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Book Review: Theodore Levin’s The Hundred Thousand Fools of God

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Theodore Levin is Associate Professor of Music at Dartmouth College. He has written extensively on the traditional musics of the Balkans, Siberia, Slavic Russia, and Central Asia. Moreover, he has released a number of his field recordings of these musics to wide acclaim – including the incomparable Tuva: Among the Spirits: Sound, Music, and Nature in Sakha and Tuva (I’ll review this work soon) and the accompanying album for this book (which I’ll discuss in yet another review). Most recently, Levin has acted as the executive director of the Silk Roads Project, a non-profit organization started by Yo-Yo Ma to showcase the arts and cultures of the people from traditional Silk Road areas (like Central Asia). The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia (and Queens, New York), then, was written by someone with a lot of knowledge about traditional music of Central Asia – or, more specifically, the music of Transoxania, the region “beyond the Oxus River” that includes parts of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and most of Uzbekistan.

Levin spent time in Tashkent as a graduate student in the 1970s, and he has returned to this region on several occasions, both during the Soviet era and after. This book is, in part, a summary of his experiences and thoughts concerning this region of the world, the people who inhabit it, and the musicians who seek to maintain their culture’s music in spite of fierce opposition (first from communism, where Moslems were forced underground and music was “Europeanized,” and now from capitalism, for although religion is relatively tolerated, Western culture’s influence on music and life has begun to eclipse the traditional cultures of Central Asia).

The point of this book can be summed up in Levin’s title. A “fool of god,” he notes, is a Sufi term identifying “one who has given himself to the life of the spirit and is under the special protection of God, but also a dervish or an ascetic – a person not entirely ‘of this world.’” As Levin notes, he and his Uzbek companion, Otanazar Matyakubov (OM for short), began using this phrase “fool of god” to “describe a particular musician who, in both his musical activities and his personal life, seemed to embody the high ethical standards, humility, and altruistic spirit that characterized the figure of the…fool of God.” Levin goes on to say, “We knew at best several dozen [fools of God] in Transoxania whose life spans overlapped, or had overlapped, with ours. But there might have been a hundred, a thousand, or even a hundred thousand who had come before. Others would surely follow” (37-38).

Levin’s book, then, chronicles his journeys throughout this region, as he and OM search out these “fools of God,” traditional musicians who have managed to preserve and sustain their culture’s beliefs and music despite the intense pressures of the modern world. Some of these people are professional musicians, such as Turgun Alimatov and Munajat Yulchieva. Levin’s encounters with these professionals suggest that these artists struggle to make ends meet, largely because the music they play is typically classical maquam, or Islamic court music, and there haven’t been emirs in Samarkand since the 1920s. These artists survive playing at state-sponsored concerts or at weddings and other festivals (called toys) – though, thanks to Levin and others (like Yo-Yo Ma), they are starting to gain a wider Western audience.

Others are simply farmers or workers who live simple lives but possess a rare musical talent that they display to friends or at toys. One of the most interesting of these other group is a young woman, Xushvakt, the aunt of a man who Levin and OM had visited to meet and record. Levin met and recorded her two, brief performances on the chang-qobuz (Jew’s harp or mouth organ). He was with her for no more than fifteen minutes, but, as Levin notes, “I felt…I’d been thrust through a time warp to a moment near the beginning of music” (156).

It is moments like this that give Levin’s book its depth, for he has the ability to peer inside a culture that is so different from our own and pry open things that no one in that culture, or perhaps in ours, would ever bother to notice. Women in this culture, as in many Islamic cultures, are kept in the background; this woman’s appearance and performance were, perhaps, the highlight of her life, the one moment when she could demonstrate her remarkable talents to someone who would bother to pay attention. Levin’s documentation of this event is just a small example of the amazing discoveries he makes in the course of his travels.

This is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read on Central Asia, and it is the only book I’ve ever read on Central Asian music. It is at once a travelogue, a musical analysis, a cultural analysis, an historical analysis, and (in some weird ways) a religious journey. That Levin takes the time to bring his readers as close as possible not only to the major names in music from this region but also to the ones that no one has ever heard of (or will ever hear of) is a tribute to Levin’s dedication to this culture and to his pursuit of wonderful music, wherever it might reside.

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