Asia is the world's largest landmass, sprawling from the North Pacific shores of the Korean peninsula to Turkey's Bosporus straits. Naturally, such an enormous area contains a staggering human diversity-with hundreds of different ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups. Asia also contains a multitude of music-perhaps too much to digest in one swallow. There is, however, a certain cohesion to the music of Central, East and Southeast Asia that sets them apart from the musical complexes of the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent.
China is one of the world's oldest civilizations, with a written history that stretches back more than 4,000 years. Its music, too, is equally venerable, reaching its classical apex in the same years that Rome was beginning to establish its dominion over the Mediterranean. The court and folk music of ancient China would influence the music of its neighbors-especially Japan and Korea, where Chinese instruments and styles were adopted and adapted. It also traveled along the ancient Silk Road-the commercial lifeline that tied China to Europe for millennia-into Central Asia, where it had some impact on the peoples of the region. In the modern era, China has reemerged as a world power, and its cultural influence is again being felt, from the ubiquitous Mandarin and Cantonese pop found all over East Asia to Chinese opera and classical forms exported by the state for diplomatic purposes.
Sandwiched between the ancient civilizations of China and India, Southeast Asia has a welter of indigenous musical styles that reflect the competing pulls of these two cultural poles. Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Cambodia all have interrelated classical traditions that owe a debt to Indian classical music, while the court music of Vietnam, bears a marked Chinese influence. At the same time, Southeast Asia boasts popular and folk styles that are completely homegrown, from glossy Thai pop to raucous country music such as Laotian mor lam and Khmer-Thai crossborder sound known as kantrum.
Farther south, Malaysia and Indonesia are a musical universe all their own, with a cacophony of competing sounds and influences that draw on Indian, Chinese, Muslim and indigenous influences. Indonesia's most famous musical export is gamelan, the otherworldly metallophone orchestral sound familiar to the tourists the world over. But the Indonesian archipelago hosts a variety of weird and wonderful pop styles, too, including kronkong, dangdut and jaipongan.
To the East, Japan and South Korea are both regional pop powerhouses, offering slick, well-produced "J-pop" and "K-pop" teen idols and studied copycat bands of every Western music trend from jazz to heavy metal. But scratch the shiny surface of both nations and a rich indigenous musical culture emerges. Japan especially has centuries old court, classical and art-music histories, including the famed gagaku and kabuki theater traditions-not to mention the many local folkloric styles to be found to the South in Okinawa. Korea, too, has its own court and folk music traditions, studiously preserved against the all-pervasive onslaught of pop culture.
Mongolia and Central Asia share a nomadic, horse-loving heritage, and there are some similarities in their music, too. Overtone singing- sometimes called "throat singing"- is a form shared by Mongolians and the Tuvan people of the Russian Federation, that's gained some attention in the west over the years. While the bardic singing traditions of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan-with their emphasis on recalling the history and deeds of their peoples' nomadic forbears-shares a common legacy with Mongolian songforms.
At the same time, Central Asia's settled peoples, the remnants of the great Silk Road kingdoms of old, share a common musical heritage based more on Middle Eastern sources than those of their Asian neighbors. The shash maqam system of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan bears a close relationship to the Persian classical music of Iran, part of a continuum that also includes Afghanistan and even Azerbaijan in the Caucuses. Of course, even the remote steppes of Central Asia aren't immune to the pull of modern pop, and in the last few years, young Uzbek pop divas such as Yulduz Usmanova and Sevara Nazarkhan have emerged onto the international scene. -Tom Pryor