Dutar Music of Turkmenistan

Graham Flett, 2001

The Republic of Turkmenistan is found in Central Asia, it is bordered by Afghanistan and Iran to the South, the Caspian Sea to the west, and Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to the north. Historically, Turkmenistan has been a place of great ethnic and cultural mixing; beginning in the 7th century there were numerous invasions followed by migrations of Macedonians, Persians, and Arabs. A major result of these early cultural exchanges was the introduction of Islam during the 7th and 8th centuries – an influence which is still very visible today, with 72% of the population of Turkmenistan attaching their faith to the Sunni muslim heritage (Engelmann). Although predominantly unified under Islam, the ancient people in this region were already part of a very diverse culture. This reality became even more complicated after the Turkic invasions in the 10th and 13th centuries which introduced the Seljuq and Oghuz people from Central Asia. Due to their success at unifying many of the Turkic tribes, their impact had a seminal influence on the ethnicity and culture characterizing the region, and today the Oghuz people are now viewed as the most direct source for the proper and original Turkmen tradition (Zeranska-Kominek 91).

Although Turkmenistan is predominantly an Islamic country its musical traditions appear to be on the peripherary of the Middle East and for the most part Turkmen music shares a much closer connection with Central Asian sources than it does with any of the classical models found in the Middle East. This is due in part to the nomadic tradition of the Turkmen people, who have only in the last 70 years begun to adapt a more sedantary way of life. This nomadic existence has fostered a strong bardic musical tradition, which has promoted the development of epic and lyric traditions rather than larger cycles of compositions (Maqams) which can be found more commonly with the neighbouring Uzbeck and Uyghur people (15 During). Excluding instrumental cognates and some possible similarities in general modal usage, the music of Turkmenistan does not overwhelming resemble middle eastern systems such as the vast codification of ‘melodies’ found in the Arabic “Radif” or the modal theory found in Turkish art music. But despite the absence of any written theory or of a classical court music tradition, there are still many elements of Turkmen music which reveal a great deal of cultural and musical sophistication. However in order to demonstrate the differences of musical complexity found within Turkmen music, this discussion will focus exclusively on the three main genres of Turkmen music which use a lute known as the dutar (or dotar).

The Dutar is a two stringed long-necked lute, (roughly about just over a metre in length.) it is usually tuned in 4ths and it has 13 adjustable frets which allow for a full chromatic scale to be played on the instrument. The dutar is also one of the most common lute instruments used in Turkmenistan and it is found in all of the main genres of Turkmen music. (421 New Groove).

Throughout the middle east and Central Asia the dutar has similar instrumental cognates (such as the dombra, komuz). The apparent simplicity of playing a two stringed lute is also part of its charm to the many musicians who play it:

“…dutar music differs in one important aspect from western music, namely that the perfection in sophistication focuses on the subject or agent, that is, the playing technique, and not on the object itself, which is the instrument.” ( 22 During )

In addition to this every culture which uses the dutar has brought their own specific aesthetic style to the instrument, which usually involves different playing techniques as well as a varied formal construction of musical compositions. ( 24 During). This definitely applies to Turkmen dutar music which for instance is clearly different from the two-stringed lute music found in neighbouring areas such as Uzbekistan.

Turkmen folk music, uses the dutar for the purpose of adapting and accompanying Turkmen folk tunes. The repertoire in this genre consists mainly of ephemeral songs which reflect on the pastoral and agricultural pursuits of the Turkmen people (Beliaew 129). In this context the dutar operates homophonically, often just simply underlining the basic rhythm and modal tonic of the melody. Subtle harmonic motion is sometimes produced by parallel movement of perfect 4ths and 5ths – this is a general feature which characterizes most dutar music (see Appendix #1). According to the work of ethnomusicologist Victor Beliaev, dutar accompaniment is usually reserved for more melodically developed Turkmen folk melodies, the more simplistic folk tunes are often accompanied by other instruments, such as the bowed ghidjak. This folk genre seems to account for the smallest portion of dutar repertoire, the bulk of which can be found in the professional performance practice of the bakhshy (or baxshi, bagshy).

Although Turkmenistan is predominantly Islamic, the bakhshy is a cultural tradition which is strongly aligned with Central Asian bardic practices found in the culture of the oriental Turks.

The bakhshy tradition which has its roots in the ancient animist and shaminst traditions practiced in Central Asia before any of the salvationist religions, such as Zorroastrian, Christian, and Islam were introduced (During 15).

