Shashmaqam – Music and Poetry of Central Asia

Shashmaqam is a Central Asian musical genre typical of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

It is a refined sort of music, with lyrics derived from Sufi poems. Despite this close relation to Sufi ideas and an overall perception of the genre as a way to reach the divine, however, the history of Shashmaqam (from the Persian/Tajik for “six modes”) is intertwined with Central Asian political history: the development of maqam art often depended on the wishes of the elites. It is no coincidence that it continues today thanks to state support,[1]the enthusiasm of traditional musicians, and the advocacy of dedicated musicologists.

Interview with

Alexander Djumaev

Alexander Djumaev (Ph.D in Music) is a leading musicologist and historian based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Chairman of the Study Group on Maqam of the International Council for Traditional Music.

The Origins of Shashmaqam

I would like to start the discussion about Shashmaqam, a complex phenomenon, by first clarifying the related terms and concepts. Today, Shashmaqam means two different things. In Uzbekistan, national Shashmaqam formed in the 20th century from the confluence of Bukhara Shashmaqam and the Ferghana-Tashkent maqam traditions. You can provisionally call it Tashkent Shashmaqam or Uzbek Shashmaqam. An identical national cycle occurred in Tajikistan, leading to the formation of a Tajik Shashmaqam. Despite its genetic link to Bukhara Shashmaqam, the new Shashmaqam is certainly a different artistic and musical phenomenon.

It’s a different matter when we talk about Bukhara Shashmaqam as such (it is important to define it as Bukharan). This is the main form of classical music in Central Asia and formed over the course of several centuries within Bukhara’s ancient musical traditions. Bukhara is the birthplace of Shashmaqam, its natural “habitat,” and its area of cultivation. Shashmaqam absorbed this multi-ethnic city’s vivid traditions and its style of musical culture. That being said, one should not confine Bukhara Shashmaqam to Bukhara. The formation of Shashmaqam was influenced by the maqamat (plural of maqam) tradition of Iran, Kashgar, Afghanistan, Northern India, and other parts of the Islamic world. Bukhara Shashmaqam is a branch of the overall Muslim civilizational model of maqamat. It brings together all-Muslim and local Bukhara traditions. Shashmaqam’s current version combines three main musical traditions: Tajik, Turkic-Uzbek, and Bukharan-Jewish. Meanwhile, the key contribution to the development of the Bukhara Shashmaqam (and this should not be forgotten) was made by the musical culture of the Tajik people.

Bukhara Shashmaqam influenced the origination of two other types in Central Asia: Ferghana-Tashkent maqam melodies and Khorezm maqams. All these types are interrelated. Thus far, the history of Bukhara Shashmaqam has not been studied in depth. Discussions about its ancient origins are, unfortunately, speculative, as there is no documentary evidence. We are still not completely familiar with what Shashmaqam was like as a court tradition in 19th- and early-20th-century Bukhara. Yet it was the main (albeit not the only) hotbed for the cultivation of this art, which influenced important artistic and aesthetic canons.

Scattered information from medieval sources indicates that maqams have been performed in different forms and traditions throughout the city’s history. One of the most significant forms was a pan-Eastern system of 12 maqam, 24 shu’ba, and six avaza (in the 15th-17thcenturies), which formed the basis of various regional (national) types of maqam art, including Bukhara Shashmaqam. The turning point in Bukhara maqam history occurred in the first quarter of the 16th century due to the disintegration of the Herat school of maqamat and the exodus of many outstanding musicians to Bukhara. Among these musicians was Mawlana Najm al-Din Kawkabi Bukhari (d. 1532-33), who became the founder of the Bukhara school of maqamat. Bukhara Shashmaqam formed within the framework of this school, we believe around the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Certainly, Shashmaqam as a term (along with the related terms Shashdaramad and Shashmaqam-i musiqi) appears in written sources dating back to the mid-19th century, with the earliest written mention in 1847.

As a collection of poems for maqam performance and music treatises in the Persian-Tajik language, Shashmaqam did not become a single unified system until the second half of the 19th century. It was finally brought into its current unified, grandiose form by the outstanding Bukhara musician Ata Jalal (1845–1928). He was the last major custodian of the Bukhara Shashmaqam tradition and was the head of the court musicians-maqamists during the reign of three emirs of Bukhara. Ata Jalal gave new impetus to the development of Bukhara Shashmaqam in the 20th century, basing it on strict musical canons. The flourishing of the art form between the mid-19th century and the first half of the 20th century is due directly to Ata Jalal, his contemporaries, and his pupils and followers.

Shashmaqam was not recorded in musical notes until the 19th century in Khiva. Prior to that, the knowledge and skill was transferred from a teacher to student.


