Central Asia’s unique tradition of singing during Ramadan keeps evolving

Children in Kyrgyzstan wearing national clothes and singing jaramazan. Screenshot from video “”KGтай” балдары – Жарамазан (Клип 2023)” from Solo YouTube channel. Fair use.

On April 5, a deputy of the city council of Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, Elizaveta Alymbaeva, complained about children singing jaramazan on the roads, thus creating emergencies for drivers. Jaramazan, also known as jarapazan in Kazakh and yaremezan in Turkmen, refers to traditional folk songs performed by people in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan during Ramadan to celebrate its start and congratulate each other while going from one house to another.

Here is a YouTube video about the history and rules of singing jaramazan in Kyrgyzstan.

According to Alymbaeva, children who sing jaramazan in Bishkek chase people around and repeatedly visit homes, offices, cars, and restaurants, expecting treats and money in return. Her colleague, Svetlana Kenzhebayeva, added that children sing jaramazan even during the day, contrary to the tradition of singing it only at night.

What these deputies find annoying is the changing traditions surrounding jaramazan, a musical genre unique to Central Asia and borne from the adaptation of Islam to local cultural and social context. Islam first came to the region in the 8th century, after the Abbasid caliphate emerged victorious against the Chinese Tang dynasty in the Battle of Talas, which took place in modern day Kyrgyzstan in 751. The outcome of this battle transformed the region culturally, opening the door for its Islamization, and, nowadays, more than 90 percent of the Central Asia’s population are Sunni Muslims.

There are several versions of jaramazan. Those who perform it often get creative and change the lyrics, depending on the wealth and status of people in front of whom they are singing. However, all versions of jaramazan have a similar structure with a greeting and notifying of the arrival of Ramadan in the beginning followed by praising home owners who listen to the song, and offering prayers and good wishes at the end.

Here is jaramazan in Kyrgyz.

Previously, a group of young and adult men went around went around and sung jaramazan in front of their fellow villagers, who gifted them clothes, food, and even cattle, depending on their wealth. Some believe that jaramazan was performed by poor people, who did it mostly for economic benefit. Others state that jaramazan was performed by akyns (improviser poets) using local musical instruments as part of the local religious and national traditions associated with Ramadan.

Here is jaramazan in Kazakh.

Although jamarazan emerged after the arrival of Islam to Central Asia, scholars agree that it is rooted in pre-Islamic beliefs and rituals, such as callings to start rain or end winds, which involved singing. In this regard, jaramazan is similar to the celebration of Nowruz, a Zoroastrian holiday, which is still popular in Central Asia due to its cooptation by local Muslims as a national holiday instead of a religious one.

Jaramazan’s popularity has been growing since 1991, when Central Asia gained independence from the Soviet Union. Since then the region’s re-Islamization has led to the popularization of Islamic practices, such as fasting during Ramadan, and various local traditions associated with it.

Jaramazan’s growing popularity has taken it to restaurants, parks, roads, and offices, where it is performed by professional singers, small children, and youngsters alike. It has also sparked public debates around whether jaramazan is in essence a mere begging exercise with no links to Islam. What is undoubtedly true is that jaramazan is a unique living musical tradition that is adapting to different contexts and changing with each generation of its practitioners.

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