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Dancing on the Roof of the World

Sharp peaks

Community Festival in Tajikistan

by Robyn Friend
posted June 24, 2011

A swift-running river backed by high mountains, a leafy green park with ancient trees, a wading pool where all the local children play to escape the heat, and in front, a stage for musicians from some of the most remote and exotic places of the world.  Welcome to the Roof of the World Music Festival!

After all my many travels to Tajikistan, filled with the frantic bustle of dance lessons, rehearsals, teaching, doing trip logistics, hunting for traditional bits and bobs for costuming, and getting fitted for stage costumes, I finally decided to try being a more-or-less normal tourist in one of my favorite places on Earth, the Pamir mountains of Badakhshan, eastern Tajikistan.  This time I also brought my dear husband, Neil, whose previous trip to the Pamirs mostly consisted of watching me engaged in the above activities.

mapMy friend, Samandar Pulodov – singer, musician, and all-round great guy – had for the two previous years put on a festival in Khorog, regional capital of Badakhshan, to celebrate traditional and contemporary music among peoples in mountainous Central Asia.

Neil and I decided that this would be our year to go to this festival, visit friends, and just hang out at our “home-away-from-home” by the rushing waters of the Gund River.  We also wanted to tour around the southern part of Badakhshan, along the Oxus River (1) and towards its source high in the Pamirs, and see some sites we had not been able to get to in previous years.

The Roof of the World Festival

It seemed that all roads led to Khorog that day, as we met one friend after another while walking into the park. 

The festival opened with a procession led by local women in traditional Pamiri clothes playing kakhoy daf, interlocking rhythmic patterns played on various-sized frame drums. The participants in the festival included groups from Kyrghyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, as well as performers from several areas in Badakhshan and other parts of Tajikistan.


The first to perform was “Ustatshakirt” (2), a group of musicians from Kyrghyzstan, with traditional songs of the Kyrghyz pastoral nomads, including a performance of one portion of the Manas epic, the national historic epic cycle of the Kyrghyz nomads.  Performed traditionally without any musical accompaniment, the manas-chi (3) emitted a kind of inhaled gasp that punctuated each phrase.


Northern Tajikistan

In looking at the political map of Central Asia, one must always keep in mind that the national borders were drawn by Josef Stalin (4) to keep the various ethnic groups – Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Shugni, etc. – from being too decidedly a majority within any one Soviet Republic.  For example, the fabled Tajik cities of Samarqand and Bukhara were placed inside the border of Uzbekistan, rather than inside Tajikistan.  And the western part of the Ferghana Valley, peopled largely by Uzbeks, was placed within the border of Tajikistan.  Thus, the most northern part of Tajikistan is actually predominately populated by speakers of Uzbek.
It is from this northern, Uzbek, portion of Tajikistan that the ensemble Dilnavoz comes.  This group of young boys played songs from the classical Shashmaqam repertoire, as well as beloved folk songs. 


A group from Chitral, Pakistan, led by dancer Israr Uddin, performed music, song, and dance. Israr’s dancing was subtle, elegant, and delightful.  In the introduction for this group, we were told that the community from which these performers came is made up of Tajiks that had long ago emigrated south from what is now Tajikistan, and that until a few years ago, they had spoken, read, and written in Tajiki.


The big buzz on the first day of the Festival was that a group from China was delayed at the border with visa issues, that they would arrive late on Friday, and that they would perform on Saturday.  I am not sure what I expected a group from China to be, but they turned out to be ethnic Tajiks from Toshqurghan in Sinkiang province of western China.  It was fascinating to find dance and music both familiar, but also different.  The ensemble included six musicians, three singers singing to lushly orchestrated modern recordings, and a group of six dancers, men and women, dressed in lavishly lovely costumes.

One of the dances was an eagle dance.  I was fascinated because I had seen a Mongolian eagle dance performed some years ago by Het Internationaal Tanstheater in Amsterdam.  The basic idea was similar, but the execution was quite different.  In the Mongolian version, the male dancer, with bare chest, moved in agonizingly slow motion, with almost unbelievable control.  The dancer from Toshqurghan, dressed in a costume with strips of fabric along the sleeves to depict wings, performed very similar movements, but at a much quicker tempo.

