This article was originally published in the EastEast magazine.
Yan Matusevich tracks the global influences of a national scene
Yan Matusevich, through in depth research and a meticulous scouring of Youtube rabbit holes, provides some insight into the world of Turkmenistan’s popular music scene. Blurring the lines between ownership, ingenuity, and flat out theft, this musical mimesis underscores the global influences of a country so often portrayed as isolated.
Dwarfed by the more established and lucrative music industries of neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan’s popular music scene has remained virtually unknown outside of the country’s borders. During the Soviet period, Turkmenistan’s greatest musical claim to fame was the Gunesh Ensemble, a one-of-a-kind band that blended together progressive rock, jazz, funk, and Turkmen vocals. After the group split up in 1986, some musicians affiliated with the band went on to develop their own style of synth-heavy Turkmen folk music that combined modulated traditional male vocals with incredibly fast-paced arrangements on drum machines and synthesizers. Following independence, former President Saparmurat Niyazov infamously attempted to promote national Turkmen music with heavy-handed and patently bizarre measures such as a crackdown on singing in foreign languages, including karaoke, and a total ban on lip-synching, ballet, and opera.
In the mid 2000s, in the shadows of the state’s attempt to develop national Turkmen music, a new repertoire of catchy pop hits began circulating on cassette tapes and CDs sold at small shops and market stands across the country. Singing in Turkmen, this new generation of popular artists performed a remarkable variety of contemporary genres ranging from rap to dance-pop and R&B. The only catch to their musical versatility was the fact that many of their most popular songs were actually unacknowledged covers of chart-topping hits from abroad.
Curated and compiled by Yan Matusevich for EastEast, this playlist pairs covers by Turkmen wedding musicians with their original foreign compositions. Diverse in both genre and origin, the set includes music from the USA, France, Greece, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran, Bulgaria, Romania, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Uzbekistan, and Turkey.
ABM – a three-person boy band made up of Arsen, Berdi, and Mekan – specialized in covers of Western pop songs, turning NSYNC’s “Tearin’ Up My Heart” into “Asman ýyldyzy” (Star of the Sky), reinterpreting Enrique Iglesias’ “Be With You” as “Meni Bagyşla” (Forgive Me), and coming out with “Men Söýýän” (I Love), a Turkmen version of K.Maro’s 2004 number-one single “Femme Like U.” While these covers may be instantly recognizable to a Western audience, the geography of Turkmen cover songs is truly global – tunes from Latin America, Turkey, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Russia, Germany, and Egypt can all be found in a single compilation. Keeping the original melody, sometimes with minor adjustments, Turkmen songwriters would add their own lyrics, often inspired by the song’s music video rather than the original meaning. Many of the reworked pop anthems came with low-budget music videos of their own that ended up on VHS and DVD video compilations before transitioning to YouTube in the late 2000s
Azat Orazow’s version of “The Real Slim Shady”
Azat Orazow, arguably one of the most prominent Turkmen cover artists, is also one of the most multifaceted, rapping in the Turkmen version of “The Real Slim Shady” – the music video features break dancers in a yurt – and starring in a shot-for-shot copy of a popular Russian pop duo’s music video. One of Orazow’s hits “Yok Problem,” a cover version of an Uzbek song with the same name, has surpassed the original’s popularity – at least in terms of YouTube views. Some of the most successful covers have even managed to go through multiple iterations as was the case with the Turkmen rendition of Egyptian singer Sherine’s “Sabri Aleel” by Zöhre Gurtnyýazowa, which was first released in the 2000s under the title “Söýgi” (Love) before performing the same song with altered lyrics as “Ýekeje oglan” (First-born Son) fifteen years later.
Considered to be cult classics by those who grew up listening to these songs back in the day, in more recent years some have started calling out the practice as a form of plagiarism. Since 2018, an anonymous Instagram account Terjime Täç has been naming and shaming Turkmen artists for their ogurlyk aydymlar or stolen songs by posting mashups of the originals and unattributed cover versions. In the words of the account’s administrator, “plagiarism is not just when you borrow some combination of notes, but the entire idea, concept is copied without that person having any creative potential in that cultural domain.” Many singers have responded aggressively to these accusations, claiming their songs are not plagiarized, but simply Turkmen variations of foreign songs.
Over the years, the Turkmen pop music scene has expanded its online presence and significantly increased its production value, but many of its most well-known artists have not abandoned the practice of taking music from foreign artists. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that singers earn most of their money as performers at lavish Turkmen weddings where the most famous pop stars can get upwards of $1,000 per song. Unable to earn money with music sales since their songs circulate freely as mp3s online, weddings and ad revenue are a Turkmen singer’s bread and butter.
Zöhre Gurtnyýazowa’s “Söýgi” (Love)
In the past, Turkmen weddings have relied on bagşy, traditional male minstrels who perform with just a dutar and drum, but large weddings bands – featuring synthesizers, clarinet, accordion, sometimes a guitar or fiddle, and a professional singer – have long become an integral part of Turkmen wedding celebrations. Wealthy families hire professional wedding production companies to put on an impressive show with drone footage of motorcades of carpet-covered luxury vehicles slowly drifting through Ashgabat, culminating in a star-studded concert at one of the city’s massive wedding halls. With their repertoires of covers in Turkmen, Russian, and Turkish, pop singers deliver a palatable and very danceable performance that can be enjoyed by people of different generations, a mix of Soviet nostalgia and contemporary foreign pop wrapped in Turkmen packaging. The covers are often played in a quick succession of short eclectic fragments, including anything from a Turkmen love song sung by Eldar Ahmedow to the music of Bulgarian queer icon Azis – to popular Ukrainian folk songs.
The future of Turkmenistan’s cover artists remains uncertain. Some among the older generation of cover enthusiasts have established themselves as influential national Turkmen singers, their performances and music clips getting significant airtime on Türkmen Owazy – the country’s state-run music channel. Many of the younger artists, some of whom now have access to Istanbul’s music production industry, continue to unabashedly pump out Turkmen renditions of foreign songs, but have in recent years shifted to copying tracks from Persian, Indian, Turkish, and Azeri pop music, ostensibly due to perceived lower risks of getting into hot water over copyright infringement.
In early 2021, a Turkmen energy drink company released a series of ads showcasing Azat Orazow – the unofficial king of Turkmen covers. In one of them, a middle-aged Orazow is shown trying in vain to dial up Shaggy on a rotary phone to get permission to use his music. Unable to reach him, Orazow takes a sip of the energy drink and breaks out into a dance to “Tapawudy ýok” – his immensely popular version of Shaggy’s “Hey Sexy Lady” from more than fifteen years ago.
As time has gone by, Turkmen covers have become the subject of ridicule and increasing public scrutiny while remaining important sources of money and fame. It may be easy to dismiss these songs as “inauthentic,” but for an entire generation of Turkmen who grew up on this music, these copies are as real, cherished, and genuine as the memories of their bygone youth.
Writer, researcher, and amateur DJ exploring the intersection of migration, politics and pop culture in Central Asia. He is currently completing a PhD in anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research focuses on the transnational migrant communities linking Central Asia to Russia, Turkey, and South Korea.