In Khiva in the early 1880s, Kamil Khorazmi, a Khorezmian poet and statesman, invented the so-called Khorezm tanbur notation (Khorazm tanbur chizigi). This tablature notation recorded Khorezm maqams (six and a half maqams), Dutar maqams, and many other samples of Khorezm classical and folk music. Despite its technical sophistication (eighteen horizontal lines in the number of tanbur tunes), the notation became practically applicable to Khorezm’s musical culture and to individual maqam musicians. This is supported by around three dozen preserved copies of the notation, among them a copy that used to belong to Ata Ghiyas Abdughani (1859–1927), a famous Bukhara tanburist. However, there is not sufficient proof to infer that it was widely used by Bukhara, Tashkent, and Ferghana Valley maqamists.

The transfer of knowledge from master to apprentice (“ustod-shogird”) existed before the appearance of Khorezm notation and was preserved thereafter. The notation did not replace, radically change, or abolish the principle of authentic (primordial) forms of the transmission of tradition. It would be correct to say that it became an “additional guide” for the musicians of Khorezm. What is interesting is that oral transfer of musical knowledge in the “ustod-shogird” system had always included a number of essential components that are close to the notation system. These were a kind of “memory knots” known to high-ranking musicians who knew the basics of musical science (ilm-i musiqi). Musicians transferred several basic parameters of music via audio transmission and by writing them down, all of which helped a knowledgeable musician to “recreate” the entire work without difficulty. The “knots” included instructions to a mode—parda or maqam (Rost, Ushshoq, Navo, etc)—as a basis to perform plays; the name of the genre (amal, kor, naqsh, ghazal, etc.); some structural components (sarkhona, miyon-khona, bozguy, awdj, etc.); the name of the rhythmic formula (usul); and, frequently, its schematic record, with an aid of letters, verse sample, and size in aruz.

Video was filmed by Shavkat Boltaev, Uzbek photographer. Ari Babakhanov is playing Qashgar rubab and Tolibjon Temirov, his student, is playing doira. This is a performance of “Dugoh” maqam.

In the Soviet era, “ustod-shogird” learning in its pure form (without notation) was preserved in full in private instruction. This always existed in parallel to official state forms of music study. In the “private sector,” there were no restrictions or requirements that a musician learn the European music system. The opposite was true of state musical educational institutions (music schools, vocational colleges, conservatories), which saw a transition to the European system of education, the central element of which is the respective notes system. Even there, mixed forms of instruction were also practiced: oral transfer of musical knowledge was combined with the use of the notes system. Well-known musicians worked in the Tashkent State Conservatory in the Department of Oriental Music in the 1970-80s and later. There was also the remarkable presence of outstanding instrumentalist ustod Turgun Alimatov (1922–2008).

We need to remember that “ustod-shogird” is not only an oral transfer of musical knowledge, but also a way of life and a way of thinking for traditional musicians. It is a complex inter-musician relationship system encompassing the practical, ritual-traditional, “theoretical,” and philosophical. The “ustod-shogird” system began an active revival from the end of the 1980s and especially in the 1990s. The music program of the Aga Khan Foundation in Central Asia has significantly contributed to its revival in recent decades via a purposeful and systematic program.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that there is a need for the literal restoration of the “ustod-shogird” system. This is impossible, as the world—including the musical world—has changed radically and continues to do so. We could talk about restoring some of its most important elements related to the creative beginning, to a chain of learning of its primordial form. The reality of our time is the diversity of approaches and views on the “ustod-shogird” system as well as on education in general. This is also true for traditional musicians themselves. Some prefer to follow exclusively oral transfer of knowledge and therefore completely reject the European notation. Others have revived their forgotten notation (as with a group of musicians in Urgench that uses Khorezm tanbur notation), while most of the rest combine traditional forms and European notation, but with certain conditions. There are also some who create their own notation systems that differ from both European and traditional local instruction forms.

Shashmaqam in Various Epochs

In medieval times, the attitude towards Shashmaqam depended largely, if not entirely, on the taste, level of culture, and personal musical preferences of the ruler—be it an emir, khan, or sultan. Some rulers were known for being passionate about the art of maqams, Shashmaqam. They cared about its development, maintained music ensembles in the court, and themselves sang, played musical instruments, and composed maqam plays. One example of such enthusiasm for music is Khorezm ruler Muhammad Rahim-khan II, also known under the penname Feruz (1845–1910). Whole books could be written about his participation in the development of classical music in Khorezm. Shashmaqam was also favored by the last three emirs of Bukhara. At the same time, there were opponents to the art form, a chief example being Bukharan ruler Shahmurad (1785–1800), who was generally negative about music.

