In Central Asia, bards include singer-songwriters and poet-improvisers who perform as soloists or in pairs, typically accompanying themselves on a stringed instrument. Bardic music can be divided into two principal performance traditions, one centered in the social life of rural stockbreeders, and the other, in the festive ceremonies of urban-dwellers. Both traditions include a variety of musical styles and genres that range from short lyrical songs to lengthy epic poems.
Bards are at once entertainers, philosophers, and historians. Epic poems are repositories of oral history, and the bard is the vessel through which history and genealogy are transmitted from one generation to the next. Among the historically nomadic Kazakhs, Qaraqalpaks, Turkmen, and certain groups of Uzbeks, the guttural, raspy vocal style of the bard presents an immediate contrast to the normal speaking and singing voice, creating and artistic and magical distance between everyday experience and the heroic world in which epic stories take place. The social convention by which men maintain control over epic traditions assures that they retain the power of cultural memory and consequently of history itself. In parts of Central Asia, epic reciters are believed to have shamanic powers, since, like shamans, their inspiration is attributed to contact with spirits. At the same time, bards are performance artists who combine music with gesture, humor, and spontaneous improvisation to entertain their audience.
Female bards have been strongly represented in lyrical song genres, particularly among the historically nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, as well as among the urban Azeris and Khorezmi Uzbeks. In recent years, women have assumed the mantle of bardic performers in traditions formerly reserved for men. In Kazakhstan, women perform in the guttural epic vocal style of the jyrau, while in Qaraqalpakstan and Turkmenistan, female performers sing austerely beautiful lyrical songs in a nasal timbre, accompanying themselves on long-necked lute (dutar) and spike fiddle (ghijak).
Instrumental music is also an important part of Central Asian bardic traditions. Many bards are gifted performers on various kinds of strummed and plucked lutes, jew's harps, bowl fiddles, and zithers. Bardic instrumental repertories have a narrative quality and individual pieces often tell stories purely through melody and rhythm "program music," as it would be called in the West. The cultivation of virtuosity, both in instrumental genres and in the extemporaneous improvisation of oral poetry, has been stimulated by a spirit of bardic competition expressed through myriad traditional music and poetry contests. The point of these competitions is to acknowledge and reward the values of originality, ingenuity, and virtuosity that exemplify the bardic spirit in Central Asia. -- Theodore C. Levin