At one point in the Toshqurghan performance one of the singers, a man with a huge mustache, long hair, and shiny red suit, invited the audience to dance to his songs.  One man got up and danced, followed by lots and lots of little kids.  One of them, a one-year-old toddler, danced with great precision, energy, and taste.  She continued to dance, not only with the singers, but with the dancers as well!  I was amazed to see so many small children dancing so well.  Later on in our trip, I learned how they do it …..


As you might expect, there were several performing groups from various river valleys in Badakhshan. 

The Children’s Ethnographic, Music, & Dance Ensemble.  One of my Pamiri dance teachers, People’s Artist of Tajikistan Zaragol Iskandarova, led a group of young girls and a boy doing traditional Pamiri dances.  The children were so cute and such good dancers!  Clearly, there is a future for Pamiri dance. Zaragol, who performed with them, dances with joy, and is always a delight to behold.

The Rushan Folk Group from the Bartang Valley performed traditional Pamiri songs and dances.  In particular, they performed songs from the maddoh repertoire, the music and singing performed at Pamiri Ismaili spiritual gatherings and ritual occasions that features songs based on classical mystical Persian poetry.  Two of the musicians also performed a dance to the rhythm I know as “Kish Kish”, facing one another as they move around a circle, whirling and posing.

From the time I first began to research the music and dance culture of the Ismailis of Badakhshan I had heard about maddoh. The song texts are all from the classical Persian mystical poets; as such, they are sung in Persian, rather than in the local Shughni language.  The musicians take turns leading the songs, which can be quite lengthy and are sung with a deeply passionate expression, each verse and each song beginning on an ever-rising pitch, and with ever increasing verve.  I had heard different ideas of how dance fits into maddoh.  I wanted to see for myself.
And at last I got the chance; the Festival included a maddoh arranged as part of a live stage play.  Men entered one by one into a space made to look like the interior of a typical Pamiri cheed (5) house.  They acted the sharing of a meal (6), then the pir (7) began to lead songs, as various of the men rose to their feet and began to dance.  The music and the dance continued rising toward a crescendo for quite a long time, reached a fever pitch, and abruptly stopped.

I later asked my other Pamiri dance teacher and friend, Makhingol Nazarshoeva, about the play.  She said that it was a fairly accurate depiction of maddoh, though she herself had choreographed the dancing.  The words to the songs were all from the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, by Mowlana Jallal al-Din Rumi (8).

At the end of the festival I was struck by how alike the various Tajiki-Persianate peoples were, whether from Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or China:  their music and dance were similar, and their languages were close enough to understand one another.  The music and dance presented from these groups was clearly a “dialect” of the same “language”.  In contrast, the groups representing Turkic cultures – those from Kyrghyzstan and northern Tajikistan – were clearly different.  For example, all the Tajiki groups played songs in 7/8 rhythm, to loud applause and impromptu dancing from the local audience.  On the other hand, Ensemble “Dilnavoz” played only one song in this rhythm, and “Ustatshagirt” played no music in this rhythm at all.  

It was also delightful to see and hear these artists speaking with the local Shughnis of Khorog, not only in Tajiki, but also in their own Shughni dialect.  At one point during a singer’s performance, one of the singers from Toshqurghan began dancing in the background with Zaragol Iskandarova.  The performers’ passports may have said “Tajikistan”, “Pakistan”, “China”, or “Afghanistan”, but these were all clearly Pamiris.

All in all, the Festival was a great success.  Beautiful music, fascinating dance, lovely handicrafts, a green setting, pleasant weather, and delicious food.  What more could you want!

Felted Rugs
Kyrghyz felted wool rug


1- Known in Central Asia by its Tajiki name, Amu Darya, and also as the Pamir River.
2- Ostad (Arabic, “master”) and shagird (Arabic, “student”)
3- The title of a master at recitation of the Manas epic.
4- At the time, Minister of Minorities under Lenin.
5- See previous article in Gilded Serpent to learn about the cheed house.
6- The Alevis of Anatolian Turkey, another a Shiite sect, also begin their regular spiritual gatherings with the sharing of food, and end with ecstatic dancing.
7- Spiritual leader.
8- A famous 13th-century poet, best known in the west as the founder of the Whirling Dervishes.  The work of Rumi’s that is used most often for maddoh is from his Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi.  For this reason, Rumi (as he is known in the west; in Iran, he is simply called Mowlana, “our teacher”) in Tajikistan is usually referred to as “Shams-e Tabrizi”.

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