UZBEKISTAN

APRIL/MAY 2003

BATTLEFIELD BAND IN UZBEKISTAN
ALAN REID
(photos and captions Robin Morton)

It all began with a phone call earlier this year. An invitation for Battlefield Band to come to Uzbekistan for seven days and play five or six concerts? Uzbekistan !!!!!!...... isn't that somewhere in Central Asia? But where? I looked it up on the map. There it was, two countries above India, sitting among the Stans. Kazakhstan in the north, Tajikistan and Krygyzstan to the east, Turkmenistan south west and a small border with Afghanistan in the south.


...and there will be banners wherever we go!



A map of landlocked Uzbekistan, surounded by many other...'stans'

 

Central Asia. A vast territory we know little about, part of the Soviet Empire till it collapsed a dozen years ago. Uzbekistan! A vision of Sean Connery waving a sword among a crowd of herdsmen comes to mind. I recognised two cities, Samarkand and Tashkent, names faintly familiar. I thought I would look it up on the internet, and you get many different answers depending on who you connect with, but there are 25 million people in Uzbekistan which amazed me. Fairly strong government, and it seems that there is some suggestions of Islamic fundamentalists down in the south of the country. But it seems they are everywhere at the minute anyway. Mmm.

I also read that the U.S. recently warned its citizens not to travel there, but the British foreign office wasn't making any such suggestions, and anyway we were being invited by the British Embassy, so surely they would tell us if it was dodgy? And how many times would we get the chance to go on a trip like this? The band talked it over, and we decided we had to go. We arrived in Tashkent at four in the morning and were met by Craig Murray, the British Ambassador. We are not always met by the British Ambassador, but Craig is our friend as well as the Ambassador, and the man who invited us out there. He first encountered the band as a student during Freshers week at Dundee University many years ago. Now he's our man in Tashkent! This makes me feel, well..........a bit old.

Strawberries and cream on the Residency lawn
(we decided not to show the Guinness stand as these photos may be viewed before the watershed!)
In the morning light the city emerged more modern than I had expected. Wide avenues, a few shops, some in English, most in Russian or Uzbek, rows of state built apartments, smarter looking than in other old Eastern block cities, at least if we are to believe the movies we see. Sunshine and trees gave the city a bright summery look. The Hotel Meridien was our destination, newly opened. In fact we were the very first guests. It was five a.m. and the three doormen already on duty leapt forward to help us with our luggage. Great stuff good people. We climbed into bed for a well deserved snooze. Later that day we set up our equipment in the back garden of the Ambassador's house. Guests began to arrive for the reception. About two thousand people were invited, officially to celebrate the Queen's birthday, although that was actually a week previous, with music provided by the seventy-five strong Uzbeki National Orchestra and ............ Battlefield Band !
The guests were an assortment of Western, Eastern, Russian and local diplomats, businessmen, wives, girlfriends, a mixture of European, Oriental and Central Asian faces. One or two officials came trussed up in uniforms straight out of the nineteenth century, and added colour to the whole scene. The orchestra set up by the swimming pool. They played a selection of light classical music to a background of chatter, chinking glasses, and the munching of kebabs and strawberries and cream, Gloucester & Leicester cheeses, Newcastle Brown (lunatic soup to initiates) and Guinness were to be had in abundance in the sunshine, everyone mingling and wandering round the garden, a flashback to the lofty days of the British Empire.... Our usual gig actually!!!!
We began to play just before sunset to a polite seated audience. We had heard that one of the most famous Uzbek performers was present and wanted to sing. He doesn't appear too much in public anymore for some reason, so it was an honour that Sher Ali was there to hear us, and to sing a song or two. So after a few numbers we introduced him. Suddenly from nowhere a band of five musicians leapt on stage, playing traditional Uzbeki instruments. Where had they sprung from? Sher Ali is a tall, dapper man in his fifties. He has a warm smile and a way of drawing his audience to him. He began singing and a woman got up, weaving in a belly dancing sort of way in front of the stage, very graceful. Soon she was joined by another, then another. Sher Ali gestured Battlefield Band to join in. What the hell, this was getting interesting. Off we went.

Battlefield Band jam with Sher Ali and
his group of Uzbeki musicians and dancers.
("Is this world music daddy?"
"I don't know son, this music's good enough to be 'otherworld'!")


