Legendary singer Sherali Jo’rayev encapsulated Uzbekistan’s traditional music and poetry

Sherali Jo'rayev with a rubab. Screenshot from Sherali Jo'rayev – Topic YouTube channel. Fair use.

At the heart of Uzbekistan’s music scene, a legendary voice remained stifled for decades, hidden beneath a shroud of political censorship. Sherali Jo’rayev, one of the nation’s most prominent and talented singers, who recently passed away at the age of 77, left a legacy that defied the odds and showcased the indomitable spirit of artistic expression.

In April 2022, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev honored Jo’rayev with the “Respect of the Nation” Order on his 75th birthday. The award recognized his contribution to converting Uzbek classical poetry to music and popular songs and preserving the nation’s cultural heritage among young people and the global community. This was Uzbekistan’s celebration of Jo’rayev, a legendary artist whose music had finally broken free from the confines of silence and secrecy.

Jo’rayev’s life and career encapsulated the enduring power of artistic expression and resilience in the face of repression. His music now lives on as a symbol of artistic freedom and the unwavering spirit of the Uzbek people.

An illustrious career cut short

Jo’rayev’s journey through the world of music was marked by remarkable achievements and stifling restrictions. He was born on April 12, 1947, in Asaka, located in Uzbekistan’s eastern region of Andijan. In 1971, he graduated from the Tashkent Institute of Theater and Art. In 1972, Jo’rayev began his career as a singer in the Shodlik Song and Dance Ensemble, where he worked until 1979. For many years, he worked in musical organizations such as the Andijan Region Philharmonic (1979–1986), Uzbek State Philharmonic (1986–1996), and the “Uzbekkonsert” state institution.

In 1981, he was awarded the prestigious title of “Honored Artist,” and in 1987, he received the highest honor for an artist in Uzbekistan, being named the “People’s Artist of Uzbekistan.” Interestingly enough, in 2018 he was awarded the same title in the neighboring Tajikistan, achieving an extremely rare feat and cementing his status as a transnational music icon.

His contributions to the nation’s cultural heritage were further acknowledged in 1991 when he became a laureate of the state award named after Alisher Navoi (a famous Uzbek poet from the 15th century). Yet, amidst this acclaim, a dark shadow loomed over Jo’rayev’s career.

One of the most puzzling aspects of his career was the ban imposed on him from the early 1990s until 2016, during the rule of Uzbekistan’s first president Islam Karimov. The reasons behind this ban remained unknown, but one popular hypothesis ties it to Jo’rayev’s negative comments about the 1992 pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia he and other well-known Uzbek figures undertook together with Karimov. Rumors circulated that Jo’rayev’s critical statement about the trip reached Karimov and led to his banishment from public spaces.

This ban extended to concert performances, television appearances, and radio broadcasts, effectively silencing a voice that had captivated a nation. Even inviting Juraev to a wedding or any other public event became a sensitive issue, reflecting the extent of the restrictions imposed upon him. Thus, Jo’rayev spent his most productive years on the “blacklist” of the state.

The ban on Jo’rayev was not an isolated incident but emblematic of the strict authoritarianism that characterized Uzbekistan during that era. President Islam Karimov held unparalleled power and influence over all aspects of the nation’s life, and his regime allowed no room for dissenting voices. Jo’rayev’s talent and popularity made him a potential rival on the public stage, and this threat to the one-man rule resulted in his enforced silence.

His experience was not unique, as several other artists faced similar constraints during that era. Yulduz Usmanova, another renowned singer, left Uzbekistan for several years in response to the ban imposed on her work in 2005.

In 2016, following the passing of Karimov, a new government assumed power in Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev. This change marked the end of the ban for many artists and well-known figures who had been previously blacklisted. Media reports reveal that, from 1993 to 2016, Jo’rayev could not perform at any concert venues, and his songs remained absent from radio and TV. However, with Mirziyoyev taking the presidential office, the ban on translating Jo’rayev’s work in public was lifted, allowing him and his son, who is also a singer, to return to the big stage. This newfound freedom followed years of performing in secrecy exclusively at weddings.

A monumental figure for Uzbek society, music, and culture

Despite these challenges, Jo’rayev’s love for music and his dedication to his craft never wavered. Throughout his career that spanned over five decades, he created over 600 songs, with a significant number of them being hailed as masterpieces. His songs explored universal themes that everybody could relate to, such as love, family, friendship, homeland, and fate. Perhaps his most famous and beloved musical creation is the song called “O’zbegim” (My Uzbek), a 13-minute long masterpiece in which Jo’rayev expresses his love for his nation.

Here is the song “O’zbegim.”

In another song called “Karvon” (Caravan), mega-popular at weddings, Jo’rayev performs as a man who catches sight of a distant caravan, only to discover that it carries his beloved, who is now set to become a bride in another family. Overwhelmed with sorrow and longing, he pours his heart out in melodious verses, expressing his profound pain. Despite his heartbreak, he selflessly sends forth blessings and well-wishes for her happiness and prosperity in her new life.

Here is the song “Karvon.”

Another cult classic produced by Jo’rayev is the song “Birinchi muhabbatim” (My first love) in which he reflects on the emotions associated with first love and fond memories of his youth.

Here is the song “Birinchi muhabbatim.”

These and many other of Jo’rayev’s songs became staples of Uzbekistan’s music scene. Through his songs, Jo’rayev popularized Uzbek traditional musical instruments and classical poetry. His songs were enriched with the poetry of famous Uzbek and other poets popular in Uzbekistan, such Alisher Navoi, Babur, Jami, Rumi, Abdulla Oripov, and Erkin Vohidov. This practice was integral to forming the nation’s cultural heritage.

His performances were accompanied by plays on traditional Uzbek musical instruments, such as doira and rubab, ensuring their widespread usage. Jo’rayev’s use of lyrics with deep meaning, unique voice and remarkable performance skills endeared him to countless fans, and he created his own creative school, nurturing the talents of future generations.

Jo’rayev was more than just a singer. He also wrote a book and a screenplay for a movie “Sherali va Barchinoy,” in which he played the main role. In addition, Jo’rayev actively engaged in public affairs. He served as a deputy in the “Kengash” (lower chamber) of the Parliament of Uzbekistan from 1990 to 1994, where he worked to strengthen the spiritual foundations of independence and instill a sense of love and loyalty to the motherland among the younger generation.

Jo’rayev’s life and career serve as a demonstration to the power of art and resilience in the face of adversity. While a ban may have silenced his voice on public stages, it could never stifle the passion he felt for music or the impact his songs had on the Uzbek people. His legacy endures, a reminder of the enduring spirit of artistic expression and the importance of protecting the freedom to create and perform.

Find a playlist honouring Sherali Jo’rayev and his musical legacy below, and for more eclectic music from around the world, see Global Voices’ Spotify account.

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