Music of Central and South Asia

In our third article following our armchair travels across the world, we find ourselves still in Asia but we have moved from the Far East to South and Central Asia to begin our musical explorations in this region.

Geographically this area encompasses a vast array of mountains, deserts and grassy steppes. Culturally it was the crossroads of the Silk Road trade routes between Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.

South Asia is considered to be the countries of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives.

Afghanistan is considered to be a ‘bridge’ between south and central Asia.

Central Asia consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Turkestan and Uzbekistan. The area is also often referred to as "the stans" as these countries all have names ending with the Persian suffix "-stan", meaning "land of".

There is some debate about Mongolia being included in central Asia, because while it is geographically situated more in central Asia, it identifies more with east Asia in terms of culture, food and language. We will then not include Mongolia in this article.

As usual, we will shine our light on the music of the past and examine the music of the present. We will focus in particular on three pianists who were born in this area of the world who are all attempting to incorporate their heritage and their musicality in a modern world.

Music of South & Central Asia Past

South Asia


The Maldivians converted to Islam during the 12th century and traded with their African and Asian neighbours. This influenced their music and helped to create a unique Maldivian sound. Lava (the Maldivian term for singing) has many different roots and traditions:

    • Baburu lava comes from the African tradition.
    • Javee lava is inspired by songs from Java, Indonesia.
    • Arabi lava incorporates Arabic language and rhythms.


While Pakistan converted to Islam in the 8th century CE, the Muslim conquest of India only occurred in the 12th century. Therefore in India, music was divided between the north (Hindustani music) and the south (Carnatic music). Hindustani music was influenced by Islam whereas Carnatic music had it roots in Hinduism.

The oldest form of Indian music is called Dhrupad – a vocal style of music based on Nāda yoga – which focused on the idea that the whole universe consisted of vibration. Music was considered to be a spiritual sound. The aim of Dhurpad was not for entertainment, rather it was sung in temples and used as a form of meditation.

Ragas was a style of music composition that was first written in the 10th century and was used in both Hindustani and Carnatic music. There are about 200 Ragas. “Ragas are soliloquies and meditations, passionate melodies that draw circles and triangles in a mental space, a geometry of sounds that can turn a room into a fountain, a spring, a pool.” Octavio Paz.

Central Asia

Persian empire played an enormous role in affecting the culture of central Asia. Hence, a variety of musical styles existed - from the isolated mountain tribes of Afghanistan to the throat singing of the Ḥazāras (a Mongol tribe living in Afghanistan) and from the Turkic nomads to the sedentary (Chinese) Turkistanis. Overall, music had 3 functions:

1. Ritual music which was associated with shamanism. The shaman’s drum or tambourine was considered sacred and was an aid to induce trances and/or contact the spirits. The Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and the Turkmen all used fiddles instead of drums in this way.

2. Tribal records and the recitations of epics. Storytellers used lutes or fiddles and told stories which could last for several nights. A Kyrgyz bard apparently recited some 300,000 verses of the Manas, the major Kyrgyz epic poem. The Manas is said to date back to at least the 18th century, although perhaps earlier (the poem was originally passed on as an oral tradition, so the exact date is unknown). The epic tells the story of Manas, his descendants and their various exploits against certain enemies.

3. Entertainment in the form of singing contests particularly among the Kyrgyz and the Kazakhs. Losers would often be required to pay a forfeit to the winner, who would also receive gifts from wealthy patrons and gain a grand reputation.
Generally folk music was linked to specific ethnic groups, whereas classical music was used as court music especially during medieval times.

central Asian music

Musical Instruments of South and Central Asia

Musical Instruments were many and varied across the regions and countries of south and central Asia. These included:

  • 2-3 stringed long-necked lutes (from Persia)
  • Horsehair and spike fiddles
  • Flutes
  • Metal jew (jaw) harps (traditionally used by pastoralists across the region)
  • Choor (long flute from Kyrgyzistan).
  • Komuz (3 stringed fretless lute used as in Kyrygz folk music) .
  • Dombra (2 stringed, long necked lute from Kazakhstan).
  • Doyra (a cross between a drum and a tambourine) used soley by women in Afghanistan and also played as a sacred instrument in Uzbekhistan).
  • Ghichak (a 2-stringed fiddle made from a metal tin, used in Afghanistan).
  • Rubab, the ‘lion of instruments’ (an Afghani lute, which was even referenced by the famous Sufi poet, Rumi).
  • Damaha (a drum played in Nepal)
  • Sarangi (a short-necked violin also played in Nepal)
  • Tambourines (played across both central and south Asia)
central asian instruments - lute