Robin trips the light fantastic
his posterior preserved for posterity
Soon a throng of people were dancing on the lawn. The international corps looked on bemused. The men in the Gilbert and Sullivan uniforms remained in the shadows as the locals and the uninhibited joined in the fun. The concert ended with an impromptu mesh of bagpipes, fiddle, guitar and Uzbek folk band with a beaming Sher Ali looking on benignly at the cluster of dancers. Seasoned dignitaries said they'd never seen a diplomatic function like it. Craig Murray was a very happy man, and everyone else including ourselves were having a good time. I am certain not many official get-togethers at embassys end up this way. Might be better if they did!
Back at the hotel at midnight a small army of people were busy scrubbing the steps. They were still at it next morning at eleven cleaning the front and the back . We heard that the President of Uzbekistan, Islom Karimov, was officially opening the hotel at midday. A red carpet was laid out on the entrance steps. We waited around to see the action. Midday, one p.m. came and still no sign of him. By two thirty we were bored. We decided to walk to nearby Broadway, an avenue of kiosks and tourist stalls where you can buy trinkets, paintings, kebabs or sit in a booth and sing karaoke in front of a t.v. screen.

Alan shopping on Broadway in Tashkent
In Xanadu did Kubhla Khan.... ...some new headgear try!


The view from backstage at the Tashkent National Opera concert

Soon however it was time to go to work. The first public concert was to be at the Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre, barely three hundred yards from our hotel. Grand on the outside: inside it's a bit run down, but then theatres all over the world are like that. There is a pretty stern looking women called Ludmilla sat on a chair in a corridor. Her job was to unlock our dressing rooms when we needed them. At first she did not know how to take us, but I think we managed to defrost the situation. I think she realised we were not going to be prima donnas and in the end we even had access to a toilet and Ludmilla and the other staff were joining in the crack.

The view from the stage at the Tashkent
National Opera concert

A standing ovation is always welcome!
Uzbekistan is hardly on the normal touring circuit and we were about to face a packed audience of a 1000 people who had never heard our like before. How would they respond? Should we talk to them or just play the music and sing the songs? After our first number I spoke a few words of welcome in English then ventured into instant made up Russian. "Scotsky Muzika" I announced. The audience appeared delighted. Gradually they cottoned on that this was enjoyable music and by the end of the night were up on their feet and clapping enthusiastically. Afterwards we were surrounded by youngsters clamouring for autographs. Later on I found out that what I actually had said in Russian was "cattle music", much to the amusement of the Uzbeks in the Embassy staff. Well o.k.............the good intention was there. The concert was great, it really was great. The audience had a good time, and when that happens we have a good time. Everyone relaxed and went back to the hotel and had a few drinks, it was a delightful evening.

Oh no! It always seem to happen!
Running repairs to one of our vans just before the trip to Samarkand

The next day we travelled west to Samarkand, accompanied by an Uzbek t.v.crew, who filmed our every move for the rest of the week. There were several road blocks outside the city, a feature repeated throughout the country. Police check vehicles and passports at random. Not surprisingly there were only four car thefts in Tashkent last year. We drove past cotton fields, some with toiling women, a few with donkeys or the occasional tractor.


Our police escort made life
easier en-route to Samarkand!

Keep on truckin'

 

Highway rules seem to be arbitrary - once or twice we would encounter vehicles heading towards us on our side of the carriageway taking a handy short cut to a side road - a bit like Glasgow on a busy Saturday night! A roadblock a few miles from Tashkent turned out to be the Kazhak border, marooned by Uzbekistan on three sides and a large lake reservoir on the fourth. This oversight is a result of Stalin's redrawing of the borders of the Soviet republics, the old manoeuvre of divide and rule which places Samarkand (ethnically a Tajik city) in Uzbekistan. Twenty minutes later a solitary Uzbek customs man waved us through the next roadblock and we had left Kazhakstan. Near the town of Jizzax the flat land gave to way to barren hill country and it began to drizzle. By the time we reached the outskirts of Samarkand it was decidedly driech. Samarkand, ancient city of learning and culture, has been called the capital of the world.

Our first view of the Registan in Samarkand
An amazing group of buildings


More Registan
Extraordinary...


 

On the great silk and spice route it was also a favourite destination for invaders. In between Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan came Arabs, Persians, Chinese, Turks and whatever central Asian tribe was in the ascendancy. Amir Temur, or Tamerlaine, established it as capital of an empire stretching from China to the Mediterranean. Temur's grandson Ulugbek began the construction of a series of monumental buildings in the main public square, which is called the Registan, or 'sandy place'. These magnificent edifices, with highly ornate mosaic patterns within and without celebrated architectural influences from all over the empire. What remains now are mausoleums, mosques and a group of buildings called Madresahs, four sided edifices with open courtyards inside. Within these walls astronomy, mathematics as well as Islam were studied. It really is an extraordinary and beautiful place.

