RealWorld, 2003
7243 543206 2 0
artist/label website
In Uzbekistan's capital of Tashkent, Sevara Nazarkhan is a celebrated pop star. This twenty-five year old singer/songwriter is still fondly remembered for her first group, a soulful women's quartet. During the same late 90's period, she also performed Gershwin, Jobin and adapted original material in Tashkent's Taxi-Blues cafe. She listens to Bjork, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Laureen Hill, Sting, Sinatra, Sade, Youssou N'Dour but calls landsman Botir Zakirov her all-time favorite whose songs were played in her parental home. This fondness for traditional yet very much still living forms in timeless Central Asia might explain why, despite her omnivorous background and involvement with modern Western idioms, her debut album on RealWorld doesn't follow expected EthnoPop precedents by fellow Uzbek and BlueFlame label artists Yulduz Usmanova and Mokhira Asadova. Like Sevara, they too studied at the Tashkent State Conservatoire, an institution where folk music is a rigorously transmitted ethnomusicological art. While equally fluent in ancient maqams, their Western releases however have instead chosen the uptempo path of dance-happy flashy Pop productions.

Yol Bolsin is clearly shaped by the very tasteful collaboration with French producer Hector Zazou whose sparse, dreamily shifty Mongolian atmosphere for Sevara's compositions creates more common ground with Norwegian Saami singer Marie Boine or RealWorld's prior Real Sugar [Paban Das Baul & Sam Mills], Black Rock [Djivan Gasparyan & Michael Brook] and Coming Home [Yungchen Lhamo] crossover efforts. The latter's Tibetan focus already showcased Zazou's canny knack for modern arrangements that honor the original ethnic flavor of the featured culture. For this album and In the hands of Toir Kuziyev, he incorporates the 15th century doutar as Sevara's instrument and key flavor that anchors her gentle vocals in down-tempo synth/drum ambience. The doutar is a long-necked, two-stringed broad-fretted plucked lute strung with either gut or silk whose timbre's related to an Arabian oud like a surbahar recalls a sitar - in a lower, warmer, more redolent register.

Harkening back to female plainsong with Oriental-style melismatic embellishments, self-accompanied on lute, perhaps additionally augmented by basic flat drum beats from a friend, Yol Bolsin overdubs Sevara only occasionally for subtle backup harmonies. It concentrates instead on mellow grooves whose dark, minimalist setting points at nomadic yurte encampments on endless plains below vast skies. Since well-tempered Western scales and harmonies were alien to such cultures, Zazou wisely sidesteps incongruously fancy chordal development. He builds appeal and interest on the groove side of things, with subterranean synth accents, keyboard washes, funky loops, reverb trickery, layered percussion patterns and heavy metal doutar riffs. On the brilliant "Galdir", he fashions a slightly dissonant, harmonically ambiguous string context to support Sevara's melancholy chromatic melody without a clear tonal center. Despite the tri-beat solid percussion pattern, this and the heavily quarter-toned gidjak violin motif uphold an eerie sense of flotation.

Sevara's voice interpreting these folk, Sufi and peasant songs -- passed down the centuries more or less unchanged -- is of course the central attraction of Yol Bolsin. Adjusted for the present subject matter, it's essentially kept free of vibrato safe for short trill embellishments. Not a high-powered voice, it's more exotic in how it mimics the Asian instrumental style of serpentine undulations and sub-phrase breaks than in raw timbre. It's an open window into the age-old magic of Bukhara and Samarkand, mystical places along the Silk Road of Marco Polo as well as stomping grounds for the roving Gurdjieff during his formative years.

Yol Bolsin pulls of an admirable balance. It injects modern production values into authentic ethnicity just enough to build a bridge for Western listeners already well versed in its neo-tribal ambience. The charm of these tunes lies in exactly this restraint. It avoids the common misappropriations and employs technology in the service of the musical message rather than the other way 'round.