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Roving Exhibition – Classical Music of Central Asia

Text / Videos / Pictures : Eugene LEUNG (MMus in Ethnomusicology, Goldsmiths, University of London)


The “Silk Road” has for many years conjured up all sorts of imaginations about East-West cultural exchanges, as evoked by historical events such as Alexander’s Conquest of Bactria, Zhang Qian’s missions to the Western Regions, the great Silk Road empires such as Tang and Mongol empires, as well as the Belt and Road Initiative today. In this exhibition, we shall explore the classical music of Central Asia, a product of multicultural encounters in the heartland of the Silk Road.


To start your musical journey to Central Asia, please click the following tabs and view the full version of the demonstration performances. The exhibition schedule is available at the bottom of this webpage.

The Heartland of Silk Road

  • “Central Asia” commonly refers to the five ex-Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan;
  • The region neighbours China to the east, the Indian subcontinent to the south, Russia’s Siberia to the north, as well as Iran and the Caspian Sea to the west, and has historically been a strategic hub linking these territories;
  • Islam is the main religion in the region;
  • There are two predominant cultures in the region: sedentary culture as developed in oasis cities, and nomadic culture of the steppes and mountains. Central Asian classical music is a product of the sedentary culture in what is today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Map of contemporary Central Asia

Central Asian Classical Music : A Brief History



9th – 15th  centuries During the Islamic Golden Age, music theorists developed a musical system, maqam. It became the musical lingua franca of the Islamic world, and is a forebearer of Central Asian classical music.
16th – 19th  centuries Independent music cultures began to develop in different regions in the Islamic world. In Central Asia, classical music flourished in Bukhara region, reaching an apex in the 19th century with the establishment of the canonical repertoire Shashmaqom, which was widely studied and imitated by musicians in the Ferghana and Khorezm regions. Styles of these three regions, which are found in the central, western and eastern parts of Uzbekistan today, constitute the three main styles of Central Asian classical music.
20th  century After Central Asia became a part of the Soviet Union, Central Asian classical music became more widespread by virtue of modern advances in education and technology. However, the imposition of western influences on musical elements such as musical intervals and instrumentation uprooted the music from its traditional aesthetics.
21st  century Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Central Asia classical musicians have been working to restore traditional performance practices and aesthetics. In 2003, Shashmaqom was inscribed onto the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, testifying the importance of Central Asian classical music in world cultures.


Music plays an important part in social life of Central Asians


Performance of symphonic Central Asian classical music


The “Sharq Taronalari” festival is held every other year in Uzbekistan since 1997, promoting traditional musics of Central Asia and beyond.


Performance of Central Asian Classical Music

  • The Central Asian classical music repertoire consists mainly of songs accompanied by a variety of musical instruments. Most of these instruments are very similar in look and technique to those found in East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East;
  • For each performance, it suffices in theory to have a singer accompanied by a melodic instrument and a drum. In practice however, a few more instruments are usually added for a richer colour;
  • Most pieces do not specify any particular instrument. Any suitable instrument can be used;
  • The Soviet times in the 20th century saw a preference for large symphonic ensembles consisting of dozens of performers. While the overall effect is more modern, the unique sound world of the original performance set up is compromised;
  • In recent years, there is a turning trend of playing in small ensembles, in order to revive traditional sounds;
  • There are three main regional styles of Central Asian classical music:
    i. Bukhara : Austere and exquisite
    ii. Ferghana : Free and lyrical
    iii.Khorezm : Fiery and passionate


Performance of a small Central Asian classical music ensemble


Dance is frequently performed together with Central Asian classical music


What is "Shashmaqom"?


