UKHARA, Uzbekistan — Uzbekistan is a new country, an arid network of old Persian, Mongol and Uzbek capitals that did not find independence until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Uzbekistan was annexed as a Soviet republic in 1924. Its borders were drawn along sloppy ethnic lines, with the intention of stirring up a little conflict among the various Turkic peoples there to keep them in line. For now, however, there is peace within the borders (unlike the case in neighboring Tajikistan) and 25 million people — Russians, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz — are learning what it means to be Uzbek.
One result is that Uzbekistan has a national popular-music culture that is not even a decade old. Its artists have just emerged from the shadows of Soviet repression, shaking off the title of People's Artist of Uzbekistan to find their own identity.
"The musicians have consciously tried to push out the Russian influences and make something that is Uzbek," said Gene Chellis, who with Alla Emeliantseva, his wife, runs Imagina, a Seattle label that releases music from former Soviet republics and Central Asia. "But my personal take on the music is that more change is due to greater exposure to western influences than it is to pushing out Russian influences. I've seen, on a stage in Tashkent, Uzbek folks in baseball caps turned backward doing what sounded like L.A. rap."
Citing Uzbekistan's more enduring stars like the band Yalla and the singer Yulduz Usmanova (who composed the country's new national anthem), Mr. Chellis said that many artists there "are at a quality level and a level of artistic originality comparable to pop artists in America."
Yet they are living in a country whose music industry in its infancy, where fame is impossible without government patronage and where there is no money to be made from recordings. Legitimate record stores barely exist in Uzbekistan, and bootleg cassette stands are proliferating. Even household names like Yulduz and Yalla make the bulk of their money performing the traditional Uzbek way, as wedding musicians.
The cultural center of life remains the bazaar, where blaring from the boomboxes of cassette vendors everywhere are fast, sinuous pop songs by Uzbek stars like Osoda; raps from European dance acts like the Bomfunk MC's; ballads from Persian singers like Andy; alternative rock from Russian bands like B2; traditional Uzbek folk by older musicians like Sherali Jo'Raev; and a new genre of Uzbek-style Europop from upstarts like DJ Pilgrim and Juliano.
At these makeshift cassette stands, teenagers gather, discovering new pop stars and exchanging gossip about singers like Laylo Aliyeva, who was killed last year by thieves who stole her jewelry. The differences between the entertainment industries in the United States and Uzbekistan can be discussed. With the aid of a translator, this conversation about the differences between the two music industries took place in the new bazaar just outside the center of Bukhara, an ancient holy city in the Kyzylkum desert. Nasimi Umarov is a 21-year-old tape seller who is helped out by Alexie Soshnin, a 22- year-old student, who occasionally offered his opinions.
NEIL STRAUSS You sell only cassettes. Does anybody have CD players?
NASIMI UMAROV Some people do, but CD's are too expensive. They cost two or three American dollars, and that's too much for most people.
STRAUSS Where do you get the cassettes?
UMAROV We go to a warehouse store in Tashkent and just buy the cassettes. Then we copy them. Do they do this in America?
STRAUSS Not really. A few people sometimes sell pirated music in the streets, but there are often crackdowns by the police.
UMAROV In Uzbekistan, it's the only way to get music.
STRAUSS How are artists paid, then?
UMAROV They perform at weddings. Before independence, that was the only way Uzbeks were allowed to perform for one another.
STRAUSS What sells better, Western or Uzbek pop?
UMAROV Before independence, we did not listen to much American music. Very few people here were interested. But now Uzbek music is very similar to European music. People aren't interested in traditional music, unless the Islamic fundamentalists come to power.
STRAUSS Do artists ever sing political songs that subtly criticize the government or the former Soviet government?
UMAROV No, here they make patriotic music. Those are the only political songs. Sometimes we have patriotic festivals. The theme of one this year was, "We Will Not Give Uzbekistan to Anybody." How about in America?
STRAUSS Our most famous festival, Woodstock, was a protest against the government and the Vietnam War. If some of our rock musicians made patriotic songs, they would risk losing their audience. Are there censors here who approve lyrics?
UMAROV No. Are there censors in America?
STRAUSS Have you ever heard of Dr. Dre or Eminem?
UMAROV Only Dr. Alban.
STRAUSS Well, they are rappers, and their music is controversial because of lyrics about violence and disrespecting women. Politicians are getting so worried that Congress has been holding hearings on what it should do to keep the music away from children.
UMAROV You couldn't do that here. If people made music with those kinds of lyrics, nobody would buy it.
STRAUSS In America now, some musicians have to make two different versions of some records. One is the regular version, and the other has all the dirty words and references to sex and violence taken out.
ALEXIE SOSHIN People don't dare to record such things. We have never heard of such artists.
STRAUSS Isn't there anybody like Madonna, who became popular by knowing where the borders were and pushing them a little?
SOSHIN If they don't keep to the border, they will not be popular. They call Yulduz the Uzbek Madonna, but it's because so many people know her. There's nobody like that at all.
STRAUSS So nothing you sell is risqué or unconventional?
UMAROV People don't buy it. They want music about love and romance as well as entertainment.
STRAUSS How do people find out about pop stars here?
UMAROV Mostly television. And the television is state-sponsored.
STRAUSS How much do you make working here?
UMAROV Three to four hundred sum a day. (The equivalent of 50 cents.) How much do you make in America?
STRAUSS It depends. Someone selling CD's in a store makes maybe $10 an hour.
UMAROV Does everybody in America have big houses and sports cars?
Seeking Uzbek Sounds
Though it is hard to find music by Uzbek pop and traditional stars outside Central Asia, there are a few places that sell it.
For pop, the Blue Flame label in Germany (www.blueflame.com) has released a half-dozen albums by Yulduz Usmanova, though she is now signed with Double T Music Holland.
Imagina (www.members.aol.com/imagina1) offers collections from Yalla and other artists.
For more traditional sounds, the Ocora label of Radio France has been putting out releases of Central Asian music, including a beautiful album by Monajat Yultchieva; also recommended is "At the Bazaar of Love" (Shanachie) by the Ilyas Malayev Ensemble, in Manhattan via Uzbekistan.
But perhaps the most interesting source for classical music is the workshop of Bobur, an instrument maker in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
In a country in which ethnomusicology does not exist outside government institutions, Bobur is a rarity. He has released more than a half- dozen CD's and cassettes of archival recordings, most of which he made himself. They range from entrancing instrumentals performed on the nay flute to performances by the classical singer Muhamadjon Hoji Karimov. CD's can be ordered from Music Instruments Workshop; Sher Dor Merdressa; Registan Square; Samarkand, Uzbekistan.