TURKMENISTAN: Gunesh - Gunesh
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
State-sponsored bands often are 'middle-of-the-road'; however, this is far from the case for these experimental Turkmen extraordinaires
Home to the ‘Gates of Hell’ (the Darvaza gas crater which still burns nearly half a century later after a man-made disaster), a $12 million monument dedicated to the country’s policy of neutrality, and a giant statue of a book of poetry written by their former wacky dictator Saparmurat Niyazov; Turkmenistan is a puzzling nation made all the more mysterious due to its inward facing leadership who make it incredibly difficult for tourists to visit. It is the decisions of their madcap leaders, who have been in charge since 1985, whose cults of personality occasionally draw the country more attention than they would otherwise usually receive. Whilst the aforementioned Niyazov enacted numerous strange laws such as a smoking ban to help him quit and even created a national holiday to celebrate melons, their current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow who banned black cars is perhaps known best for his rather unusual obsession with horses. Whilst all of this bizarre behaviour maybe serves as black smoke for some of the shadier goings on in the nation, it certainly detracts from allowing culture to thrive and prosper, particularly on the international stage.
“...when Shafi unexpectedly comes in, he teaches Dave Grohl and Phil Collins a lesson or two about how to truly master the drums. ”
However, during the Soviet era, although they were controlled by an oppressive communist rule, one might argue that Turkmens had more freedom then than they do today. In economic terms, the leadership of Muhammetnazar Gapurow during the 1970s was prosperous, and as such was part of a regime that encouraged world domination in every sector from sport to music. This politicisation of music meant that state-sponsored bands would often consist of the best musicians. This was most certainly the case in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, as a decade before the release of their incredible first album, The Gunesh Ensemble was formed. Like many state-sponsored groups the line-up changed many times, with a whopping 65 musicians estimated to have been members of the group. Yet, the reason why the band perhaps peaked at the time of the release of their self-titled record was the inclusion of virtuoso drummer Rishad Shafi (formerly known as Rishaf Shafiyev) and the award-winning saxophonist Stanislav Morozov.
The meeting of these two musical minds, the pressure to impress and a blending of differing musical styles including jazz, oriental musical, prog and traditional Turkmen traditions made this band somewhat unique. Whilst no artist from Turkmenistan ever seems to have taken off on the international stage in the same way as Real World Records’ folklore outfit Ashkhabad did in the late nineties, those in the music world gifted Shafi in particular with much critical acclaim. Listening to this album, it is totally understandable why the likes of Peter Gabriel labelled Shafi as the best drummer of all-time. Shafi’s drumming credentials were developed at a young age. There is even a tale that tells the story of him at the age of four being so impressed by a drummer’s solo at a concert that he literally fainted. Whilst his percussive talent can be heard throughout, it is perhaps most pronounced on the second track Mix Derya which lulls you into thinking that it is going to focus on showcasing sounds of the dutar, a two-stringed instrument native to Turkmenistan that is not too dissimilar in sound to the oud. However, when Shafi unexpectedly comes in, he teaches Dave Grohl and Phil Collins a lesson or two about how to truly master the drums.
Yet, Gunesh’s album is far from being just ‘the Shafi-show’. Not only does every musician plays their given instrument to a high-quality, but they perfectly complement one another. Fusing genres together is certainly not an easy task, especially when the styles of music they meshed together ordinarily could sound cacophonous if not done with caution and care. However, whilst it is of course the jazz aspects of the album that shine most, what sets Gunesh out from the crowd is their metaphorical doffing of the cap to their own past. Not only does the album feature the aforementioned dutar, but also fuses mughams with other improvisatory styles of music like jazz. Much like Indian ragas, mughams are not used with ordinary western scales, but rather are instead a complex collection classical poetry reinterpreted into intense melodies. The inclusion of this traditional form seems like an appropriate homage to the main Turkmen folk tradition of singing dessans. Unlike their Uzbek and Tajik cousins in the Central Asian steppe, Turkmens have nomadic origins, with music which has a connection to a pre-Islamic shamanist culture. Shamans, also known as bakshys, who would gain such status by receiving a gift during a dream, often going on pilgrimages or making sacrifices in order to have such a dream, would be the narrator of heroic epics. These epic tales (dessans) would often be sung in musical form.
The chanting that appears in the first track The Cleavage, Cleavage. Girl. , whilst hypnotic, catchy and beautiful is a perfect introduction to Turkmen musical traditions as Western are lulled into these unfamiliar sounds amidst a backdrop of frantic yet joyous, high-energy music. Whilst the horn section remains strong throughout, Vladimir Belousov’s funky bass riffs are the highlight of this particular track. Whilst the album is fast-paced for the most-part, my favourite song is in fact the calmer Han Kepderi which relies on the stunning sound of the trumpet and melodramatic vocals. Oriental Souvenir, which subsequently follows, starts with an authentic prog-rock sound before fusing into jazz which creates an authentically theatrical feel to it. This continues throughout and is perhaps felt most strongly on the final-track Parting. Ultimately, I cannot explain why this album works. It just does. Perhaps its sheer energy and the outstanding technical ability of the musicians is what carries it through. It feels in some way that the album is a perfect reflection of the country from which it hails. Much like Turkmenistan, from the outside is seemingly very weird, the world do not know much about it, but dig a little bit deeper and it is wholly apparent that it has got a lot to offer.