TAJIKISTAN: Lalaiki Pamir - Oleg Fesov
A bastion of Pamir culture, Fesov helps preserve his culture with this accomplished pop-folk fusion record
Graduating from the Dushanbe College of Arts in 1990, Oleg Fesov was not initially intending on a career in music. In fact, before turning his talented hands to music creation, he was Tajikistan’s pre-eminent illustrator of children’s books and magazines, despite having graduated in sculpture. His musical passions had been with him since childhood, and he started releasing music in Tajikistan to almost instant success, but this was all to come to a halt in 1992, when the Tajik Civil War started. Fesov, a member of the Pamir ethnic group that reside mostly near the Tajik-Afghan border, managed to escape from his home region of Gorno-Badakhshan in the cargo hold of an aeroplane to Germany, as many people, including Pamirs, in that region had rebelled against the government. While he tried to return to the capital Dushanbe to eke out a musical existence, and for a brief while his fame allowed him to survive on revenues from playing weddings and concerts, despite the fact that many Pamir people were labelled as traitors during that time, eventually he had to leave Tajikistan again for Moscow. However, his time in exile proved fruitful, as he was able to begin producing the songs he had written and composed, under the wing of German world music label Blue Flame, as well as winning plaudits at Kazakhstan’s Voice of Asia contest. His first album, Lalaiki Pamir, is an intriguing mix of Tajik and Central Asian folk music alongside modern pop and rock, reflecting his many influences and experiences.
“He could have tried to compose a Russian (or German or English) hit, but has so far chosen not to, keeping his authenticity. Plenty of people compose pop hits; far fewer act as a guardian for their culture.”
Lalaiki Pamir means ‘Pamir lullaby’, which already tells you something about the style and content of the album, especially when taken in the context of what was happening to Pamir people and culture in Tajikistan at the time of recording. Some songs veer towards the traditional, with a clearly Central Asian sound, and some are far more pop oriented, and that’s a mix that’s fairly common among world music labels and musicians, and as such it is an approach I rather like. Songs like Dargil and Tscharo wouldn’t be out of place on an album by Alphaville (save for the Tajik vocals), whereas Az InSchab Mastum and Lalaik are more like what perhaps you might expect from a musician who plays Central Asian folk music. What is most important is it all works nicely together, especially on songs like Marav, where you really do have a mix of both, with synths, ouds, and tablas all audible. Most of the songs are upbeat, though there are some exceptions, like Requiem, which is a slow, mournful piece that ends the album, serving almost as a reminder of the tragic situation that led to his exile and recording of the album.
In general, I like the approach Fesov takes because it eases in the uninitiated, like myself, while also retaining what makes Fesov an interesting musician, namely his Tajik Pamir heritage. He sings exclusively in the Tajik and Shughni languages, the latter being a regional language from the Gorno- Badakhshan region, and thus he is both preserving and promoting his regional culture. In an interview with Russian media in 1997, this is something the interviewer commends him on, stating that he remains ‘the singer of his fatherland’, and I tend to agree with this approach. He could have tried to compose a Russian (or German or English) hit, but has so far chosen not to, keeping his authenticity. Plenty of people compose pop hits; far fewer act as a guardian for their culture.
It is also an album that, in my view, has one song that far exceeds all the others, perhaps not on a lyrical (any Tajiks out there reading this, do get in touch to let us know what the lyrics of the album are about, I’d be fascinated to know) or emotional level, but it is a bit of a banger, almost to the extent where it stands out from the rest of the songs as being almost from a different album. I’m talking about Masch Kutscha, which does not appear to be one of his more popular compositions, and nor is it the most technically impressive, but I have to admit I love it, and have often listened to it over and over, and that’s got to count for something. This is an album where there is more than meets the eye. What appears to be an album of folk fusion ends up being an album with serious pop credentials, a unique folk heritage, as well as a acting as an introduction into Tajikistan, its history, and its people.