One of the later Madresahs, the Sher Dor was to be the venue for our Samarkand concert. To our chagrin the nasty weather meant it was moved to a nearby theatre. City officials had laid on a meal for us. Time was short but it seemed impolite to decline. We suggested a quick snack, not reckoning on the local hospitality. We sat through four courses before rushing off to a theatre with an audience already in place and getting restless. Our t.v. friends enthusiastically filmed our feverish activity setting up the equipment and after a breathless and record breaking thirty five minutes the curtain rose to reveal an impatient, curious audience. Again a mixture of young and old, Asian and Russian faces peered at us, the teenagers among them being very excited. A steady stream of young people came on stage to present us with flowers during the concert, often in the middle of a piece. All you can do is grin when your hands are full.

 


A 'business' meeting...
With Craig Murray, our friend, part time roadie and "ambassador plenipotentiary and extraordinary"!


The following morning, on a raw cloudy day we wandered round the splendour of the Registan before visiting a large bazaar and market place. Rows and rows of tables under large canopies displayed piles of fruit and vegetables and stacks of spices and nuts. Outside the covered area old women in colourful clothes sat hunched in lines as prospective customers keenly inspected their bundles of radishes or haggled over tomatoes. The smell of bread and kebabs wafted in the open air and though there was great activity the atmosphere was quite relaxed. Begging women wandered among the bartering, some with tiny bundles in their arms.
Leaving Samarkand behind we headed north west to the city of Navoi, named after the national poet, commercial centre for Uzbekistan's emerging gold and uranium industry. On the way we saw more cotton fields and lines of mulberry apple and apricot trees. Navoi we were told is a more Russian town. By now I was armed not only with "Shatlandsky Muzika"(I'm not sure how to spell this, but that's the way it sounds) but one or two other Russian and Uzbek words and phrases. Uzbek, it seems, is a phonetic language, related to Turkish.

The markets and bazaars are amazing

Presents for the band & our honorary 'roadie', Ambassador Craig Murray, after a great Navoi City concert
Another sell out concert with the now customary flower gifts, ended with speeches and photographs with local politicians on stage before we were taken for a civic dinner. A formal meal in Uzbekistan will consist of several courses, cold cuts, salad, soup, a meat dish (eg kebabs) and plov (rice pilaff). The Uzbeks have also adopted the Russians love for vodka, another surprise in this Muslim country. Toasts are made at decent intervals, everyone clinks their glasses and vodkas are knocked back in one. Each guest is expected to take their turn at toasting. Fortunately in our company of fifteen or so the rules weren't strictly adhered to though at least one of our party enthusiastically followed the custom.

Back in Tashkent the next evening after a seven-hour drive we found ourselves at the house of a famous Uzbek musician, Ilyas Lutfullaev and his family. He had asked along some of his musician friends to show us their native instruments and talents. They were all well dressed and well-educated men. In this country folk musicians are esteemed as highly as classical musicians.

 


Our kind host Ilyas (far right) and his friends play a few tunes for us

In between dinner and numerous toasts we were treated to the virtuoso playing of Ilyas on the dutar, a long necked two stringed instrument similar to a bouzouki, Mamurjon Olumjonov on the rubab, another stringed instrument sounding like a banjo, Dadaev Akhmadjon on the gichchak, which is a kind of violin played upright (like a cello or double bass) and Kydratulla Samadov on the doira, a bodhran like drum with a series of rings round the edges. It is tapped and drummed with the fingers and produces a tambourine like sound. Abdunabi Ziyaev played the oud, the large Turkish guitar like instrument, is also common and overall the sound of Uzbek music is decidedly Middle Eastern.

(Just a thought - I do hope I have the correct names for the musicians and instruments. As you can imagine there was a lot going on that night. Apologies for any mistakes)



Alasdair worked out some music with Abdurashidov, the flute (hai) player


Dadaev, who plays the gichchak (a skin covered Uzbek fiddle), has a shot on Alasdair's instrument

Mike and Abdurashidov also found a lot in common


The night ended up with lots of music being played: Scottish, Irish and Uzbeki
Where's your world music now?

 


A peaceful meeting between two cultures
"they have funny looking sheep round here..."