During the Soviet era, the attitude towards Shashmaqam changed, going through several stages. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a social debate in the musical community between supporters and opponents of maqam. This was based on the class approach to the cultural heritage of the past and the need for a critical interpretation of this heritage. Maqam’s opponents believed that this art belonged to a feudal and bays (rich owners) past and represented the taste and aesthetic preferences of the ruling classes, leading them to claim that it could not be used to build a new socialist culture. Those who supported the preservation of this art thought that maqams had been created by talented commoners and only used by the rulers. They therefore advocated for preserving this art as a classical heritage that could be used in new social conditions. This confrontation persisted with varying intensity in the 1940s and 1950s.

Despite the confrontation, maqams played a prominent role in the life of the Soviet musical community from the 1930s onward. They were referred to in composers’ works and concert practices. They were often included in the programs of large festive and solemn concerts (even those organized for party congresses and communists’ plenums), which consisted, as a rule, of two sections: classical (with maqams) and modern (with the new compositions of Uzbek composers). At that time, maqams were considered “building material” for a composer’s creativity. Composers began to master melodic and tonal parts of maqams (originally in the form of direct quotations), a trend that led, a few decades later, to the formation of an interesting phenomenon called “maqam symphonism,” exemplified by the work of Mirsadyq Tadjiev in Uzbekistan.

It was in the 1950s that maqams obtained their own capacious theoretical definition, in addition to being known as classical music. This definition was “professional music of the oral tradition,” a description that in many ways elevated the status of maqams, equating them with the art of a professional composition. From the beginning of the 1970s, maqams were studied and taught at the Department of Oriental Music of the Tashkent Conservatory, the first department of its kind in the USSR. In 1978, Samarkand held its first large-scale international musicological symposium: “Professional music of the oral tradition of the Near and Middle Eastern people and modernity.” Between then and the collapse of the USSR, Samarkand hosted two other similar symposia. All three events were held at a high scientific and theoretical level, with a carefully thought-out musical program. Unfortunately, this level has been lost since independence, giving way to profanity and eclecticism.

In general, Soviet-era cultural policy in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan prioritized the development of national compositional creativity in European forms and genres. A change of priorities and equal attitude to different layers of musical culture occurred after these republics gained independence. This is when traditional musical genres—particularly maqams—began to come to the forefront.

Male and Female Performance of Shashmaqam

Before the Soviet period, performing Shashmaqam was largely a privilege reserved for men. It was a man’s art. There were exceptions, however. For instance, Ata Jalal was introduced to maqam by his mother, according to Viktor Aleksandrovich Uspensky, a musical ethnographer who worked with Ata Jalal in 1923-1924 in Bukhara. Uspensky also believed that “women were not alien to classical music.” Perhaps there were other female performers of this art and we are simply unaware of their names. The reason for this is that female music-making historically occurred in the “female” half of the house and therefore received no public recognition. There were surely women’s forms of songs and musical-dance art that included a primitive, folk form of maqam. However, it was not until the Soviet era that women in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan became fully acquainted with maqam art. This was the result of Soviet cultural policy, a part of its overall emancipation policy. This process began relatively early—in the late 1920s and 1930s—and resulted in magnificent positive achievements in this field.

The appearance and affirmation of women in maqam art began with them mastering the characteristics and techniques of male singing. Credit is due to a great singer of the 20th century, Barno Iskhakova (1927–2002), who worked in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and passed away in Israel. Having mastered all the features of male singing (taught by Yunus Rajabi[2] in Tashkent), she created her own bright, unique style of singing that was deep and soul-touching. This style became the benchmark for many female singers inTajikistan and Uzbekistan and remains so today.

Fans of maqam art know the names of women whose art changed the popular understanding of maqam performance: Berta Davydova, Saodat Kabulova, Halima Nasyrova, Kommuna Ismailova, Fatima Boruhova, Zaynab Polvonova, Munojat Yulchieva, Maryam Sattarova, Nasiba Sattarova, Nodira Pirmatova, Yulduz Turdiyeva, and many others. Due to their sensual nature, women are able to perform love lyrics and spiritual poetry in a more subtle and organic fashion. Not every maqam text is compatible with a female performance: there are “female” and “male” ones. With the development of an ensemble (collective) performance of Shashmaqam by Yunus Rajabi and his orchestra on the Uzbek radio, female voices developed a timbre-contrast technique as “opposed” to male voices and in combination. It was a very successful creative finding that then spread on a large scale.

Nodira Pirmatova is a maqom singer from Tashkent. Photo by Alexander Jumaev

State Support

Countries with a maqam tradition tend to have a state presence in all spheres of life, and particularly the cultural sphere. An active state role in culture was a feature of the recent Soviet past and continues to this day. In Muslim medieval times, too, the state was traditionally the patron and philanthropist of professional creations. However, there were also outstanding private patrons, such as the great Alisher Navoi (1441–1501). All in all, complex classical forms of music-making originated in the depths of state music-making (court tradition) and are unable to exist fully without significant financial support. It is analogous to the kind of funding necessary to support opera in Europe and the United States, but opera gets additional help from large private companies and sponsors of varying scale.

