Silk Road Spice Girl Has Gabriel's Ear

APUzbek songstress Sevara Nazarkhan playing a traditional dutar at a Tashkent studio.
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Her eyebrow is fashionably pierced, and she was a member of Uzbekistan's answer to the Spice Girls.

Sevara Nazarkhan is bringing the centuries-old songs of the Silk Road to the world stage.

Since capturing the ear of veteran rocker Peter Gabriel, the slight, twentysomething songstress has been drawing international acclaim with her melodies of love and despair, sharing a mournful message even though the words are from a far-off place and time.

Her success could almost be one of the ancient stories of good fortune passed down in the oral traditions of her Uzbek ancestors.

Nazarkhan was invited in 2000 to Britain as a guest to a festival organized by the World of Music, Arts and Dance, a group founded by Gabriel. She wasn't scheduled to perform, but another musician dropped out at the last moment and organizers asked if she would play.

She had her instrument with her -- the traditional two-stringed dutar, lute-shaped with a long, thin neck -- and found a few musicians to accompany her.

They practiced for about 20 minutes the day before taking the stage.

Initially, the audience was hesitant, but after a couple of songs she won them over and the crowd started dancing along, she recalls. "I was really afraid, I wasn't prepared, but it was really fun."

Also listening was Gabriel, who Nazarkhan says she did not know of before meeting him. The international star sought her out backstage, and the next day she was at his Real World Studios talking about doing an album for the record label.

"It was like a fairy tale," she says.

Her debut international album, "Yol Bolsin," was released early in 2003 and won positive reviews from critics around the world.

Nazarkhan toured Europe and the United States last year opening for Gabriel, and also accompanying him during encores of his love anthem "In Your Eyes."

On March 9, she was back in Britain to receive a World Music Award from BBC Radio and perform at the ceremony, and she starts a European concert tour in late May.

Nazarkhan grew up steeped in the music of Uzbekistan's past.

Her father headed the traditional music department of a Tashkent radio station, and she started singing in a folk choir at age 5.

Later, at the Tashkent State Conservatory, she received a strong grounding in Uzbek folk music and learned to play the dutar, while also performing in a women's folk orchestra regularly featured on Uzbek television.

After finishing her studies in 1998, Nazarkhan joined a girls' pop group and became a local star, but the band broke up after a year and she set out on a solo career.

She first began in a pop direction -- with some "Uzbek inside," as she puts it -- but she says she could not keep her roots out of her repertoire. Nazarkhan calls her work now simply "fusion," a tinge of pop in a mixture of folk styles from across the Turkic countries of Central Asia.

At a rehearsal in Tashkent, traditional instruments including the dutar, Turkish stringed soz and Uzbek doira drum share the soundscape with a keyboard and digital samples played by an Apple Powerbook laptop computer.

Her album's title track begins with a funky upbeat groove in which the ancient instruments are interposed with electric guitar riffs that would not be out of place backing James Brown. Nazarkhan's voice rises sweetly above the rhythmic fray, seemingly aloof.

Other softer tracks feature ethereal keyboards, sometimes oscillating techno-style between octaves. The words are traditional, penned in the 16th and 17th centuries -- Nazarkhan says highly critical Uzbek listeners would jump on any misplaced lyric -- but the music is rearranged with a modern feel.

She says she aims for a sound that is "soft, a bit depressing."

The songs recall simpler times, when love was an ideal -- albeit often a forced one through arranged marriages, which are not uncommon even today in Uzbekistan.

This is the music of the Silk Road, the network of trading routes linking Asia and Europe that goes back 2,000 years.

Despite widespread discrimination against women that lingers to present times, the lone female singer evoking emotions she would not be able to express openly is also a tradition as old as those well-worn paths.

Nazarkhan says the songs are about "love, faith, devotion -- and pain, pain, pain."

"It's not just simple love. It's love like how people felt many years ago, when things were more traditional," she says.

She sometimes tries to explain the meanings of the songs to foreign audiences, and even throws in some English phrases to help. Still, she has seen listeners cry even when they do not understand a word.

Nazarkhan acknowledges there is a commercial pressure to sing in English to have broader international appeal, but she says she will not do that until she has a better grasp of the language and can wrap her wistful tones around the words.

"You need to feel it when you sing, or not sing at all," she says.