On a windswept plain, bounded by snowy peaks, rises a row of red- rock hills. "Like a resting camel", the locals say, but the hills' official name - Mazar Kochkor-Ata - reflects their real significance. A mazar is a Muslim shrine where you commune with the saints, but here in animist Kyrgyzstan, shrines are accidents of nature - a spring, a strange clump of trees, an unusual rock- formation. After purifying my soul by circumambulating the hills, and placing my wishing-stone on the highest, I eavesdrop on a recitation of the tale that for a thousand years has expressed the spirit of this spot.
The kneeling bard, in his embroidered cap, has a face as though carved in oak. He muses intently, takes deep breaths, rolls his eyes till only the whites are visible, fixes us with a manic glare, and launches into song: unpitched at first - groans, shrieks, and hisses - it turns into an ecstatic chant that is embellished with warlike gestures. The Manas epic is Kyrgysztan's answer to the Iliad - though 20 times longer in its entirety - and Rysbek Jumabaev is what's known as a manaschi, a master of this art. The work is the national creation-myth, and it's studded with heroic deeds: as it sweeps on, Jumabaev's trance gets wilder, until he finally comes back down and reluctantly rejoins reality.
How did Jumabaev become a manaschi? A long story, he says, which began with a celebrated manaschi coming to his house when he was four: "I was frightened of him, so he took me on his knee and blessed me". When Jumabaev was eight, the manaschi started appearing to him in dreams, and after the seventh of these he realised he was destined to join him. "But I fought it. I tried working as a carpenter and farm-worker, but I became so depressed it made me ill - my family thought I would die. To save my life I was told to visit a mazar, slaughter a sheep, spend the night there, and recite the Manas." And the rest, he beams, is history: "I'm grateful that you've come to see me here. But I'm not surprised, because I saw my success in a dream: I knew I would be coming to perform in London."
Which is what he will be doing at the Coliseum on 1 October, together with 40 other musical stars from Central Asia. But why is English National Opera hosting this "world music" event - and why, indeed, is this article appearing on a classical page? If the first question is quickly answered - ENO is opening its doors to great voices from other cultures - the second requires us to redefine "classical", and to accept that there are other traditions just as venerable and sophisticated as our own. Some of those to be heard at the Coliseum will need no advocacy: the Azeri praise-singer Alem Qasimov's art is celebrated worldwide, and Persian classical music - still proudly called that by its present-day Iranian exponents - is self-evidently the product of a musical aristocracy. But other styles - such as the shash maqam from Tajikistan - may strike Western ears as uncomfortably strange: their prime advocate is the world's top authority on Central Asian music, the ethnomusicologist Ted Levin, who has masterminded this event.
Levin thinks it's perfectly appropriate that these singers should be appearing in an opera house. "Each style has a long lineage and its own music theory, and they all cultivate technical virtuosity," he says. "Shash maqam is not folk music: its roots go back to the medieval courts of Bukhara and Samarkand, where it was seen as part of the science of music, which was linked through poetry to metaphysics." He compares it to what Europeans call a song cycle: a huge suite of six groups of pieces, within each of which there are 20 or 30 separate songs, each with a poetic text, to be accompanied by an instrumental ensemble.
The shash maqam maestro Abduvali Abdurashidov is, in effect, court musician to the current president of Tajikistan, but when I encounter him in a leafy courtyard in the capital, Dushanbe, he's watching three of his students with a gimlet eye. …