In 1992, Bukharian Jewish poet, maqam player and Uzbek rock star Ilyas Malayev immigrated to Queens from Tashkent in Central Asia. When Theodore Levin profiled him for his book, “The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia (and Queens, New York)” (Indiana University Press, 1997), the forgotten celebrity was sharing a three-room apartment with nine people and surviving off welfare.
In 2008, Malayev passed away at age 72, never having scaled stardom in America as he had in Uzbekistan. On December 14, helping to correct this tragedy, the An-sky Institute for Jewish Culture Series held a retrospective at the Center for Jewish History. Around 70 people attended to hear scholars and friends of Malayev share their memories of him and listen to artists perform his music. These masters of the maqam, a modal structure that characterizes the type of music predominately heard in Persian, Arabic and Turkish styles, sang and performed on the ghijak, tar, and rubab, Uzbek instruments akin to spike fiddles and lutes.
Ironically, though Malayev became famous in Uzbekistan for his interpretations of shashmaqam, a repertoire of Uzbekistan folk music, what stood out that night was his poetry, shifting between delicate melancholy and verses full of praise to God. Malayev would likely have been gratified to hear his poetry still being read, albeit in a language different from the ones in which he originally wrote — Persian, Uzbek and Russian.
It was for the sake of his poetry that he immigrated. In Soviet Uzbekistan, Malayev found himself in the difficult position of being a Jew in a country uninterested in Jewish poetry. In Levin’s book, Malayev recounts an occasion when an “Uzbek girl in a veil recited [his] poem on television,” but upon reaching a line that mentioned the author’s name, refused to read it. “[The editor] had forbidden the girl to mention my name because it was Malayev, and Malayev is a Jew.”
The shashmaqam, the music for which Malayev became famous, literally means “six modalities” and is a group of canonized pieces arranged into six musical cycles. Yunus Rajabiy, a scholar who recorded about 1,000 Uzbek national melodies at the behest of the USSR and published them in the five-volume “Uzbek Folk Music,” established the canon in the mid-20th century. The USSR canonized shashmaqam to invent a nationalist Uzbek musical tradition, and in doing so, it marginalized Bukharian Jews like Malayev. Jewish performers, who had long performed and contributed to shashmaqam, found their own historical role minimized, which often meant contending with deep resentment and antisemitism when trying to become shashmaqam artists.
Given this context, it felt triumphant when two musicians — Ochil Ibragimov, a cantor for a Bukharian synagogue in Queens who performed with Malayev, and Ezra Malakov — performed a poem that Malayev had written about Hanukkah, set to Uzbek music. After the performance, Svetlana Levit, a member of the Bukharian New York community and manager of Malayev’s group Ensemble Maqam, translated Malayev’s words into English: “We will brighten with the light of Hanukkah. We hope it will not only brighten, but give peace. Ilyas will brighten with his songs and his poetry.” Set behind the performers was a menorah; the candles had burned down during the performance. Once, the only way that Malayev was allowed to play shashmaqam was by excising his Jewish identity, but now his music was being played with overtly Jewish lyrics.
A poetic trope in much of Malayev’s poetry is the inclusion of the author by name. As in the Hanukkah poem, and the poem where the veiled girl refused to read his name, Malayev constantly returns to himself in the third person in his work. In a particularly gorgeous poem that Levin and Malayev translated together, Malayev writes: “A hundred thousand regrets that Ilyas didn’t know what was in his body/So go and find his hands, his feet, his body, his soul.” Zev Feldman, scholar of shashmaqam and personal friend of Malayev, read another poem at the event. It contained the constant refrain “poor musician,” and had a line that states, “Ilyas, you’ve spent your life without finding a single friend.”
“He didn’t have time and space to express everything. This might be why he came to America — to express himself,” Feldman speculated.
Listening to Malayev’s poetry, dislocated by language, geography and death, it seemed that the potency of his poetry and music came from his sense of self — that the Ilyas of the poem is what drove him to become one of Uzbekistan’s greatest shashmaqam artists despite his Jewish identity, and then motivated him to move to the United States for the chance to publish his poetry.
In 1994, Malayev self-published 1,000 copies of “Shiru Shakar” (“Milk and Sugar”), his collection of poetry for which he had traveled to Queens from Tashkent. In Levin’s book, he asks whether Malayev was a “‘fool of God’ or simply a fool to have thrown in everything he had… for the sake of trying to publish his poetry.” On that December night, though, members of his community expressed gratitude for the event, and for Malayev. “We lost a lot,” one woman said. “He was the greatest person in our community, and remembering him tonight means so much to us.” One of the event organizers said: “I got so much joy spending time with Ilyas. I’m paying back a little to him.”
In his book, Levin recounts an evening with Malayev when the latter despaired and mourned for his disappearing art — practiced less and less in both Uzbekistan (UNESCO eventually declared shashmaqam an endangered cultural practice) and the Bukharian-Jewish diaspora. “Did I come here for nothing?” Malayev asks Levin, who sadly cannot answer the question.
Before the show, I spoke to Levin on the phone and asked him about Malayev. He told me that “Ilyas was a beautiful poet who devoted every day of his life to this music, to keep it alive and get people interested in it.” In one of his poems, Malayev actually wrote, “In my heart I have plans to last a thousand years.” Hopefully the December 14 show began to bear out the truth of his words. Better a starving poet in Queens than a silenced performer in Tashkent.
Mordechai Shinefield has written about music for Rolling Stone, Spin and the Village Voice. He is currently earning his Master of Arts in performance studies at New York University.