In Uzbekistan, epic poems and stories are represented by the dastan genre. Dastan means story, tale, honor, adventure and includes both poetry and prose, accompanied by music. The most popular dastans are ancient ones, based on centuries-old traditions, often personalized by their performers. They express national themes and aspirations – heroic struggles for the homeland or freedom, the rescue of a fellow clansman or lover, revenge for an insult or theft, but always about a people`s struggle for dignity or honor. Their content is rich and varied, reflecting the country`s economic, political, social, legal, and aesthetic beliefs. They may be new or old, kind or cruel, funny or serious, common or rare – in short, they reflect the toils and troubles of everyday life. As such, they may be classified as heroic, historical or romantic, formed and developed by a process of endless repetition and interaction.
Bards and singers – variously called bakhshi, dastanchi, shairam, or jyrau – were important influences in the creation of dastans. Bakhshi has several meanings: sorcerer, shaman, healer (male or female), who by singing magical songs and playing the doira (a percussive instrument like the tambourine) exorcised evil spirits or healed the sick. Performers of dastans have different names in different regions: for example , they are called dastanchi or bakhshi in Khorezm, yuzboshi, bazchi or shair in Kashkadarya and Surkhandarya, bakhshi or sannovchi in the Fergana Valley, bakhshi or jyrau in Karakalpakstan, and soki or sozanda in neighboring Kyrgyz and Tajic areas. The most widely used terms are shair (bard) and bakhshi (singers). They were always welcome guests at family celebrations, in towns and cities as well in the rural villages and settlements. Yet from the beginning of the 20th century interest in dastans started gradually to decline in urban areas. So, not surprisingly most dastans are recorded in kishlaks (villages) or among dekhkans (farmers) and chabans (herdsmen) out in the steppe.
Epic by design, dastans require great musical, poetic, story-telling and improvisational skills and talent. Thus, shair and bakhshi, varying by dastan theme and regional performing style, of which there are four: Samarkand, Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya, Khorezm, and Karakalpakstan. So, in Samarkand style is purely recitative; but in Surkhandarya, Kashkadarya or Karakalpakstan, dastans are performed using a special, guttural or throat-singing style accompanied by a dombra or kobuz (two-stringed bow instruments) which, like the dutar of a bakhshi, were the leading musical instruments. A bakhshi`s performing style varies according to the content of the material: prose is recited in a normal speaking tone, but poetry is narrated in a deep, guttural voice with diversity. The main type of poetry performance is terma, where each line of the tune – called nagma or nola – carresponds to a verse of the poem. They are simple, short, and of modest tone. Performers also use instrumental bakhshi kuy, or folk melodies or their own compositions.
Dastan performances in Khorezm are distinguished by their great expressiveness that charms audiences by their musical virtuosity – singing accompanied by instrumental ensembles. Each Khorezm dastan contains between 15-36 tunes or verses, constantly embellished with new tones, rhythms, forms. At the same time, they vary according to their purpose – whether for singing, dancing, etc.
Music is fundamental to the composition of dastan, whose melodies were created over many centuries and passed down orally from one generation to another.
They represent the spiritual heritage of the people, a treasury of harmony, rhythm, and artistic expression of Uzbek popular music.
Dastan performers used the melodies of folk songs, weddings, lullabies, funerals. Sometimes, they created their own, called “bakhshi kuy”. Dastan music permits improvisation and its combination with the basic theme of the selected song creates the terma genre. Each dastan starts with an instrumental introduction – then the terma addresses the audience: “Kaysi dostondan aytayin…” (Which dastan shall we sing…) that is followed by the performance itself. In recitative dastans, both the poetry and the prose are performed in rhythmically.
Musical or poetic dastans are characterized by great expressiveness and emotion. This is partly because of the guttural method of singing.
Throat singing is mutted, dull and it contrasts with the accompanying musical instruments (dombra and kobuz). Instrumental interludes between each verse are based upon the initial theme.
The Khorezm School is notable for its great expressiveness – it unites performers from Khorezm, distinct of Karakalpakstan (Manghit, Kungrad) and the Tashauz region of Turkmenistan. Their bakhshi include both solo and group performances. While in other regions, dastans are accompanied by the dombra played by the bakhshi himself, in Khorezm they are accompanied by instrumental ensembles. Obviously, this affects their tone, color and melody. The Khorezm School comprises two leading groups: the northern or so-called ironi school and the southern or so-called shirvani school, but when performing dastans these two schools differ only in terms of their repertoire and the composition of their instrumental ensembles.
The performing style of each dastan varies, depending on preparedness as well as the artistic style and ability of the performer tunes his instrument, i.e. each song is performed half a tone or one tone higher than the preceding one.
In Khorezm, although in the past female bakhshi performed only for female audiences, nowadays they are just as popular as male bakhshi…
Their performance is characterized by tenderness, emotion and lyric poetry and dastans with romantic and dastans with romantic story-lines, such as Takhir and Zukhra, have a significance place in their repertoire.
Uzbek popular epics are evidence of the high level of the people`s creativity that gave birth to popular bakhshi and dastanchi, creators and guardians of their national epic culture. Nowadays, Uzbek bards and musicians are hugely popular, evidence of which is the fact that they are still invited to family celebrations and weddings.
While dastans continue to be performed in the traditional style, they are also presented on the concert stage, for example the Dastan group under the Tashkent Philharmonic orchestra. There are also national and international festivals and contents for bakhshi-shairs that are held annually in Uzbekistan. Since 1999, are international competition of bakhshi-shairs and akyns, where Uzbek artists compete with performers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, has been held in Termez.
Dastans haved also gave birth to a number of musical dramas and operas, including Takhir and Zukhra, Leyli and Majnun, Farkhad and Shirin, Oshiq Garib and Shekhsenem, Ravshan and Zulkhumor. They exemplify then excellent creative talents of the Uzbek people, which are now part of its musical and artistic heritage.