The indigenous classical music of Central Asia is rooted in the social life of cities, and reflects the deep impact of Islam as a spiritual and cultural force. Central Asian classical music is known as maqâm, a name it shares with other repertories of classical or court music in the core Muslim world. Like Arabic, Turkish, and Iranian classical repertories, local varieties of maqâm in Central Asia constitute regional dialects of what is at root a common musical language.
Vocal music lies at the center of all maqâm traditions. Singers are typically accompanied by small ensembles of mixed instruments that always include percussion. The beauty of the voice may also be represented symbolically by a solo instrument such as a plucked lute, violin, or flute, which reproduces the filigree embellishments and ornamentation characteristic of a great singer. In classical art song, melodies strive upwards toward a musical, and symbolically, a metaphysical culmination, called awj (zenith), in which singers reach for almost unimaginably high pitches. In its own way, Central Asian classical music anticipated the bel canto aria long before it appeared in Europe.
Central Asian classical music includes both freestanding pieces composed by oral-tradition singer-songwriters, and song cycles consisting of instrumental and vocal music organized by melodic mode and meter. These song cycles, or suites, have gradually assumed canonical forms, but singers freely substitute different poetic texts whose meter corresponds to the meter and rhythm of the music they are performing. Texts are typically drawn from classical Islamic poets such as Hafez, Jâmî, Nawâ'î, Hilâli, Amiri, Bedil, Mashrab and others who wrote in Persian and in a literary form of Turkic known as Chagatay. The texts, composed in classical forms such as ghazal and rubaî, are redolent with symbols drawn from Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. The most salient of these symbols is the figure of the beloved, which, while described in human form, alludes metaphorically and mystically to the invisible presence of the divine.
Regional traditions of Central Asian maqâm include shash maqâm (six maqâms), which flourished in the historically multicultural cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and whose performers and audiences included Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Central Asian ("Bukharan") Jews; Khorezm maqâm, linked to the feudal city-state of Khiva; Ferghana-Tashkent maqâm, which was cultivated by the nineteenth-century rulers of the Qoqand Khanate; and the Uyghur on ikki ("twelve") maqâm. On ikki maqâm comprises a related but somewhat more distant complex of styles and repertories that may well have followed its own course of development over many centuries in the oasis cities of what is now the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. -- Theodore C. Levin