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In annexed Crimea, guitar virtuoso ‘taps’ Silk Road music

  • Mansur Mirovalev
  • 24 May 2019

Guitarist EnverIzmaylov’s trademark is his meticulously arranged renditions of folk music, ranging from Tatar and Armenian to Turkish, Ukrainian and Russian.

( http://enverizmaylov.com )

KYIV, Ukraine – When you see Enver Izmaylov perform, you can’t help but think that his cerebral hemispheres and hands operate autonomously – making his guitar sound like two individual instruments.  

Four decades ago, the Crimean Tatar guitarist started playing with both hands on the fretboard without knowing much about heavy metal idol Eddie Van Halen or jazz virtuoso Stanley Jordan, the best-known pioneers of the technique known as tapping or touch-style.  

Insulated from them by the Iron Curtain, Izmaylov developed his own ambidextrous style that allows him to simultaneously play two melodic lines – the way a piano does – thus being able to perform solos along with harmony and rhythm, often at break-neck speed and in odd metres typical of Balkan, Turkish and Middle Eastern music.

"I don’t like the term ‘tapping,’” Izmaylov, mustachioed and youthfully lean at 65, told TRT World at his home studio outside Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative capital. “The term ‘spider’ fits better – like a spider stepping on the cobwebs that are [guitar] strings.”

But he is by far not a one-trick pony.

“I believer Enver Izmaylov is one of the most unique guitar voices on the planet,” Anil Prasad, a veteran US music critic and founder of the Innerviews online music magazine, told TRT World. “Many focus on his dazzling technique, but his music also has a great deal of soul and creativity within it.”

Izmaylov’s trademark is his thoughtful, meticulously arranged renditions of folk music, and his choice of tunes – Tatar, Armenian, Turkish, Ukrainian or Russian, to name a few – is free from political divisions, current or past. 

Moreover, in almost a dozen critically-acclaimed solo albums and collaborations, he inadvertently re-created the odyssey of his Turkic-speaking, Muslim ethnicity that shares historic and linguistic links with Turkey.

In 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar community of more than 200,000 for their alleged collaboration with German Nazis who briefly occupied the strategic Black Sea peninsula. Transported in cattle cars, starved and abused by gun-toting guards, up to a half of the deported died.

“During stops, soldiers yelled, ‘Got any dead? Bring them out!’” Tatar historian Nuri Emirvaliyev, 85, who was 10 during the deportation, told this reporter in 2015, in the yard of his house in central Crimea, his wrinkled face convulsed with harrowing memories. 

Most of the survivors, including Izmaylov’s parents, ended up in Soviet Uzbekistan. In this former heartland of the Great Silk Road, fellow Muslims spoke an intelligible Turkic language and often helped the desperate and destitute newcomers, despite Stalinist propaganda that branded them traitors.

Izmaylov grew up next to the whitewashed adobe houses, giant sycamore trees and endless cotton fields of the Ferghana Valley, Central Asia’s most fertile and densely-populated region and bastion of Muslim traditions that survived decades of Communist persecution.

But Izmaylov’s hometown, the valley’s eponymous capital, Ferghana, was an ethnic and cultural melting pot on the outskirts of the Soviet empire fuelled by a relative ideological lenience and the presence of other deported ethnicities such as Koreans, Crimean Greeks and Meskhetian Turks.

"Old women in chadors proceeded to the mosque bypassing scantily-clad university students of mixed blood, and the air was filled with strange music from a hundred corners of the Earth," Daniil Kislov, a Moscow-based Central Asia analyst, born and raised in Ferghana, told TRT World.

Ferghana was the the birthplace of a school of modernist poetry, genre-bending artists and one of modern Russia’s best-known gourmet chefs. 

Izmaylov took up guitar in his teenage years while studying bassoon at a music college, and fell in love with rock music. Eventually, he discovered jazz – and Crimean Tatar folk tunes that required impeccable virtuosity and were related to Turkish and Balkan music. 

The initial impetus was far from scholarly – he played the music at Tatar and Uzbek weddings, a major source of income for a fledgling musician. The earnings financed his first truly professional instrument, a Japanese-made Ibanez electric guitar that cost him 2,700 rubles – a schoolteacher’s two-year income – on which he started forging his technique.

In the early 1980s, Izmaylov became part of Sato, a groundbreaking jazz-fusion band that headlined Soviet jazz festivals playing Uzbek and Tatar folk tunes, the famously difficult Flight of the Bumble Bee, and interpreted jazz classic Take Five, like it was written at a medieval Muslim court.  

“I consider Izmaylov one of the strongest jazz guitar players in our country," Soviet critic Alexey Batashev wrote in his annotation on the cover of Sato’s first album that came out in 1986. The critic lauded the way Izmaylov made the guitar sound like a violin, keyboards or a percussion instrument without any additional distortion devices, which were simply not available in the USSR.

He also played with a string of other jazz and folk musicians, including Uzbek performers of maqoms or mugams, a sophisticated Middle Eastern tradition that influenced Indian ragas and Spanish flamenco.

“I was lucky in terms of musical practice,” he said proudly holding one of his two dozen guitars and getting ready to rehearse his version of Kashmir, Led Zeppelin’s 1975 composition. 

But the triumph was short-lived. Shortly before the 1991 Soviet collapse the Ferghana Valley became a hotspot of interethnic violence. Meanwhile, Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea, now a region of Ukraine.

Izmaylov settled on a former collective farm once known as the Testament of (Soviet founder Vladimir) Lenin. The place inspired his humorous piece titled A Morning on a Collective Farm, in which the guitar imitates Soviet radio jingles, the mooing, barking, crowing and screeching of farm animals and machinery. 

It was hard to maintain a working band in cash-strapped Ukraine, which was undergoing a chaotic and painful transformation that still seems far from over, and Izmaylov mostly performed solo – at jazz clubs, concert halls and even restaurants.

But the Iron Curtain’s fall eventually brought recognition and fame beyond the former Soviet Union.

In 1992, Izmaylov recorded The Black Sea, a groundbreaking album with legendary Turkish percussionist Burhan Ocal. The album paved the way for tours abroad, performances at Western jazz festivals and critical success.

In 1995, he won the First European International Guitar Competition in Switzerland – and was voted Musician of the Year in Ukraine. He formed a trio with fellow Tatar musicians – reedman Narket Ramazanov and percussionist Rustem Badi – recording Minaret, a masterpiece album that mostly consisted of folk tunes. 

Since then, he performed with luminaries such as Bobby McFerrin, was featured in Guitar Magazine and toured the world.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea did not affect his schedule – he refuses to talk politics preferring to discuss his upcoming course in “spider techniques” and alternative tunings for young musicians, or plans to combine the sound of his guitar with a beat-boxer and duduk, an Armenian apricot-tree woodwind instrument.

“Music is spiritual food,” he concludes before strumming the strings. “Can’t live without it.”

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