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Shrinking number of Tajik artisans crafts stringed instruments
Traditional instruments are costly but still find audience in Tajikistan
By Rukhshona Ibragimova
DUSHANBE - You hear the captivating sound of Tajik stringed instruments at weddings, birthday parties and other celebrations.
Tajik virtuosos draw out all the sounds of nature – the babbling mountain brook, the morning song of the nightingale, the rustle of leaves - from the dombra, rubob and dutar. Men pass down the skill of making these two- and three-stringed instruments from generation to generation. Their craft remains an exclusively male preserve.
“I make 18 types of folk musical instruments”, seasoned craftsman Mirzo Nurov said. “I have been doing this for 37 years now”. Slowly plucking the strings of a two-stringed dombra, he demonstrates its sound. “Nobody can make a true instrument if he cannot play it”, Nurov said.
“The first time I picked up a rubob I was 12 years old. ... (My uncle) became my first music teacher”, the master craftsman remembered. “Then there was the music college and professional instructors”.
Instrument making became his passion. He dropped out of the university after only a few months, he remembered.
Nurov showed off a dombra that is more than 100 years old and still in excellent condition: “One day, a young man brought it to me", he recalled. "He took a look at my work and left it to me as a gift”.
Nurov is always the most esteemed guest at weddings in nearby neighbourhoods. Often, foreign guests come to his studio to hear the usto (master).
“This is the most difficult instrument – the Afghan rubob", he said. "Only a few people now make it. ... Not very long ago, I had guests from China who had long been searching for an Afghan rubob”.
He carves the rubob out of a single piece of wood -- without using glue.
He uses only three types of wood for his stringed instruments: mulberry, walnut and apricot, he said.
“But the fingerboard I make only from walnut; this is the most durable and solid wood. The mulberry is good for cutting and is more suited for the soundboard”, he said.
The instruments may be traditional, but their makers now use fishing line instead of animal sinew for the strings, he said.
Each instrument requires three to six months to make, and wood is "moody", he said. "The most important task is to dry the resonator ... for several months under natural conditions".
In a modern, impatient age, the number of master instrument makers in Tajikistan has dwindled to five. Not everybody is willing to work months on something as fickle as wood to create a single instrument.
The younger generation shows almost no interest in making traditional instruments, Nurov said.
"If my sons themselves had not wanted to study how to make the instruments, my trade would be lost", he said. "Now, unlike before, no strangers come in and say, ‘Teach me’”.
Nurov's two oldest sons, Bahodur and Bahtiyor, make dombras. His youngest son Todzhiddin has shown an artistic touch by decorating his first fingerboard and soundboard with coloured seashells.
"But my grandchildren have not shown much interest so far", Nurov said.
The demand for such instruments also has fallen, Nurov said.
“All of our masters, who are renowned not only in the country but also abroad, can be found at the Soztarosh factory", Nurov said. "Before, work here was in full swing; now the orders are smaller. Contemporary musicians are more drawn to brass and electric instruments”.
Cost is another factor. Instruments can cost as much as US $1,000, reflecting the attention and materials they require. Dutars and rubobs cost US $70-250.
Another Dushanbe usto, Zokir Alibekov, is trying to incorporate modern properties into his instruments. "I tried to make an electric rubob on the same principles as the electric guitar", the second-generation craftsman said. "Musicians liked it".
Musicians revere him for his ability to restore decrepit instruments to their previous sound. "They often come in asking to have instruments more than a decade old restored", he said. "I even come across some fairly valuable rarities".
Society's attitudes toward traditional instruments have changed with the times, Nurov and Alibekov conceded. But they express confidence that an appreciation for folk music and the instruments one needs to play it will always exist.