Female Celebrations in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan: The Power of Cosmology in Musical Rites

By Sultanova, Razia | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Female Celebrations in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan: The Power of Cosmology in Musical Rites


Sultanova, Razia, Yearbook for Traditional Music


Uzbekistan is a Central Asian country with a population of 27 million. It is bordered by Afghanistan to the south, Turkmenistan to the west, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the north, and Tajikistan to the east. There is also a large Uzbek population living in the north of Afghanistan (figure 1).

Most of the female gatherings in that area relate to the system of celebrations based on a solar/lunar calendar or on different religious beliefs (predominantly Islam, but also other pre-Islamic beliefs, such as that in the female goddess from Manichaeism, Tengri cults, and Zoroastrianism). Women celebrate the most famous events like Navruz (pre-Islamic New Year celebration) with singing to the accompaniment of the doira (frame drum) or clapping. Many other ceremonies feature solo, duet, or choral singing and consist of repetitive forms of blessings, greetings, or jokes. Ceremonial singing is based on simple melodic patterns, short metric and rhythmic structures that date back to the time when singing was intended to protect, to deflect the power of spells and the evil eye. The music-making process in general is associated with the nature of the universe.

This paper explores how elements of cosmology affect the forms and content of music in Uzbek female communities from the same culture in the homeland population (Uzbekistan) and in the diaspora (Afghanistan). Conclusions are drawn from modern Uzbek pop music, where the traditional female image has a strong affiliation with the universe.

Mythical and cosmological views developed in Central Asia

Cosmology can be roughly defined as the study of the origin and evolution of the universe, associated with the motion of the solar system-the sun, moon, planets, comets, etc.1

Scholars believe that at the very beginning of human history the sky was mythologically associated with the "mother goddess," the giver of life, representing all time and space. Myths accounted for planetary cycles, marking days, nights, months, and years of unending time. So, in general, female cosmology was based on local beliefs that god is a woman.

There was a similar situation in Central Asian history. In ancient times nomads of the Great Steppes of Central Asia believed in a god of the sky called Tengri.2 He created everything in the world from chaos and oceans. Tengri had two halves: the male and the female, Tengri Umai. Tengri Umai lived on the top of the mountain Sumera, in the high sky near the milky mountain lake, Sutkol. From the foot of Tengri Umai was born the goddess Ot-Ona (mother-fire), who resides in the fireplace of every house, being responsible for meals and warmth. According to the belief of Central Asian peoples, fire is sacred (Zhainadarov 2006:10-11).

In Zoroastrian times an Indo-Iranian cosmological figure, Anahita (Aredvi Sura Anahita in the Avestan language), was the goddess of water and rain. Associated with fertility, healing, and wisdom, she looked after the well-being of women, promoting fertility, safe childbirth, and making the life of women a little easier. In the area of Khorezm (west of Uzbekistan), Anahita became Ambar-Ona, whose power comes from the Amu-Darya River. Female shamans still invoke her name for the success of healing rituals. At Navruz (the pre-Islamic New Year celebration), songs in her honour are still sung during the preparation of the sacred meal sumalyak (Snesarev 1969:78).

In the Boisun area in the southern part of Uzbekistan, the story of the female goddess, Bibi-Seshanba (Lady Tuesday), is still widely popular today. Bibi-Seshanba is believed to be the protector of all women in the world. She is praised and her help is invoked whenever women gather together. At female gatherings in her honour, women sit on the floor around a tablecloth set for lunch, light candles, and put out the fire. All appeals are made to the goddess in collective prayers and sung ceremonies in a dark, smoky room. The ritual proceeds slowly, featuring praying aloud and singing devotional poetry at the beginning, which is the first and main part of the ceremony. …

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