The meaning of the word bakhshy has been heavily debated, some believe it derives from the Chinese boshi (teacher), while others have suggested that it is linked to the old Turkish verb meaning “to look carefully,” “to watch,” “to investigate,” or “to read the future from the water surface.” (T.C.J.T.M.T. Zeranska-Kominek 267). In Turkmenistan the term bakhshy refers to a performer who is well respected for their ability to sing, play, and tell stories — the later usually occurs in the form of reciting long narrative songs known as destans. Despite the inability to align Turkmen music with the Radif or Turkish modal theory, bakhshy music can be compared to similar bardic traditions seen in Kurdistan and Turkey, in particular bektashi music whose practice of setting poetry to music is directly related to many of the customs brought to Anatolia by the westward migrations of the Turkmen tribes during the 11th century (Auvidis 2).

There are both female and male bakhshys. The female bakhshy tradition took hold in the 1930s and coincided with the equal rights movements which was also occurring in Turkmenistan during this time – however it should also be noted that due to the vocal character of the bakhshy repertoire it is still relatively uncommon to find female bakhshys who can sing in this range (T.T.M. Zeranska-Kominek 94).

Although the bakhshy tradition is of a bardic origin, the entire performance practice surrounding it is a very structured and organized multi-hour event. Concerts often begin in the evening and end during the dawn, however over this long expanse of time there are three distinct sections to the performance, which help to shape the flow of the music as it gradually unfolds, becoming more and more emotionally charged as the concert develops. This performance usually coincides with a feast (known as a “toy”) or a wedding or another type of social event and it will feature the bakhshy playing several dozen songs which are spontaneously arranged in a series (T.T.M. Zeranska-Kominek 99). This arrangement of songs is just one element to the highly developed bakhshy performance which gradually evolves towards an emotional climax. Once again, the bakhshy concert shows many connections to Central Asian shaminist practices, notably the musical development can be compared to the existential journey of a shaman into a spiritual realm — a concept known as Yol.

“…yol”, whose oldest meaning known to linguists as “a holy place,” “a road leading to God,” “a shaman’s journey.” The word referred to magic-religious experiences of ancient Turks. The concept relating to shamans’ ecstatic journeys to the other world formed the basis of the Turkmen musical concept, developed and realized by the bagsy, a figure whose origins lie in Turkmen ancient religious beliefs and practices.” (T.C.J.T.M.T. Zeranska-Kominek 265)

The dutar is also used to accompany the bakhshy’s musical journey as the development of the performance moves through the three main zones which break up the entire concert into smaller sections. The first zone is made up of songs in the lowest register and these songs are usually short and are less complicated in terms of structure. The second zone features songs in the middle register, and it is within this zone that the full vocal and instrumental skills of the bakhshy begin to be revealed — this part of the performance is also the longest part of the concert and contains the largest amount of songs. The third zone is when the final climax of the performance occurs. It is the shortest section of the concert, but despite its brevity, the third zone is always characterized with the most energy and excitement.

“At this stage the ecstatic bakhshy and his sound become almost inextricable. Moreover, the sound dominates the content of the songs to the point that the later becomes merely a pretext for the revelation of the entire depth of the artist’s emotion.” (T.T.M. – Zeranska-Kominek 100)

Melodically, bakhshy songs are much more developed than the folk repetoire. This increased melodic complexity has also historically changed the design of the dutar, a fact which has contributed to it being a more popular instrument for accompanying such songs. (Beleiav 143) However it should also be noted how the progression through the phases of the bakhshy concert affect the playing and tuning of the dutar. It is important to stress that the dutar and the voice in Turkmen music are not considered to be divisible things and this explains why the songs played by the bakhshy correspond to the same vocal and instrumental register, therefore if the bakhshy is singing in his lowest register the tuning of the dutar will also reflect this.

“During the performance the tuning is gradually raised, the successive returns by quarter tone or semitone being done just after the performance of one or two songs. The successive adjustments are welcomed by the audience, anticipating the progress to a higher level of emotional atmosphere.” (T.T.M. Zaranaska-Kominek 106)

Although the bakhshy musical tradition of epic songs, and narrative recitations makes up the bulk of dutar repertoire, there is another genre of Turkmen music which is worthy of mention because it features the dutar in an exclusively solo role. This instrumental music is known only in southern Turkmenistan and is performed by a group of eminent musicians who have achieved an incredible mastery of dutar playing technique (T.T.M. Zeranska-Kominek 94). Of all the genres of Turkmen music, this solo instrumental music appears to be the closest comparison to other classical musics found in the Middle East. Although bakhshys may play this music it is not performed in the same manner as bakhshy repertoire is and instead it is played mainly in soiree settings in the urban centre of Ashkhabad. In addition to this there is also references within this genre to larger cycles of compositions which are sometimes identified by the word mukam (T.T.M. Zeranska-Kominek 94).