Most of this country it seems is a desert, a situation made worse when the Aral Sea (an inland sea - Uzbekistan is actually land-locked - no coastline at all) in the far west was drained to help irrigate the cotton growing areas in the east. Now the western area is over salinated, and a bit of an ecological disaster. There remains in the far eastern corner however a really fertile area, the Ferghana valley. To reach it from Tashkent requires a journey traversing the Kuramin mountain range and the Kamchick Pass. Our entourage of four vans was held up in the pass for an hour till a doubtful policeman was persuaded that we had permission to travel, and a concert awaited us. While we waited several wild looking men on donkeys appeared on the road, grinning at us foreigners. I was told they were the Uzbek equivalent of cowboys. Finally we were allowed to proceed. The mountains were snow capped, and the scenery grand but rough, like a less verdant version of the Swiss Alps. By the side of the road women and children held out bunches of red flowers to the passing traffic. Through the pass the mountains tailed off and a flat lush plain, reminiscent of the north of Italy, became the landscape. This area looked much more prosperous than any other we'd seen. The town of Ferghana as well as this region is named after the ninth century astronomer Al Ferghani who wrote a science of heavenly bodies and their movements. A giant statue of this long-bearded ancient scientist stood in the public park where we were playing, just a few yards behind the stage.
You don't see so many beards around now. It seems they are frowned upon as a sign of fundamentalism so you can imagine that our Mike cut quite a figure of attention not only because of his fine piping. Quite a few people swiftly approached him to have their photo taken with him. Always the gentleman, he was happy to comply. A crowd of two and a half thousand were already there waiting for us, cordoned off behind some railings. We threw up the equipment in double quick time then waited with the audience while officialdom took over. The mayor made a speech about international friendship, Uzbek independence, the country's entry to the U.N. and a banking conference being held in Tashkent. All waited patiently till he had said his piece. The large crowd responded to all our promptings. They applauded our attempts at Uzbek and clapped and sang when we asked and some even got through the railings to dance. At one point a woman came on stage with flowers and thrust a piece of paper in my hand. It was a request for us to play some Dire Straits songs! At the end a cordon of policemen staved off the bulk of the now customary crowd of excited youngsters looking for autographs but we nipped off to the side of the stage to catch a few .One determined boy of twelve or so arranged his pals and us into a group to take a couple of quick snapshots before being hauled off by the scruff of the neck by a policemen. Undaunted, he rushed back for one last photo before making off.

Suits you sir!
Mike cuts a dash in his traditional Uzbek coat

The next day was our last in this fascinating country. This time, for the five-hour journey back to Tashkent, we had a police escort for the whole way, stopping traffic at all junctions and sailing through every checkpoint. Maybe we could arrange that the next time we head for the M25 motorway round London! The word was out, and they were ready for us. Some who were at the first concert in Tashkent came to see us again, and again it was a full house. A thousand people in the Railway Theatre. At least some of the people knew what to expect, and there were even more enthusiastic teenagers.

 


Autographs after the final concert in Tashkent
We've had 5 great shows with superb audiences and we don't want to go home

 

Many people had been asking about CD's. We had brought only a hundred which were given away discreetly rather than sold at the local rate of two or three pounds. This is a country where the average wage is about $27 a month. CD's and audio tapes are almost all pirate copies. Maybe some entrepreneur is flogging our bootleg CD on Broadway (Tashkent that is, not New York) right now.

  At the end of the concert we were overwhelmed with well-wishers, many of them asking if we would be returning. It was the end of our tour, our snapshot of Uzbekistan, an unforgettable trip to an alluring country with its handsome and delightful people, and a place we are not likely to forget. I wish it a prosperous and peaceful future.  

A lot of new friends, photographed on our last night in Tashkent.
In it, you can see Dildar (or is it Iroda?) from the local TV company, Talat, who was our road manager, and Rafshan, who was number 2 driver at the embassy. Many more are missing, including Ludmila, from national radio, who did the whole trip with us but missed out on this concert. Lots of others, too many to mention - thanks to you all!
The band are holding the flowers that were presented every night, just like opera stars get. O sole mio! A cherry boo!

 

 

We've got this great idea: all politicians should be forced to learn musical instruments to a high level before they get the job. That might sound a bit simplistic but it would be worth trying because nothing else they do seems to work???

Thanks to everybody who helped to make the trip such a success! The world has become even smaller - what are these wars all about?

Special thanks to Craig Murray, HMA Tashkent, Fiona Murray his wife, and their staff,
who organised this trip and made it hassle free
and the sponsors below who helped to make it happen.

 

 

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