He was singing his heart out in front of a yurt especially set up for the inauguration of a new music center in the city of Nukus, Uzbekistan. It was Karakalpakstan's turn to host the Asrlar Sadosi Festival, this year taking place under the ancient eyes of the Tuproq Kala fortress, many miles out in the desert. The festival had brought along a definite buzz, as tourists and various VIPs mingled with the citizens of this normally quiet and remote capitol. The dedication of the new center required many speeches, (mercifully short) and along with them, to elevate the occasion even further, a special performance by a bakhshi was in order.
And that is how I first saw and heard Tingel Khalibayev, amidst the cameras and diplomats, attentive residents and under a strong sun. As is sometimes the custom with bakhshis in Uzbekistan, he was accompanied by a gijak and balaban backing him up as he played dutar and sang the great poetry of Central Asia and specifically Karakalpakstan. He sang with power and conviction, in a voice that held all those who listened.
In Africa, there is the griot. Europe has had its troubadors. In Central Asia, it is the bakhshi who is the cultural repository of his people, purveyor of wisdom and the singer of the great songs. He may make his living as a barber, or a farmer, but he has trained diligently, and when the occasion calls for it, he takes his dutar and blesses any event with song.
Nowadays, culture is heavily supported in Uzbekistan. Independence from the Soviet Union has meant that indigenous art forms are now encouraged, with universities offering programs in folklore, to engender national pride. When I interviewed Mr. Khalibayev about his art, he was eager to first give credit to his various teachers; after all, the bakhshi should also sing the praises of one's mentors! He started his formal musical education in 1992, and to date he has studied with Giujibay Tilimuratov, Turqenbey Ozurbanov, and at present, Karimoy Tinibayev, all singers with impressive official or dynastic credentials. "They taught me everything" he says, "about life, both spiritual and physical, they educated me in so many ways, how to behave on stage... our teachers, our masters are like father figures." He mentioned the Karakalpak poets A'jiniyaz, Kunkhuja and Berdaq, and said the poems are about life and its lessons. He said" I am honored to sing their poems. By understanding their meanings, I try to teach them to future generations. "Bakhshi" is hard to define, but it is eternal. The songs are spiritual, cultural and are the source of our strength."
The Karakalpaks are a people who were once nomads, and are now settled. But the two lifestyles are still in flux. Yurts still figure in its national psychology, although only a few artisans still know how to build a working, mobile one. Yet I saw yurts everywhere, or decorative references to them, when I was there. The music of the bakhshi is a part of that flux. Soulful, profound, and a vivid part of a nomadic life, where community was centered around the yurt and the sharing of food, talk and song, it is people like Mr. Khalibayev, whose passion for the epic songs keep it alive. Can it withstand the lure and easy listening of the pop music one hears all over Uzbekistan? Will another generation find meaning, wisdom and strength in its messages? Time will tell.
The Asrlar Sadosi Festival is organized and supported by the Fund Forum, UNESCO and Gulnara Karimova.