UZBEKISTAN: Yol Bolsin - Sevara Nazarkhan
Updated: Jul 23, 2021
Blurring the boundaries between tradition and progression, the Uzbek diva shows us her country by combining old songs with a new sound
When it comes to the field of acting, it is said that no actor is more than six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. When it comes to the field of mathematical academia, it is said that no academic with a paper to their name is more than seven papers away from the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős. Whether or not this is actually true, assuming that it is, when it applying it to the field of world music, the only possible candidate could be Peter Gabriel. In the early days of our frenzied searches for albums, his name would reoccur time and time again, with his Real World Records label becoming an indispensable tool for us when searching for music from all over the world. The wide scope of countries included in the label’s archives is truly impressive, and while Central Asia can be a forgotten region in the West, not so for Gabriel and Real World Records, with Uzbek pop singer Sevara Nazarkhan’s first solo record released on the label in 2003. She started out her career in a Tashkent-based girl groups. First, she was a member of a band called T-Solo, and then in 1999 then had a stint in a group named Sideris, where she achieved enough popularity to break out into a solo career in 2000, and an encounter with Gabriel in London led her to the release of Yol Bolsin a few years later.
“It successfully navigates the narrow and treacherous straits of staying faithful to the folk traditions of her home nation while also managing to make it feel modern and contemporary, with a view to making it accessible to people listening outside Uzbekistan.”
Though her beginnings were in pop music, an influence and style she carried over into her solo work, she also incorporates a lot of Uzbek and Central Asian folk influences into her work. Having studied the doutar, a type of Central Asian two-stringed lute that is plucked, as well as having spent time studying folk and classical Uzbek folk at the Tashkent State Conservatoire, and as such all of the songs on the albums are reinterpretations of classic Uzbek folk songs, known as maqams, updating the sound for the modern day, but keeping that Uzbek feeling. This was achieved with the help of French producer Hector Zazou, who had some experience with Central Asian music due to his work with Tuvan throat chanteuse, Sainkho. A song like Yor-Yor is a good example of this, and is to my view one of the best songs on the album. Its alternate English title is Song to the Bride, and it begins with both a doyra (a hand drum) and a karnay, a type of brass wind instrument, but as the song continues, we begin to hear synths and guitars, and Zazou’s sharp production skills make sure it all sounds like a contiguous whole, with its rhythms both enticing and mysterious. Yol Bolsin is perhaps the album’s zenith with regards to Nazarkhan’s vocal performance, which is strong throughout, but on the title track, her ethereal vocals mix in with the atmospheric instrumentation and electronic beats to combine into something rather fascinating and emotionally engaging. The song Alla, a lullaby, is another personal favourite, and her passionate yet controlled vocals are again superlative. Combined with its stripped back instrumentation and use of plaintive karnays and delicate synths are in-keeping with the slow lullaby tempo, but manage to elevate the song into something far more complex, with her voice evoking rich emotions.
The album is certainly accomplished and interesting, and while I have nothing bad to say about it – it is a remarkably consistent album – but it does not give me the sublime feeling that a lot of the best Real World Records releases do. It is certainly very good, and I do enjoy listening to it, but it has not drawn me back to it over the many months since I have first listened to it, though I am more impressed with the album now I am on my third listen, with Nazarkhan’s sublime vocals being a real highlight of the piece. That may be because the music is contemplative and ponderous, rather than exciting or catchy, but that’s not to say it is a boring album. Far from it, though perhaps the general similarity of tone and tempo throughout the album is what makes me feel something is lacking. That said, it successfully navigates the narrow and treacherous straits of staying faithful to the folk traditions of her home nation while also managing to make it feel modern and contemporary, with a view to making it accessible to people listening outside Uzbekistan. That is not an achievement to be sniffed at, and it is certainly an excellent debut album, with plenty of moments that stimulate intellectually and emotionally.