Voices of Central Asia, Coliseum, London

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The Independent Culture

It was appropriate that Central Asian music's benign invasion of the West should have been led by Alim Qasimov, since this charismatic Azerbaijani praise-singer is the region's one performer whom Western aud- iences know.

It was appropriate that Central Asian music's benign invasion of the West should have been led by Alim Qasimov, since this charismatic Azerbaijani praise-singer is the region's one performer whom Western aud- iences know. He walked on stage with his frame drum, turned and faced the starry heavens behind him, and, as he sang and waved his hand, a painted sun rose over a calm sea.

If this wasn't the Coliseum as we know it, nor was it world music as generally purveyed: without the customary rock-strength amplification, we had to strain to hear. But Qasimov has a carrying voice, and the Coliseum has a good acoustic: our initial shock turned to delight as we were drawn into his intimate, multicoloured world, and as his daughter - plus accompanists on the tar lute and kemancheh spike-fiddle - thickened the musical mix. The subtle sound of the tar being shaken, so that its notes are microtonally bent, came across with perfect clarity.

The journey that followed was a revelation of musical riches hidden from the West for centuries - ever since the courts of Bukhara and Samarkand lost their pre-eminence in the 16th century, when their empires fell, and the old Silk Road was made redundant by new roads over the sea. And if ENO's admirable premise was that it was time we listened to great voices from another culture, it instantly became clear that, before we could appreciate their beauty and diversity, we had to jettison Western categorisations.

It went without saying that the ecstatic hissing, roaring, and chanting of the Kyrgyz shaman Rysbek Jumabaev came from a different vocal planet, but so did the singers from Kazakhstan and the remote mountain region of Badakshan.

Uljan Baibussynova sang more deeply from the chest than any mezzo ever does, and her guttural sound had a thrilling darkness. Saheba Davlatshaeva's Badakshan lament exuded a coiled intensity that gripped the heart: the pitch-range was so tight it seemed almost on one note, but the deli- cate melismas wound round the line-endings opened like flowers.

Her partner Aqnazar Alavatov's tone in a Sufi poem was extraordinary, at once rock-hard and plangently expressive. The Shash Maqam singers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan delivered their perfumed court music as though expiring in holy awe. And the instruments were a story in themselves: from the simple gijak fiddle to the intricate Afghan rubab, and the jew's harp made of wood.

Despite the haste with which it had to be assembled, this was a flawless concert, whose drama was deepened by Michel Jaffrenou's deliciously witty light-paintings. And it was good to see the Aga Khan beaming down from the dress circle, since the fact that these musicians are now able to perform, teach, and travel is thanks to the academies he's created in those poverty-stricken Stans.

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