o the list of the great female vocalists of the recording era—Billie Holliday, Sandy Denny, Aretha Franklin, Edith Piaf, and so on—add one more name: Salamat Sadikova. Never heard of her? You're not alone. Name recognition doesn't come easy for anyone in Kyrgyzstan, the most remote and isolated of former Soviet Central Asian republics. But one listen any track on The Voice of Kyrgyzstan is all it takes to realize that Sadikova is that rare artist who can transform the simplest music into something truly magical.
There are two major strands of Central Asian traditional music: the "classical" or "court" Islamic music created in the religious centers of Samarkand and Bukhara and the folk music of the various Turkomen and Persian peoples who populate the rural areas. The classical tradition is fascinating, though the instrumentation and extreme, elongated vocal exultations sounds a bit odd to western ears. The folk music, however, is entirely familiar to any European listener. The songs are simple, verse-based affairs, with topics ranging from religion to animals to love (like any folk music). The musical accompaniment is usually simple: a stringed instrument of some kind, various drums, and occasionally an oboe-like wind instrument (imagine early Fairport Convention sung in Mongolian, and you'll have the basic idea). Most importantly, the songs usually call for rich, powerful voices to transform these seemingly simple songs into something special.
No one does a better job transforming folk music into something special than Sadikova. Though most of the songs on The Voice of Kyrgyzstan are recent compositions (including one by Sadikova herself), they all seem stepped in tradition, as though the album's producer, Californian Mark Humphrey, traveled back in time 700 years to record some peasant woman performing ancient songs she learned from her mother before her. Humphrey manages this illusion by keeping things simple: all we hear is Sadikova's voice and her komuz (a three-stringed, fretless lute), save for two songs, where she is accompanied by the Kambarkan Ensemble. There are no studio tricks here to make the sound richer or more powerful; frankly, those things are not necessary, as Sadikova's voice is powerful enough.
It's not easy to create engaging, exciting music using only two basic instruments (a voice and a lute). But each track here is a tiny miracle and a testament to this woman's musical gifts, a gift that transcends language barriers with ease. There aren't many people outside Kyrgyzstan who speak Kyrgyz, but that's immaterial here. The emotions that seep through when Sadikova sings "Parizat (Angel)," a traditional song, are unmistakably sad, mournful, and evocative; I don't need the liner notes to tell me what the tune is about (though the liner notes are extremely well-written and very detailed, offering those of us who have no knowledge of this region a sense of its musical heritage).
This music was recorded in 2000 and released in the United States in 2001. However, because it was released on an extremely small, online-only label, few have heard this music, let alone reviewed it. That's a true shame, since this is some of the best music from this region of the world that I've ever heard (and I've heard a lot). This might be some of the best music the world's never heard, so check it out as soon as you can.
Reviewed by: Michael Heumann
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01