Tajikistan: Schubert or Shashmaqom? Reconsideration of “Classical Music” in Tajikistan.

Madina Muratova, Graduate of the American University of Central Asia, Sociology Department and Master Student at the OSCE Academy Politics and Security Program

Lunchtime in Dushanbe draws throngs of people—walking, sitting, dining and talking—to the square in front of the old Opera House in the City Center.  A poster has been affixed to the panel next to the sidewalk framing the grounds of the Opera House.  It announces a concert by a “Classical Pianist” at an extraordinarily low price of 15 Somoni ($2,7) next Saturday evening at 7PM.  A few people scan the sign as they pass by…one lady stops for a closer inspection…two teenagers point and mimic a violin player as they stroll off.  But what impression has the poster made on those who have noticed it? How many listeners can it attract to the concert? Indeed, what is the perception in modern day Dushanbe about “classical music”?

The idea above has pushed to a research the findings of which distinguish new classical music from the old classical music, which is more associated with Beethoven or Bach. Today, a typical “classical” concert would be of Shashmaqom.

What is Shashmaqom?

This true Tajik national traditional music is played on instruments like the rubob and doira[i].  The hallmark of such music would be its vocal narrative—a person with a special voice singing the whole song over a period which lasts for about 40 minutes.

The scene of the Shashmaqom, with its lone singer playing a single instrument by memory, is very different from the “classical” concert of former times where a large orchestra, with a wide variety of instruments—structured in neat rows with music stands cradling multi-page sheet music—is dispatched, guided, and brought to a conclusion by a conductor’s bold baton flourishes.

Soviet inheritance and Transition Period

Certainly, during the seventy plus years of the Soviet Union, “classical music” was promoted throughout the whole of the Soviet territory with particular emphasis upon Western music with their classics, masterpieces, and tonal themes.

The first disturbance to the norm happened in the first half of the 1990s after the collapse of Soviet Union[ii]. The collapse of the USSR followed by the Civil War pushed the economic development of Tajikistan back a few decades[iii]. Though the Philharmonia tried to bring back the Soviet system of Ministry of Culture, the culture itself was not in demand among the population of Tajikistan. Therefore, during the decade of the 1990s the sphere of music was removed from the demanded list[iv]. People were mostly concerned about generating some income along with the desire to survive during those unstable times. The same was true of artists, who were trying to find more profitable occupations; they began to abandon their professions and hobbies, forgetting about their artistic skills and preferences. One interesting conclusion made by Spinetti in his research about the condition of music and music players in Tajikistan by 2005, is that currently, due to the low demand for classical music, professionals have started to widen their repertoire and play other types of music, which they think will be more in demand, mostly modern wedding repertoire.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union which left former Soviet countries facing a lot of obstacles and crises and little time to seek out a musical interlude or respite from the hard times, the first decade of independence in Tajikistan passed with much the same appreciation of classical music. The populace seemed to continue to want and fondly recognize the melodies, the tones and chords which were established centuries ago by the great composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt, and Frédéric Chopin—those same melodies, tones and chords which had inspired even more modern composers from Soviet times such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky. However, this tendency has been weakening over the time under the rapid nationalization of the country.

Classical music today in Tajikistan

If we refer to the official statistics, the consumption of classical music along with the attendance in theater and Opera and Ballet performances are dramatically down. For the last 5 years there has been a consistently low patronage of classical music concerts. According to the estimates of the Agency of Statistics of Republic of Tajikistan, 10-12 visits to classical concerts per 1000 people per year is the average[v].  Those figures should be compared to the average of attendance of theater and concerts during the 1980s, which was about 112-116 per thousand people per year[vi].

These statistics can be partially explained by the switch of people’s understanding of ‘’classical music’’ in itself. Today there is a sense of a vast difference between the previous understanding of (and appreciation for) the music that was “classical” during the Soviet times and the decade following, versus the current “classical” music.  Today, a typical “classical” concert would be of Shashmaqom—not Beethoven or Bach.

Whereas during the Soviet times the Shashmaqom was, at best, an extra-curricular activity, today it holds the prestige and, seemingly, the demand of the public. Conversely, Western “classical music” has seemingly waned in its ability to attract crowds, and, indeed, in its ability to even provide a decent living for its piano teachers, or violinist, and the multitude of other artists and musicians which once made up a typical orchestra. It is obvious that the current position of a shashmaqom performer is much better than his/her position during the Soviet times. Now ethnomusicologists have more opportunities to grow and develop.

Politicization of Classical music

If we look to the rapid nationalization of culture in Tajikistan after its independence, we can explain the efforts of the government put on Shashmaqom promotion. From the beginning of 21st century, certain days in May by law are fully devoted to National classical music. This week is supported by a series of free Shashmaqom concerts in the main concert halls of Dushanbe. Moreover, there is a Radio House, fully devoted to the promotion of Shashmaqom, holding the special concert hall, record studios, radio channels and recording TV programs. Also, the decisions of the state about which musical instruments and workbooks to supply to the schools is another example of the politicization of music in order to further nationalistic points of view.

Talking about the musical schools, which focus their main program on Western classical music, everything that schools possess is left from the Soviet era. Teachers from schools complained about the condition of books. Books are already very old and ruined, and teachers have to make copies themselves and give to the pupils copied papers with the notes instead of textbooks. The situation in Conservatoria is almost the same. Even though recently there was acquisition of violins for the Conservatoria, the instruments were from China and not of good quality. Whereas professionals, who play national classical music, have easy access to record studios, instruments, and the printing of the new note books.


The meaning of classical music in current times has been switched from foreign to national, which is Shashmaqom. It has been rationalized through socio-cultural, economic and political factors. State policies can explain the change of canon at the individual as well as the official level. This change in the national musical canon is driven by the state cultural prescription, such is the adoption of a policy on 12 May known as “Shashmaqom” which set aside certain days and locations for national concerts and everything necessary to facilitate such national celebrations—books, educational assistance, instruments, recording studios, technology, advertising. The politicization of music in Tajikistan, this article attempts to show, is inextricably connected to the rise of nationalism following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a transformation from a foreign standard to traditional forms and artistic expressions.



[i] Slobin, Mark. Rhythmic Aspects of the Tajik Maqam. Ethnomusicology, Vol. 15(1). (1971): 100-104. http://www.jstor.org/stable/85039. 101.

[ii] Spinetti, Federico. Open Borders. Tradition and Tajik Popular Music: Questions of Aesthetics, Identity and Political Economy. Ethnomusicology Forum Vol. 14(2). (2005):185-211. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20184518?searchUrl=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DFederico%2BSpinetti%2BOpen%2BBorders%26fromHomePage%3Dtrue%26acc%3Doff%26wc%3Don%26fc%3Doff&Search=yes&uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21101373003751

[iii] Ibid, 193.

[iv] Ibid, 194.

[v]Agenstvo po Statistike pri Prezidente Respubliki Tajikistan. Tajikistan v cifrah. 2011.  http://stat.tj/ru/img/2342f4d3bcc13e5b6247c13f8e1fe06c_1311128829.pdf

[vi]SSSR. SSSR v Cifrah v 1987. Kratkiy Statisticheskiy Sbornik. Moskva, Finansi I Statistika. 1987. http://istmat.info/files/uploads/20568/sssr_1987_obrazovanie.pdf. 265.