A potentially productive approach would be to establish a dialogue between culture, bearers of the classical tradition, civil society, and the state. The latter has sufficient funds to support classical genres and it does so. In Uzbekistan, at least, a system to teach maqam arts has been built in all three levels of music education: elementary (music schools), secondary (colleges), and higher (conservatory). The state has initiated various competitions and festivals that encourage musicians-bearers of the art (honorary titles, prizes, etc.) and raise the prestige of maqam within the society. It continues to come up with new initiatives in this sphere. In my view, it is the state that is able to protect maqams from such negative outcomes as commercialization.

That being said, there are of course side effects to state patronage. For example, the use of classical heritage for ideological and propaganda purposes leads to compulsory changes in the musical culture. And in the outskirts of the city, in particular, state officials often rudely interfere with traditional forms of music by giving instructions and imposing prohibitions.

Bukharan Jews and Shashmaqam

I believe we should make a distinction between the participation of Bukharan Jews in developing maqam art in Central Asian khanates and their engagement in Soviet Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Apparently, the first individual Bukharan Jewish musicians began performing as ensembles and groups at the royal court in the second half of the 19th century. This took place under Bukharan ruler Muzaffar-khan and then under emirs Abdulahad-khan and Alim-khan. At present, we have no documentary evidence of earlier participation of Bukharan Jews in court music. Levi Babakhanov—known as Levi Yahudi (a name that appears in pre-revolutionary Muslim sources) or Levicha (1873–1926)—was an outstanding singer who began his path as a court musician. He was a student of Ata Jalal and himself created a school to pass on his skills to his own children and other students.

The real flourishing of Bukharan Jews’ maqam performance occurred during the Soviet period, beginning in the 1920s and continuing until their mass departure from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Dozens of first-class singers and instrumentalists appeared in a number of cities: Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Dushanbe, and others. There were whole dynasties of musicians, such as the Mullakandov dynasty and the Tolmasov dynasty in Samarkand or the Babakhanov dynasty in Bukhara. Some of them became real idols for Uzbek and Tajik people; they are organically perceived as bearers of national Uzbek and Tajik musical traditions. These include Gavriel Mullakandov, Mihael Tolmasov, Fatima Borukhova, Barno Iskhakova, Berta Davydova, Neryo Aminov, Moshe Babakhanov, Ari Babakhanov, Ezro Malakov, Isak Katayev, and many others. Bukharan Jews created their own style of vocal performance of maqams, which deserves thorough research. Without exaggeration, one may say that they made an outstanding contribution to the preservation and development of this classical music in Central Asia.

Bukhara mausoleum ensemble led by Ari Babakhanov (Qashgar rubab). Tolibjon Temirov (doira). Photo by Alexander Jumaev.

It is a “must” to mention an interesting phenomenon about the cultivation of Shashmaqam outside Central Asia. This is directly linked to the formation of a large diaspora of Bukharan Jews in Israel and the United States. Within the diaspora, not only is maqam art preserved, but new performing traditions also evolve, generally closer to the popular and non-academic interpretation of classical music. Both Israel and the US have become home to many fine maqam musicians, among them descendants of musical dynasties from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as maqam ensembles. A special international maqam festival, “Shashmaqam Forever,” has been hosted in New York, with the fourth and most recent one (held this year) dedicated to Yunus Rajabi.

A Story about Feruz

There are many amusing cases from the history of maqams in Central Asia. Khorezm musicians told the story of Feruz, a ruler and passionate lover of maqams, who decided to punish one musician who had performed a maqam play in an inappropriate way, violating a musical canon. Upon the musician’s return home after the performance, he saw that people were dismantling the roof of his house. Naturally, he asked what the matter was and the answer came back: “It was the order of the Khan.” The musician asked them to stop and hurried back to the palace to ask the khan to explain. Feruz reportedly replied, “You destroyed my music, so I gave an order to destroy your house.” The exchange contains a play-on-words typical of the spirit of the era: the word “khona” (room) refers to both a structural unit in classical maqams and a room in a house. Fortunately, Feruz rescinded his order and the musician learned his lesson. (By the way, Feruz was one of the few rulers, if not the only one, to issue a special decree punishing a musician for violating a canon in a maqam performance.)


Zaynab Mukhammad-Dost

Independent analyst, specializing in post-Soviet Central Asian politics and international affairs. She holds a postgraduate diploma of SAIS Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s Degree in International Relations and Contemporary Political Theory from the University of Westminster.

[1] In September 2018, Uzbekistan hosted its first international festival of maqam art in Shahrisabz, in the south of the country.

[2]Yunus Rajabi (1897–1976), famous Uzbek composer and musician.


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