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Alaev Family bringing Jewish music of Bukhara to the Skirball - via Tajikistan and Israel

Aliza Ashkenazi Hayon

The core of the repertoire of  the Alaev Family, which hails from Dushanbe in the Central Asia nation of Tajikistan, is the Jewish music of Bukhara.

You are forgiven if that statement raises a few questions for you, such as:

There is Jewish music from Tajikistan?

There are Jews from Tajikistan?

Where is Bukhara?

And what does Jewish music from there sound like?

You can answer the last yourself Thursday, when the Alaev Family makes its West Coast debut, appearing in the Skirball Cultural Center’s Sunset Concert series. And you can hear it on the recent album, The Alaev Family With Tamir Muskat, on which three generations of the clan are joined by Israeli producer/musician Muskat (Balkan Beat Box) for a set linking ancient and modern, as well as Asian and European.

For the rest we turn to Alan Alaev, percussionist in the clan ensemble, which in the current road version sports seven family members — patriarch Allo, born in 1930, his sons Ariel and Amin, Ariel’s children Aviva and Amir, Amin’s son Alan and, the newest member and alphabetical counterbalance, clarinet specialist Zvika, whose mother Ada has stepped aside to take care of her younger children. 

“There are rarely Jews living in Tajikistan today,” says Alan, with translation from the group’s manager/producer Yvonne Kahan. “They all emigrated to Israel or the U.S.”

In fact, the Alaevs moved to Israel in 1990, as the Soviet Union (of which Tajikistan and its neighbor Uzbekistan, home of the historic city and region of Bukhara, were part) collapsed. 

“The community [of Tajik Jews in Israel] is a very strong one, keeping together,” he says. “Also with those out of Bukhara, marrying each other, keeping the language alive. The food traditions and ceremonies are strong within the community, as well as the music, of course. It’s a colorful tradition, with poetic language kept alive during many different regimes in the regions for hundreds of years, and always survived as a minority. Even during sorrowful ceremonies song is heard, of course sad, but music is part of every event. Most of the songs we perform are wedding songs or songs about love.”

How did they get there in the first place?

“The Jewish music of Bukhara is said to have originated from Morocco,” he says.

That came after Ferdinand and Isabella at the end of the 15th century declared Spain a Catholic nation, ending a “golden age” of Christian, Jewish and Muslim harmony and sending those who did not embrace the Church to scatter through Europe, North Africa and beyond. (Or submit to the Inquisition, of course.)

“At the time Moroccan rabbis brought their six rhythms to the region,” he says of the legend. “Later it developed differently. In Bukhara music we also use the shasmaqam, which is a system of music.”

The instruments used, he says, are those associated with the music of that region, which flowered under the Persian Empire, with various hand drums (the round frame drum known as the doyra in particular), the strummed tar (related to the lute and guitar) and bowed kemenche (the “spike fiddle” prominent among them. 

“The music and language is very similar to that of Persian traditions,” he says.

Those traditions remained strong when Allo Alaev was born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. After the death of his mother when he was nine, the family moved to Dushanbe, where they encountered a wealth of music styles, from local traditions to European opera. The family already had a musical legacy of several generations, and the new setting inspired young Allo and his brother, who performed as a duo.

“Later on, when Allo had children, his dream was to build his own musical ‘empire,’” Alan says. “In Tajikistan in the ‘70s and ‘80s the family played. When we moved to Israel in 1990, the second generation got married and had children and those children were automatically born with an instrument.

“Those who are not musical — and I quote granddad — ‘We send them back to the belly!’” 

Those who were allowed to remain ultimately brought in new sensibilities and ideas. The repertoire on the album and in concerts draws not just on Bukhara, Tajik and Persian styles, but on music from Greece, the Balkans, Caucuses and some modern “world beat” touches, with an array of instruments to match.

“Now many people play traditional music from Bukhara,” Alan says. “The fact that the younger generation has both education from classical conservatories and also enjoys popular music is a great asset to the new arrangements. The Alaev Family does not pretend to be a pure traditional band, and we do not believe there is anything such as pure music from here or from there. In Allo Alaev’s eyes, there is good music and bad music.”