As teens rock to TikTok trends, there’s a rhythm that scoffs at fleeting fads—shashmaqam. Unfazed by the outbreak of war or sickness, the International Shashmaqam Forever Festival celebrating ancient Central Asian music keeps its groove, an eternal beat in a world of passing rhythms. It’s only foe? Assimilation.
Founded by our very own Rafael Nektalov and the esteemed philanthropist David Mavashev, Shashmaqam Forever celebrates the enduring tradition of maqam music—a classical genre originating in the royal courts of the Emirs of the Bukharan empire. This unique musical style involves a complex blend of melodies and poetic texts set to instrumental music, showcasing the rich heritage of this timeless art form, while uniting Jews and Muslims.
Past editions took place in Queens. This year, however, the festival returned home.
I spoke with David Mavashev, a Bukharian Jewish American born in Dushanbe and now living in Florida, about his October trip to Uzbekistan for the Shashmaqam Forever Festival. From singing at the Yunus Rajabi house museum to meeting Gafur Gulyam’s daughter, here are highlights from our ever-so-fascinating conversation:
Erin: You traveled with Rafael for the Shashmaqam Forever Festival in October. Can you share more about the experience?
David: Yes, we planned the event in Uzbekistan a couple of years ago, specifically dedicated to renowned singer Berta Davidova who hailed from Margilan. Originally set for her 100th anniversary in 2022, we moved it to 2023 and collaborated with the Uzbek Ministry of Culture. Despite concerns due to the Israel-Hamas war, exacerbated by my pre-trip illness — I said to Rafael «with Uzbekistan being predominantly Muslim, we don’t know what could happen. Maybe we should postpone?,» we decided to proceed.
Arriving on October 20th in Tashkent, we stayed at the wonderful new Intercontinental hotel, where the nightly rate was equivalent to the monthly salary in Uzbekistan. I mulled over the stark economic contrast, while marveling at the changes. In Margilan, we awarded prizes to talented young Shashmaqom singers, so I heard. (I was sick and stayed back in Tashkent.)
We also visited the house-museum of Ustod Yunus Rajabi in Tashkent. Rajabi is a virtuoso musician known for both creating a co-ed collective of singers – he invited Berta Davidova into the ensemble — and putting Shashmaqom melodies to notes with the help of Baruch Zirkiev who knew all the classical maqams by heart. Traditionally, Shashmaqom was transmitted orally, and the best singers were Bukharian Jewish people, with notable figures like Levi Babakhanov who was handpicked by the Emir of Bukhara. His teacher «ustod», Ota Jalal Nasyrov, a Jewish convert to Islam, «chala,» played a pivotal role in Shashmaqom’s history as well.
Erin: Fascinating! What about the role of women in Shashmaqom?
David: Before the Soviet revolution, women were prohibited from singing in public by both Muslims and Jews. However, post-revolution, they entered the professional scene, challenging historical and cultural norms. In some cases, there was intermarriage.
An interesting example is Berta Davidova herself, who married a Muslim. Her son, whom I met for the first time there, considers himself both Uzbeki and Jewish due to his mixed heritage. This blending of identities was somewhat common in the twenties and thirties when young Bukharian girls married Muslim men.
By the way, there was another Berta Davidova born earlier who also married a Muslim, so there’s always been a lot of confusion between the two. Her daughter, Rano Sharipova, is a famous singer who lives in Tashkent.
Erin: Tell me more about your time at the Rajabi museum.
David: It is an impressive museum with pictures of Shashmaqam’s history in Uzbekistan and famous Jewish singers including Itzhak Kataev, Seroj Aminov, Naftali Shimunov that used a muslim name as pseudonym – Karim Muminov, Ezro Malakov who joined the ensemble with the help of Berta Davidova. We also brought Rita Yusupova, a famous Bukharian Jewish singer from Israel. We had a dinner that was served by Rajabi family in the museum and began singing various Uzbek songs It was a friendly atmosphere.