The first transcriptions of this instrumental music for the dutar was made by the Russian composer and musicologist, Victor Uspiensky, during his four field expeditions to Turkmenistan during in the late 1920s. Uspiensky made a very thorough study of all the main genres of Turkmen music and these transcriptions demonstrate the differences between the three main genres found in Turkmen music making it very apparent that the most sophisticated dutar playing is found in this solo repertoire.

One aspect which demonstrates the heightened complexity in this genre, is the relatively frequent use of additive time signatures and time signature changes often happening within the same piece of music (appendix # 3). The occurrence of either of these musical elements is not found in vocal bakhshy songs:

“…bakhshy songs are generally confined to being in metres like 3/8, 3/4, 6/8, 9/8.” (T.M.B. Zarnanska-Kominek 14).

Within the instrumental genre the dutar no longer has to follow a textual reference, and this movement away from prosody also allows for more freedom to explore more complicated formal and motivic development. Although there are still similarities to vocal bakhshy music, the form, and the handling of scalar material is different on the instrumental pieces.

“The basic structure of dutar pieces is a three part recapitulation form with the following sections 1) exposition of the main theme in the lower register. 2) middle section in the register a fifth higher; and 3) recapitulation in the original register. The tonal relations of parts of the piece arising from this form are the same as those found in professional vocal works, but with a different type of alteration of scalar levels: in vocal works they descend, while in instrumental works they ascend and descend.” (Beliaew 162)

Although both genres appear to employ frequent melodic harmonization often using perfect 4ths and 5ths, it does appear that there is much faster diad-based harmonic motion within the instrumental genre than the bakhshy tradition and judging from the available information researched for this discussion it appears that the instrumental music is often played at much faster tempos than the bakhshy repertoire, or Turkmen folk songs.

At this point in history there has been no major theoretical study of Turkmen music. This lack of extensive ethnomusicological research makes it difficult to make sweeping conclusions about any of the three genres and how each might relate to each other in terms of modality or employed melodic devices.

Despite some affinities of the solo dutar repertoire to that of other makam based traditions found in Central Asia and the Middle East, it is easier to group the vast majority of Turkmen music to bardic musical traditions. Indeed much of the solo dutar music is most likely an extension and a refinement of this tradition rather than one that has been nurtured in a classical context. Perhaps with a more in depth analysis of Turkmen music, a greater theoretical understanding of the music may reveal more similarities with maqam based music of the Middle East – however until that time the complex history and ethnic origins of Turkmenistan will be expressed in a musical language which is strongly characterized by its more obvious Central Asian origins.


Works Cited

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Beliaev, Victor. Central Asian Music. Essays in the History of Music of the People of the U.S.S.R. Wesleyan University Press, Copyright 1975.

During, Jean. Turkestan. Komuz kirghize et dombra kazakh. Audio cd. Ocora, Radio France. Copyright 1997.

During, Jean. Central Asia. – Masters of the Dotar. Audio cd.

Englemann, Kurt E. Encarta: “Turkmenistan”. Copyright 1994 Microsoft Corporation.

New Groove Encyclopedia: “Union of Socialist Republics, Central Asia, Turkmens.” Volume XI, 7:

Uspiensky, Victor. Turkmenistan Music – 115 Pieces from Turkmenistan. Transcriptions. Copyright 1928, Moscow.

Zeranska-Kominek, Slawomira. Turkmenistan, La Musique des Bakhshy. Audio cd. Archives Internationales de Musiques Populaire. Copyright 1988-90.

Zeranska-Kominek, Slawomira. Asian Music: “The Classification of Repertoire in Turkmen Traditional Music”. Volume XXI, number 2. Spring/Summer 1990.

Zernaska-Kominek, Slawomira. Ethnomusicology: “The Concept of Journey (Yol) in Turkmen Music Tradition”. Vol. 42, No.2. Spring/Summer 1998.