A deep dive into the musical repertoire of Turkmenistan’s national leader

Turkmenistan's former president and national leader Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov singing a song called “Karakum.” Screenshot from Hroniki Turkmenistana YouTube channel. Fair use.

In early February, multiple sources in Turkmenistan’s western Balkan province shared that the authorities are pressuring residents to play former president Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov’s songs at wedding parties. This is part of the authorities’ broader requirement to ensure the majority of songs at weddings are Turkmen, according to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen service Radio Azatlyk.

There is no relevant official decree; brides and grooms are informed about the new restrictions at the marriage registry offices, which they visit before weddings. Reportedly, owners of restaurants where weddings are held are already enforcing this informal directive by playing Berdimukhamedov’s two seven-minute-long songs and ensuring that at least 80 percent of all songs are Turkmen.

The new musical measure is a hallmark of Berdymukhamedov’s persistent influence over everyday life in Turkmenistan. Even after stepping down from the presidency in March 2022, he continues to create headlines at home and abroad. His venture into music, which peaked during his 15-year-long presidency, is worthy of exploration as it encapsulates Turkmenistan’s long-standing political tradition of personality cults.

Turkmenbashi and Arkadag

Berdymukhamedov came to power in February 2007, after winning the presidential elections held following the death of Turkmenistan’s first president and eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006. Niyazov became the president in 1991, after Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union.

During his rule, Niyazov turned Turkmenistan into an isolated state characterized by dictatorial and cult of personality practices that saw him award himself the title of “Turkmenbashi” (The father of all Turkmen), build a giant gold statue of himself in the capital Ashgabat, and oblige all citizens to read his book called Ruhnama (Book of the Soul) among other things.

Despite Berdimukhamedov’s election campaign promises of instituting political reforms, Turkmenistan did not record any major changes in terms of style of rule as Berdimukhamedov picked up where Niyazov had left and built perhaps an even bigger personality cult. Similarly to Niyazov, he came up with an impressive title anointing himself “Arkadag” (Protector) and erected a golden statue of himself on horseback in Ashgabat, after Niyazov’s statute was moved out of the capital.

A singer, poet, and DJ

A major part of Berdimukhamedov’s personality cult has been his musical career. People in Turkmenistan were first exposed to his musical and poetry talents in 2011, when he performed his own song called “Sana menin ak gullerim” (For you are my white flowers) at the nationally televised celebration of his birthday.

Here is a YouTube video with the song “Sana menin ak gullerim”.

Since then he has performed numerous songs on various stages. Some were even improvised or were presented as such. In 2017, during Berdimukhamedov’s meeting with construction workers, who were building a gas chemical complex, he suddenly performed his song called “Bagt nury” (Ray of happiness), after one worker tried to play him a song on an apparently out of tune guitar.

Here is a YouTube video with Berdimukhamedov's performance on his song “Bagt nury” in front of the workers.

Berdimukhamedov also does covers of popular songs. In 2018, his rendition of a Russian song called “Karakum” (Karakum) belonging to the popular Soviet rock band “Krug” was played for Turkmen women on the occasion of the International Women’s Day. The song was popular in Turkmenistan since it was about the Karakum Desert, which is located on its territory.

Here is a YouTube video of Berdimukhamedov's rendition of the song “Karakum”.

An important sidekick of Berdimukhamedov the singer is his grandson Kerimguly, who composes music for the songs and seems to push his grandfather to go beyond personal artistic boundaries and try more modern musical genres and singing in different languages. The couple have performed several songs together. One of them is a rap song called “Rovach” (Prosperity) about a foal with a similar name, a Turkmen Akhal-Teke horse and a national symbol. Berdimukhamedov is a fan of these horses, and it is reported that he has over 130 of them.

Here is a YouTube video with the song “Rovach”.

Another rap song created by this couple is called “Sportly Turkmenistan” (Sporty Turkmenistan). Both of them sing and play instruments, with Kerimguly singing in English and Berdimukhamedov singing in Turkmen about the development of sports in the country.

Here is a YouTube video with the song “Sportly Turkmenistan”.

Another multilingual song performed by them asks for the continuation of good things and blessings in Turkmenistan and it does not seem to have a name. It was performed in English, Turkmen, and German at a New Year Party in 2018. The song made headlines since it was the first time Berdimukhamedov sang in German.

Here is a YouTube video with the unnamed song.

Berdimukhamedov’s poetry skills helped him become part of a Guinness World Record in 2015. After the poem he had written was converted into a patriotic song called “One, dine one, jan watanym Turkmenistan” (Forward, only forward, my native land of Turkmenistan), it was simultaneously performed live by 4,166 people, setting the new record, in the south-western of Mary. The song received further fame in 2017 when it was selected as the official hymn of the 2017 Asian Indoors and Martial Arts Games, which was held in Ashgabat.

Here is a YouTube video with the record breaking performance of the song.

He has followed up on this record breaking success of his poetry by composing lyrics for several other songs. In 2021, a song called “Ak shaherim Ashgabat” (My white city Ashgabat) was released on the 140th anniversary of the capital city. Berdimukhamedow was inspired to write lyrics for it after meeting a Akhat-Teke foul named Ashgabat. The song was performed by a group of Turkmen singers, after  Kerimguly composed music for it.

Here is a YouTube video with the song “Ak shaherim Ashgabat”.

In 2023, Berdimukhamedov the poet composed the lyrics for another song called “Yashlara gutlag” (Congratulations to the youth). It is meant to inspire young Turkmens to achieve their goals. Turkmenistan’s Honored Artist Dovlet Amalykov, who performed the song for the first time, described it as a “delightful vocal and instrumental composition glorifying the innermost aspirations of a parent’s heart.”

Berdimukhamedov’s musical talents also include DJing skills. At the 2015 New Year Party held for the Turkmen authorities children, he went behind the DJ booth alongside his grandchildren and played Justin Timberlake’s song called “Can’t stop the feeling”.

Here is a YouTube video with Berdimukhamedov DJing at the kids New Year party.

Berdimukhamedov the DJ returned to the stage in 2019 and played music for adults at the New Year Party as the attendees clapped in appreciation on his skills and danced.

Here is a YouTube video with Berdimukhamedov DJing at a New Year party.

A man of many talents

Music is only one of Berdimukhamedov’s many talents. He regularly appears on TV engaging in various activities, such as writing books, shooting guns, driving rally cars, working out, riding horses, playing football, and designing sports cars among others. All these side quests, which present Berdimukhamedov as master of all trades, have helped build and cement the personality cult around him.

Berdimukhamedov may have stepped down from the presidency, but he still occupies the high-level post of the Chairman of Halk Maslahaty, a supreme legislative body, and carries the title of the National Leader. As he takes on these new roles, it will be interesting to see how his personality cult will continue to evolve and what role music will play in it.

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