We then discussed the history of Shashmaqam, the history of Bukharian Jewish people, and how Bukharian Jewish people were the best performers of Shashmaqam in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—they agreed. When I asked, «Who do you have on the level of Bukharian Jews among Uzbeks?» they couldn’t even name one.
Even today, artists such as Avraam Tolmasov in Israel, Mr. Roshel Rubinov and Roshel Aminov in New York continue to be celebrities — top-tier Shashmaqam performers. By singing in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, they’ve earned respect from both countries, challenging stereotypes about Muslims and Jews.
GAFUR GULYAM & ANTISEMITISM
David: Afterward, we went to Gafur Gulyam House Museum. Gulyam wrote a famous poem in 1941 titled, «I am a Jew» in English.
Erin: Yes, we published it for Gulyam’s 120th anniversary.
David: We met with his daughter there, a very nice highly educated person. (She had some death in the family, so we expressed our condolences.) The museum itself was beautiful. There’s a big statue outside that was very impressive.
Erin: How was it being Jewish while touring Tashkent?
David: The people in Tashkent are very nice. We didn’t feel any antisemitism. Nevertheless, I was worried about Rafael who was going around wearing a yarmulke. I suggested he wear a hat over it to not provoke anyone, but he refused. And rightly so because we didn’t encounter any problems — only smiles, and an occasional «Shalom.»
The Uzbek officials we met with also condemned the antisemitic social media posts by famous singer Yulduz Usmanova, expressing their dismay that she criticized Israel.
DAVID’S SOVIET YEARS
Erin: What inspired you to co-found this festival? Do you have a musical background like Rafael?
David: No, but I grew up with a father who was very knowledgeable about Shashmaqam. He was born in Samarkand, and his friends were all famous singers at the time. My father was born in 1905, so he was substantially older than me, around 50 years.
In the 1950s, we had a tape recorder Dnepr-5, and he had all these singers record there.
In the 1960s, I liked the Beatles. I was rebellious, didn’t want to listen to Shashmaqam; I wanted the Beatles and to go dancing and jumping with all the youngsters with their long hair.
One day, some scholars from Europe, either from Germany or Romania, came to visit us. They were interested in our Shashmaqom recordings. My father invited me to join. «Come, sit here.» I was a teenager, forced by my father basically to listen to Shashmaqam with these foreigners. My father said, «See how they are enjoying it? They’re Europeans. They don’t have this music is not a part of their culture. It is not in their blood or DNA. However, you do. And you’re rejecting it saying, ‘Beatles, Beatles! What the heck!’» [He laughs.]
I kept looking and saw they actually were really enjoying it! So, then I thought, maybe by father was right!
As Bukharian Jews, we live in the intersection of West and East. We were exposed to Western and Eastern music. As a Bukharian Jew, I love Indian music and Azerbaijani music; it’s all from our region. But at the same time, we were exposed to operas and ballets from the West. Now, the older I’m getting, I’m realizing how impressive Shashmaqam is. It’s very complex music, with lots of ups and downs and transitions. Sometimes I invite people to my house for an evening of Shashmaqam and osh plov.
Erin: How fun and fascinating! Can I come? [She laughs]
«Obviously, the next generation of our people, which includes my children, is already different. They’ve become more Americanized. And it’s a pity,» lamented David.
I probed further. «Is Shashmaqam dying out, or are there some younger singers keeping it alive?»
«There are some people like Ezro Malakov, for example, who is working with the younger generation and passing on our legacy,» said David.
However, he unfolds the harsh reality: «During the Soviet era, our parents were speaking Bukharian language, but we became Russian-speaking people. The same thing is happening here in the US. If I talk to my children in Russian, they respond to me in English; they don’t speak Russian among themselves, they speak in English. They love American music.»
While his children may listen to Shashmaqam music without disdain, David foresees a swift disappearance with their offspring: «And it’s speedy. What can we do? There’s a lot of worry that already, in our own language, we may not be able to pass our rich heritage to the next generation.
«This music was evolved by generations over the course of hundreds and hundreds of years. You know? If they kept us like in refugee camps, maybe we could’ve kept our culture. [He laughs.] But America is like a melting pot. Everything is changing.»