Shashmaqom literally means “six maqoms”. It combines different art forms such as music, literature, dance, and is the epitome of the development of the maqam musical system in Central Asia, crystallising centuries of interaction between different cultures. Its musical features are summarised as follows:

  • Being a compendium of 30 to 40 individual pieces, each maqom consists mostly of songs and some instrumental pieces;
  • Shashmaqom has traditionally been passed down through oral transmission from masters to their apprentices, as in Chinese operas;
  • Performers can create a new suite out of selected pieces from each maqom. The performance always start with a slow and serious piece and end with a light and fast one;
  • Each maqom is named after a mode, whose names refer to different qualities, musico-theoretical properties or geographical areas: Buzruk (greatness), Rost (righteousness), Navo (melody), Dugoh (the second note of a scale), Segoh (the third note of a scale) and Iroq (Iraq);
  • Songs are usually set to poetry of Central Asia and Iran from the 15th to the 19th centuries, using references to earthly love to allude to human longing for the Divine;
  • Titles of Shashmaqom pieces are usually named after the mode and the form of the piece. For example, the famous instrumental piece Muhammasi Ushshoq is named after the form of the piece, Muhammas, a form that is distinguished by its 32-bar long phrases, and the mode of Ushshoq, which is a popular mode meaning “lover”. The name of the piece therefore means “Muhammas in the mode of Ushshoq”, which is analogous to Sonata in C major in western classical music;
  • Shashmaqom music, with its structural richness, provides an important technical and stylistic template for Central Asian classical music.


Yunus Rajabiy (1897-1976), a “Shashmaqom” master



Contemporary transcription of “Muhammasi Ushshoq”

Major Musical Instruments

Tanbur – the quintessential Central Asian classical musical instrument

  • A long-neck plucked lute;
  • About 125cm in length;
  • Made out of apricot or mulberry wood which are commonly found in Central Asia;
  • It has 4 steel strings, one of which is played with a metal thimble plectrum worn on the tip of the index finger, the others being sympathetic strings that are not fingered, but are left open to provide a soft resonance;
  • There are 16 frets set according to the scale of Central Asian classical music (similar to the western major scale) instead of the chromatic scale. It has a range of two and a half octaves;
  • Its tone colour is somewhat in between that of the Chinese pipa and the Indian sitar, with a more subdued gravity. It is considered as an ancestor of the sitar;
  • It can be played as a plucked instrument held horizontally, as well as a bowed instrument held vertically. In the latter case, it is called a sato;
  • It is the preferred instrument for singers to accompany themselves whilst singing songs from Shashmaqom or other more serious songs. It also has a significant solo instrumental repertoire.


Dutar – the most representative Central Asian musical instrument

The instrument at the top is the Uzbek “dutar”. Others are similar instruments from surrounding countries.

  • A long-neck 2-string strummed lute;
  • About 120cm in length;
  • Made out of apricot or mulberry wood;
  • It is one of the rare string instruments in Central Asia that uses silk strings instead of steel strings;
  • It has 16 chromatic frets and a range of two octaves;
  • It is played by strumming fingers across its 2 strings. Its warm tone is particularly suitable for accompanying singers and other bright-sounding instruments such as the tanbur. It can also be played solo, with its plethora of strumming patterns combining to form rhythmic patterns no less exciting than that of Spanish flamenco music;
  • It is usually used in playing light classical music and folk music, but can also accompany more serious repertoire including that of Shashmaqom;
  • It is the most widespread instrument in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, found in nearly every household. Similar 2-string (or 3-string) strummed instruments are also very commonly found in other Central Asian republics, Iran and the Uyghur region.


Doira – the pulse of Central Asian classical music

  • A round frame drum with a diameter of 40 to 50cm;
  • Made out of apricot or walnut wood and covered with calf, sheep or goat skin;
  • Metal jingles are attached to the inside of the drum frame. It bears some resemblance to the tambourine;
  • It is played with the left thumb supporting the drum from the bottom, the right thumb resting on the frame, and the other fingers of both hands hitting the middle or the rim of the drum in various combinations, resulting in a rich palette of sounds;
  • It is the only percussion instrument used in Central Asian classical music, where it plays a number of fixed rhythmic patterns. All singers must learn to accompany themselves on the doira according to each song’s own rhythmic pattern;
  • Beside Central Asian classical music, musics of the Iranians, the Uyghurs, the Azeris and the Kurdish also employ very similar frame drums.

