Celebrating The Sounds Of Bukharan Shashmaqom


The voices soar, the harmonies arching over the almost percussive line laid down by the long-necked lute. The music is exhilarating, although the setting is a bit unlikely, a somewhat corporate-looking conference room in Forest Hills.

Surrounded by gleaming mahogany, a surfeit of grip-and-grin photos and two immense oil paintings — one of Cornwallis surrendering to Washington at Yorktown, the other of Moses leading the Jews to the edge of the Reed Sea — Avrom Tolmasov and Roshel Rubinov are singing almost gleefully in Bukharan. They are two of the foremost performers of shashmaqom in the world today.

Despite its formal mien, the conference room is a free-floating, buzzing hive of visiting musicians in town for the second annual “Shashmaqom Forever” festival, which takes place Aug. 10-11. (The concert is Saturday, August 10 at 9:30 p.m. at the Queens Theatre, [718] 760-0064; the conference on shashmaqom is Sunday at Center for the Bukharan Jewish Community (106-16 70th Ave., Forest Hills, [718] 275-5721.)

The high-spirited men in the room have been from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Israel and Queens, and although they will be dressed in the colorful trappings of their traditions when they perform, right now they’re in casual clothes, except for Rubinov, who is resplendent in a cream-colored suit and tie.

Shashmaqom is a classical music of Central Asia, born and steeped in the traditions of Uzbek, Tajik and Bukharan Jewish cultures. Based on six maqom (the Persian word for modes) it is a relatively young musical tradition, dating back only to the 19th century, but it draws on much older traditions of Sufi poetry of divine love; the lyrics that are an essential part of the performance.

Because it is such a young music, you can find yourself sitting in a room with the sons and grandsons of its legendary founders. Avrom and Shmuel Tolmasov are the sons of Gavriel Tolmasov, one of the great pioneering maqom singers; Roman Tolmasov is Shmuel’s son. Avrom and Shmuel’s uncles were students of Levicha Babakhanov, who was the personal singer to the court of the Emir of Bukhara; despite being a Jew, he was one of the true fathers of shashmaqom as a musical form, and is the dedicatee of this year’s concert, as well as the subject of a daylong conference.

How important was Babakhanov? When the Russian Amour Gramophone label issued a special “gold” label, only three artists were recorded: Enrico Caruso, Feodor Chaliapin and Babakhanov.

That probably explains why Rafael Nektalov, a bubbly little man in a gray suit, can barely contain himself. He is the editor-in-chief of The Bukharian Times, a Queens-based Russian-language newspaper that covers the Bukharan Jewish community in Forest Hills, and as a trained musicologist he’s been an integral part of organizing the events, serving as president of the festival.

Juggling a multitude of languages and dialects while trying to keep an American journalist in the loop, Nektalov says, “We came from Uzbek, we remember our fatherland, our motherland, our culture. We want to connect our culture to American Jews.”

Listening to Avrom and Rubinov singing together, one is reminded of another definition of diaspora, “a harmony of many parts, a swelling chorus or burst of mingled sound.” Their voices, a resonant bass-baritone of almost operatic richness and a sterling clear tenor, respectively, intertwine when they sing together; then they trade phrases like jazz musicians.

“It’s never the same twice,” says David Mavashev, a Tajik-born Jew who takes time away from his successful software business to administer the Isaac Mavashev Foundation, named for his father, an historian of shashmaqom and author of the first book on Babakhanov.

“It’s like jazz, every time it’s new,” he adds.

For Nektalov the festival carries a message beyond the music.

“We have gotten so much help and support from the Uzbeki consulate and the Tajiki consulate,” he says. “That’s important, because this is a music that speaks to so many people in that part of the world — we have Muslim and Jewish musicians playing together; it’s a model for a dialogue between peoples.”