Following a Musical Silk Road to Central Asia

The Ethnomusicologist

By Alexander Gelfand

Published June 26, 2008, issue of July 04, 2008.
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A series of happy accidents.

That, in a nutshell, is how 32-year-old saxophonist and scholar Evan Rapport describes the arc of his career — a career that began in the nightclubs of Maryland and ultimately carried him to the Bukharian Jewish enclaves of New York City.

It’s hogwash, of course. I’m willing to believe that luck had something to do with it, but speaking with him in the one-bedroom apartment that he shares with his wife and child in the Jackson Heights area of Queens, it’s clear that Rapport is the kind of person who either purposefully forces himself to confront new and challenging situations on a regular basis or has not yet figured out that there are easier ways of getting by in life.

Whatever the case may be, it’s made for an unusual path. Born and raised in Columbia, Md., in an era when most jazz musicians get their early training in standardized high-school and college programs, Rapport learned to play the old-fashioned way: on the job. His high school didn’t have a jazz band, so he joined the jazz ensemble at a local community college, where he found himself in the company of musicians who were two to three times his age. Before long, his new friends were picking him up from school and taking him to nightclub gigs in the Maryland suburbs, where sometimes he would see his high- school teachers in the audience.

“I had no conception that any of this was weird at all,” Rapport told me over coffee as his 15-month-old daughter, Alice, played at our feet. As we spoke, he periodically spun rare recordings from a seemingly endless supply of CDs and LPs. “There’s a lot more at the office,” he said, gesturing at a collection that took in Sun Ra, Alfred Schnittke and The Residents.

By the time Rapport graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in jazz composition, he already had more real-world playing experience than many college jazz faculty members. But a brutal year spent gigging in Chicago reinforced his desire to go back to school, and in what would indeed turn out to be a stroke of good luck, an old friend and band mate from Oberlin, guitarist Benjamin Lapidus, recommended the doctoral program in ethnomusicology at the City University of New York. (Lapidus specializes in Latin-Jewish fusion; his latest album, “Herencia Judia,” came out in March.)

As his record collection attests, Rapport’s musical tastes already ran from rock to free jazz to 20th-century classical music; while at CUNY, he began to develop an interest in the sounds of Central Asia, as well. At the same time, he began to get a sense of the diversity of the global Jewish community, and it fascinated him. “The ideas of Judaism and Jewish life you grow up with in the United States are kind of limited,” he said. “Once you realize that it’s a more complicated history, it becomes exciting.”

At that point, fate intervened yet again. CUNY happens to be the home of a highly regarded scholar of Central Asian music, Stephen Blum, who has contacts in Queens’s Bukharian Jewish community. The Bukharian Jews, who hail from the various “stans” that emerged from the rubble of the old Soviet Union — for example, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan — practice their own version of the classical repertoire of the old Central Asian courts. The general name for this music is maqom, while the particular strain performed by the Bukharians is called shashmaqom. Among other things, it features Jewish texts in both Hebrew and Persian that are set to modal Central Asian melodies, enjoys a historic connection to the mystic Islamic tradition of Sufism and is replete with diasporic imagery. Given Rapport’s interests, Blum suggested that he investigate it.

What ensued was a very productive, if unexpected, 90-degree turn. Rapport began working with such prominent Bukharian musicians as the singer Ezra Malakov, who is a cantor at Beth Gavriel synagogue in Queens’s Forest Hills and the driving force behind the seven-CD collection “Musical Treasures of the Bukharian Jewish Community” which Rapport helped record and annotate. He also took up the tanbur, the elegant, long-necked lute that plays a central role in Bukharian music, and began studying Persian so as to better communicate with his new teachers.

Rapport got a dissertation out of the experience, along with some seriously broadened horizons. The poetic, vocal emphasis of the music, even its scales and rhythms, were all new to him, as were the language, the culture and the feeling of being a neophyte. Not that he minded — in fact, just the opposite.

“It’s good, and it’s humbling, to be starting from scratch,” he said. “It’s an instructive experience.”

And before long he’ll be doing it all over again. Rapport recently completed a post-doctoral appointment in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and will move on to a tenure-track position at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in the fall. At which point he may finally settle into the predictable routines of a career academic.

But somehow, I doubt it.

Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York.

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