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Travaux de restauration à Samarcande, près du Registan - © Lucille Lisack

What’s new in the tradition of Shashmaqom ?

What if a tra­di­tion could go back in time, with the help of moder­nist crea­ti­vi­ty, ins­tead of having to flow with the cur­rent, pas­sed down from gene­ra­tion to gene­ra­tion ? Let’s take a look at the case of Uzbek-Tajik Shash­ma­qom, desi­gna­ted as a tra­di­tion at various times in its his­to­ry in order to construct a bright future for heri­tage, and reclai­med by the musi­cians of today.


A clas­si­cal form of music from Cen­tral Asia that emer­ged during the 17th cen­tu­ry, Shash­ma­qom is built on a modal sys­tem (the “maqom”), which covers, with varia­tions, a huge area stret­ching from the Magh­reb to Xin­jiang. Before the Soviet revo­lu­tion, during the Khan per­iod then the Tsa­rist colo­ni­sa­tion, Shash­ma­qom from Bukha­ra was per­for­med in small num­bers at the rulers’ court and trans­mit­ted orally.

With the revo­lu­tion of 1917, Shash­ma­qom found itself caught up in the poli­ti­cal and ideo­lo­gi­cal tur­moil. In the 1920s, the great refor­mer of Bukha­ra, Abdu­rauf Fitrat (1886–1938), who ali­gned him­self with the Soviets, had Shash­ma­qom trans­cri­bed to put it on an equal foo­ting with Wes­tern clas­si­cal music. But during this per­iod of nation buil­ding, the Tajik lyrics could not be publi­shed in Uzbe­kis­tan. Shash­ma­qom, a tra­di­tion sha­red on both sides of the bor­ders, then began its career as a mar­ker of Uzbek natio­nal iden­ti­ty. It was, howe­ver, decried by the autho­ri­ties in Mos­cow as “feu­dal music” in the ear­ly 1950s, only to be reha­bi­li­ta­ted after the death of Sta­lin ; it was not taught at the Tashkent Conser­va­to­ry until 1971.

During the Soviet era, Shash­ma­qom underwent modi­fi­ca­tions impo­sed by the aes­the­tic canons of the time : it was per­for­med by large ensembles and the ins­tru­ments were alte­red to suit the equal tem­pe­rament, the tuning sys­tem used in Wes­tern clas­si­cal music. At the same time, com­po­sers used the melo­dies, rhythms and struc­ture of Shash­ma­qom to com­pose what would become the “Soviet music” of Cen­tral Asia, a sym­bio­sis of local tra­di­tions and Wes­tern music.

Ziya­dul­lo Sha­khi­di (1914–1985), Sym­pho­nie des Maqom, 1977



Shash­ma­qom thus became a tool for crea­ting the music of the future in the Soviet plan for the trans­for­ma­tion of man and socie­ty. Gra­dual­ly aban­do­ning their aim of com­ple­te­ly mer­ging the natio­na­li­ties into a single Soviet people, the buil­ders of the Soviet cultu­ral poli­cy relied on the esta­blish­ment of iden­ti­ties spe­ci­fic to each of the peoples of the USSR. Shash­ma­qom thus became invol­ved in the construc­tion of the natio­nal culture of the Soviet Uzbek and Tajik republics.

After the dis­mant­ling of the Soviet Union and the inde­pen­dence of the Cen­tral Asian repu­blics, Shash­ma­qom remai­ned a tool for the construc­tion of poli­tics and iden­ti­ty in Uzbe­kis­tan and Tajiks­tan ; it was added to UNESCO’s list of intan­gible cultu­ral heri­tage for both countries.

Shash­ma­qom was then car­ried on by great musi­cians, such as Tur­gun Ali­ma­tov, known for brin­ging a per­so­nal ele­ment to his per­for­mance, and the sin­ger Mona­jat Yul­chie­va, reco­gni­sed as one of Shashmaqom’s grea­test voices, both in Uzbe­kis­tan and abroad.


Shash­ma­qom still lies at the heart of pre­dic­tions of what the music of the future will be in the new repu­blics of Cen­tral Asia. In Uzbe­kis­tan, some musi­cians are beco­ming inter­es­ted in une­qual tem­pe­ra­ments (inter­val sys­tems dif­ferent from that of Wes­tern clas­si­cal orches­tras) and ancient trea­tises on rhythm and orna­men­ta­tion. This research is being car­ried out by a contem­po­ra­ry music ensemble known first and fore­most as being repre­sen­ta­tive of the musi­cal avant-garde in Uzbe­kis­tan, the Omni­bus Ensemble.



With the ope­ning of the bor­ders, the spread of Wes­tern avant-gardes is acce­le­ra­ting in Cen­tral Asia, conveyed by a few pas­sio­nate musi­cians and fun­ding from major forei­gn powers who see sup­port for the arts as a means of esta­bli­shing their influence in the region. The Omni­bus Ensemble is one of the main expo­nents of this new contem­po­ra­ry music from Cen­tral Asia, as yet lit­tle sup­por­ted by the Uzbek state.

Along­side the great Shash­ma­qom player Avror Zufa­rov, Omni­bus has deve­lo­ped a pre­cise nota­tion of inter­vals, orna­ments and rhythms :



Their goal is to demons­trate that this reper­toire can be played by musi­cians from all over the world, contra­ry to the com­mon­ly accep­ted idea that it has to be “in your blood”. Brin­ging toge­ther research into ancient playing tech­niques and contem­po­ra­ry expe­ri­men­ta­tion, Omni­bus leads edu­ca­tio­nal pro­jects in Tashkent and other Cen­tral Asian capi­tals, Bish­kek in particular.


These tea­ching pro­grammes were reco­gni­sed in 2019 by the Music Award bes­to­wed by the Aga Khan Foun­da­tion, which sup­ports pro­jects to create, edu­cate, safe­guard and revi­ta­lise musi­cal cultures in the Mus­lim world.

This is a new page in the poli­ti­cal and aes­the­tic his­to­ry of Shash­ma­qom, which remains a regio­nal emblem based on which the music of the future is imagined.



Lucille Lisack

Lucille Lisack is a musician and doctor in ethnomusicology. Her research focuses on the renewal of musical creation in central Asia since the end of the Soviet Union, and on links between music and politics. She has published Contemporary Music in Ouwbekistan. Politics, Identity and Globalization, edited by Petra in 2019. She teaches at the University of Paris-Nanterre.

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