Other Popular Musical Instruments

Nay   Surnay
  • A transverse flute made of wood or bamboo;
  • About 45cm in length with 6 finger holes;
  • Similar in construct to the Chinese dizi, but with a more nasal tone.



  • A double reed instrument similar to the Chinese suona;
  • Often used in festive occasions outdoors.



G’ijjak   Kashgar rubob
  • A fretless 4-string bowed instrument;
  • Can produce expressive sounds mimicking the human voice, like the violin and the Chinese erhu;
  • Also found in Uyghur, Iranian and Afghan music.



  • A 5-string plucked lute originated from Uyghur music;
  • Its bright and sonorous tone makes the instrument particularly suitable for playing fast and brilliant music.



Tar   Oud
  • An 11-string plucked lute borrowed from Azerbaijan;
  • Particularly popular in the Khorezm region.





  • An 11-string plucked lute, borrowed from the Arab world;
  • Has a deep sound;
  • Mainly used to support the bass register in large ensembles.



Chang   Qanun
  • A hammered dulcimer similar to the Chinese yangqin;
  • Has 14 courses of strings;
  • Played with a pair of bamboo beaters;
  • Also found in Iranian, Indian, Iraqi and Uyghur music.



  • A trapezoid box zither liked a miniature version of the Chinese zheng;
  • Played with both hands strumming and plucking its 72 strings;
  • Its tone colour is somewhere between the Chinese zheng and the western harp;
  • Also popular in the Arab world.





Central Asian classical music presents a rich and authentic blend of a distinctly local identity with many elements of both eastern and western music. Through this exhibition, we hope to incite your fresh imaginations of the possibilities of cultural exchanges. In these times of glocalisation, it is also worth reflecting on how Hong Kong, as a cultural hub, can develop a culture that is rooted in both tradition and inclusivity.


The OXUS Ensemble from Uzbekistan bringing Central Asian classical music to the world’s stage

Demonstration Performances


Central Asian classical music is found in three distinctive regional styles. Listed below are some of the representative pieces of each style:


I. Bukhara – austere and exquisite
Muhammasi Ushshoq
This is a famous instrumental piece from Shashmaqom. It has a rigorous structure, developing the Ushshoq mode gradually from the lower register towards the apex. The name of the mode Ushshoq literally means “lover”.
Mo’g’ulchai Navo & Qashqarchai Navo
This is a mini-suite combining two songs which share the same melodic framework, Navo, but played on different rhythms, moving from a serious rhythm to a light-hearted one. This is typical in Central Asian classical music. The word Navo means “melody”. The lyrics are taken from two poems of the 18th century.

II. Ferghana – free and lyrical
Cho’li Iroq
The name of the piece means “The desert of Iraq”. Originally an instrumental piece, the music was then set to a 15th century poem expressing the poet’s great pain over the separation from his beloved.
This instrumental piece has many different instrumental versions, but the solo tanbur version is the most renowned one. More recently, it has also been performed with an improvised prelude. Improvisation is not part of the Central Asian classical music tradition, but in recent years, musicians have been referencing the practice from neighbouring cultures in adding an improvised prelude to create a suite-like effect.

III. Khorezm – fiery and passionate
This is a famous instrumental interlude played during performances of epic poetry singing. It is usually performed on the dutar, whose varied strumming patterns vividly portrait a galloping horse.
Lazgi is a very popular dance in the Khorezm region in Uzbekistan. It was composed by Komiljon Otaniyozov (1917-1975), the region’s most beloved singer of the 20th century. Singer-songwriters are common in Central Asia as well.

Roving Exhibition Dates & Venues