The city of Bukhara is a florid oasis sitting at the crossroads on the dry and dusty steppe, midway between Iran, China, and Afghanistan. It was a main stop along the great Silk Road, which connected Europe to China. Textiles and spices were the stock in trade, but invariably merchants carried their favorite songs as well. As a result, the musicians of Bukhara became the hippest in all of Central Asia. On Sunday their exotic musical tapestry will be unfurled here when the group Shashmaqam comes to town.
For centuries, the Bukharan Jewish musicians connected the many dots of central Asian culture. They were among the most distinguished artisans in the courts of the emirs and khans of the region. Uzbek, Tajik, Afghani, and Azerbaijani songs form the basis of their repertoire, known as shashmaqam. When the Soviets seized the reins, the music shifted from the feudal court to the concert hall, recording studio, radio station, and eventually, as circumstances for Soviet Jews deteriorated, overseas.
Shashmaqam coalesced in the late 70s among the expatriate Bukharan musicians who had settled in Brooklyn. In 1980, Fatima Kuinova, a legendary singer who had performed for the shah of Iran and Stalin, among others, arrived in New York and assumed a central role in the ensemble. She attracted a stellar cast of emigre musicians, and the group began performing on the festival and concert circuit in the late 80s.
Shashmaqam transcends the casual plunder of throwaway ethnopop. The music is elegant and rich, a bright brocade that weaves together Persian, Indian, Afghani, and Turkish influences in a manner both exotic and accessible. Asian stringed instruments (tar and tanbur) and drums (doire and nagora) mix with accordion and clarinet in music that ranges from the central Asian classics to exuberant wedding dance music, complete with the shimmering arm and hand movements characteristic of many traditional Muslim dances.
One of the more subtle pleasures of this music is its seamless bridge between Jewish and Islamic cultures. The music acknowledges a profound debt to the mystic Muslim dervish traditions as well as Jewish liturgical sources. It's a delight to partake in a musical experience that honors the richness of these ancient roots without passing judgment.
Shashmaqam will perform at the Greater Chicago Jewish Folk Arts Festival on Sunday from 11 to 6 at Caldwell Woods, at Devon and Milwaukee. The festival also features performances by dozens of local musicians including Sima and Arnold Miller, interpreters of Yiddish folk songs, and Willy Schwarz and Miriam Sturm, who perform Jewish music from exotic locales such as south India and China. There will be a juried art exhibit, book fair, kosher food court, and a separate children's stage. The rain location is Niles North High School at Lawler and Old Orchard Road, east of the Edens in Skokie. For more information call 708-674-0344.