything. Damn.]

I tried to show Shaxzot how to headbang, but he wasn’t quite into it.
And the Uzbek standard haircut isn’t so conducive to a Kurt Cobain
effect anyway.

Uzbekistan | 100,000 Fools of God

Last month, while I was in Berlin, I immersed myself in the book
“100,000 Fools of God,” the seminal text on Uzbek ethnomusicology. The
general gist of the book is that the state of traditional music here
is sad wisp of what it used to me. Political forces of the last
century had taken their toll – during the USSR days, it was official
policy to Europeanize traditional music. Also, many of the musicians
were Jews and almost all the ancient community had left for Israel and
Queens in the 70’s-90’s, the moment perestroika kicked in and they
were allowed to get the heck outta here (because seriously you just
can’t get a good bagel and lox in Uzbekistan).
One of my guides was telling me that the yard sales on Jew Street
during those times were amazing. Everyone liquidating their family
treasures before heading off to their new lives. My hotel is in Jew
town, but there are only a handful of diehards left now.

Ted Levin, who wrote “100,000 Fools of God” in the 80’s (and who I met
once while visiting Joe Edelman at Dartmouth College) essentially
says, go to Queens if you want to hear Uzbek music.

Ethnomusicologically speaking, 20 years is a blip in these centuries
old traditions. However since Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991 there
seems to have been a major revitalization of the music. I, myself, am
not about to write my own update to Ted Levin. But my hunch is that
once people were free and unfettered by state policy, they brought
back the old school. Perhaps there were some government programs too
that pushed it? I don’t know.

Uzbekistan | It calls for something meaningful…

It’s not initially clear what I’m going to do about presenting the
concert. I have a week to prepare, as much time as I need to practice,
and a lot is riding on me to pull something off. Anatoly, director of
the International Museum of Peace and Solidarity, has already put a
ton of work preparing for the concert. Invitations, press releases,
booking the venue, coordinating with Rafiq about my travel plans, so
on and so forth. I’ve come all the way from San Francisco to spread a
message of peace, love, and awesomeness. Hopefully not to put all this
work in and the results be underwhelming. We’d been planning this for
over three years, so I guess there’s been a bit of build up as well.

Okay, so that means I must cook up something special. I hope whatever
I do doesn’t just leave the audience scratching their heads. I don’t
mind so much when that happens back at home. That’s called “pushing
the boundaries” or some such avant-garde sentiment. The place I’m in
now calls for something meaningful.

Uzbekistan | “Errr, who brought the terrorist?”

The Uzbeks keep asking me, “It is normal?” Such as, do I think the temperature is okay in the hotel room: “The temperature, it is normal?” Or, we are driving and Rafiq (my savvy tour manager/fixer) puts on some Uzbeki dance music, “The radio, it is normal?” At bedtime, the last thing the guesthouse man Sadulo says to me: “Everything is normal?” My food: “Breakfast, it is normal?”

Sweet pastes in small bowls, a hard-boiled quail egg. Hunks of bread (“Samarkand – most famous in Central Asia for bread!”). A tureen of hard candy. No plate.

“Yes,” I reply, “It is normal.”

For a country ruled by an autocratic sadistic despot (I read that they literally boil political dissidents here) Uzbekistan is, on the surface, quite a free-seeming civil society. Just don’t criticize the government.

I took a walk in the park—everyone strolling in a free-looking lovey-dovey sort of way. Even by our liberal American standards, I would say that many of the women (especially in Tashkent) dress like sex workers. I don’t mean that in an insulting way. Maybe a better way of putting it is, if you saw a prostitute in a Hollywood movie, they would be dressed like the nice ladies walking in the park here. Which is surprising – I thought the country was going to have more of a conservative Muslim thing going on—hajiib, modesty, etc. Apparently not. Sorry, Sharia law—Russian capitalist influence and post-cold war Eurotrash fashion trends win the day!

Meanwhile, for the past months I’ve been cultivating an especially Mongolish beard in anticipation for my trip. A really nice beard I tell you. The hope being that maybe it’ll help me blend in with the locals. Not to look like the ethnic Uzbeks, but there are plenty of Russians/Armenian/Tajiks/Afghanis/miscellaneous dark hairy types and I’m thinking, maybe I can walk through the market without being total tourist bait. Jewlia, who was here eleven years ago, said that it would be a good idea, what with Central Asia trending Islamic in recent years.

Ha ha ha! It is quite possible that I might be the only person under 70 years old with a beard. Even at the mosques, there are no beards. Even at Shakhi Zinda, the 2nd-most holiest Muslim pilgrimage site in the world (after Mecca). Only clean shaven faces. Everywhere I go, it’s like, “Errr, who brought the terrorist?” Actually, everywhere I go, somehow everyone knows I’m American. I’m not sure how they know. They must smell the freedom on me. 

The problem now is, if I shave, I’ll come off as a total sucka. Who’s the stupid American who grew a beard to fit-in in Uzbekistan? Dumbass. If I wanted to do that, I should of just worn a cheap sport coat and a Yankee’s hat. So, I’m just going with the beard and selling it. “This is my beard. Deal with it, Uzbekistan. People in America have totally awesome scraggly beards.” Arrrrrgh.

Driving from Tashkent to Samarkand – 300km past villages, cherry and apricot orchards, barren desert hills – we’re stopped three times by armed guards at check points. Each time Rafiq rolls down his window, greets the guard with a salaam a lekim, then opening up the glove compartment passing over a pile of documents covered in official looking Cyrillic stamps. He gets out of the car, chats with the guard, gets back in the car, and we’re off. It’s obvious they’re stopping him because there is a majorly sketchy looking dude in the car. Humph.

Rafiq makes a point of slowing down for any young woman who is by the road trying to hitch a ride. He passes by all the men. Eventually he picks up a nice girl who is going our way – a school teacher. They laugh and talk non-stop until, an hour later, he pulls off the road and she gets out. Everywhere there are lots of people waiting by the side of the road for rides. It is so safe here, a woman gives no pause about getting in a car with two men. There are upsides to post-Soviet  authoritarian rule!

“Good morning Mr. Jason!

“Good morning Sadulo. How are you?”

“Feeling normal! Are you normal?”

“Yes, normal!”

And finally, after being here a few days, this exchange:

“Normal?”

“Normal.”