Music of South and Central Asia Present

South Asia

Jazz flourished in India in the 1920s and 1930s particularly in the large cities of Bombay (now Mumbai), Goa, Delhi and Calcutta (now Kolkata).  It was brought over by African American pianist Teddy Weatherford, who immigrated to India and led a big band in Mumbai. Unfortunately, in 1941, he died early at the age of 41 in Kolkata and since then, jazz has been a rather undeveloped genre of music.

Instead, across south Asia wandering musicians can be heard in villages and rural areas, singing devotional songs while accompanying themselves with either a lute or a drum. During religious festivals, itinerant bands of players perform mythological songs and dances. In this way music has become a type of communication, particularly in areas of low literacy.

In the cities Western music has also greatly encouraged the genre of ‘cinema music’ and  Bollywood has blossomed as a result.

Bollywood - India music

Central Asia

In central Asia, Islam has played rather a negative role in suppressing music across the region. Musicians are viewed as having extremely low social status and music tends to be heard only in male dominated tea-houses or at private celebrations like circumcisions and weddings. After the Taliban government captured Kabul in 1996, Radio Afghanistan was forbidden from broadcasting Western music as well as popular styles based on Pashtun folk music and songs of the Bollywood (Indian film) industry.

In 2019 the US Embassy in Kabul underwrote the Jazz Bridges Afghanistan Project. A jazz concert was held for the 1st time in Kabul and the response from the locals was incredibly positive, especially for jazz renditions of popular Afghan songs, “Flower Girl of Kabul” and Ahmad Zahir’s “Laily Laily Jan.”

Afghanistan now participates in the annual International Jazz Day on 30th April.

International Jazz Day is celebrated around the world and it’s aim is to promote peace and dialogue across cultures. (In Nepal, International Jazz Day has evolved into Katjazz International Festival, a week long event with a focus on empowering music education).

In 2000, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture was formed by His Highness the Aga Khan (the 49th hereditary Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims) with the aim of preserving central Asia’s musical heritage by sponsoring music tours and festivals. These events are increasingly attended by both men and women and, for example, International Jazz Day now sees musicians perform in countries like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan tower

Pianists from South and Central Asia

Unlike the Far East, the piano is an uncommon instrument in south and central Asia. Finding such musicians has been a challenge but after much research, we have identified:

  • Vijay Iyer is an Indian-American jazz pianist who blends Indian classical with jazz and other styles. Iyer is based in New York and is the son of Tamil immigrants to the USA.
  • Kazakhstani classical pianists Jania Aubakirova, Stanislav Khegai and Amir Tebenikhin.
  • Tajikistani classical pianist, composer and conductor Benjamin Yusupov.
  • Uzbekistani classical pianists Gulnora Alimova and Vladimir Soultanov.
  • Džasur Khalilov is a pianist and composer from Tajikistan who aims to incorporate the richness and diversity of the ancient cultures of central Asia with the history, culture and folk songs of Tajikistan. According to Khalilov, jazz music is not typical in Tajik local culture, however, “Folk music is the source of inspiration for jazz musicians and composers.”
  • Kishon Khan Bangladesh-born British jazz pianist, composer and arranger. He has set up Lokhi Terra (a world music collective), which combines Bangladeshi folk tunes with Afro beats and rumba rhythms.

In addition, we now look at the pianists Stanislav Ioudenich, Aman Mahajan and Upendra Lal Singh in detail.

Stanislav Ioudenitch

Stanislav Ioudenich is a Uzbekistani classical pianist, who started learning the piano at the age of 7. He attended the Uspensky Music School for Gifted Children, in Tashkent, and then moved to the Reina Sofía School of Music in Madrid, Spain. He then attended the International Piano Foundation in Cadenabbia (now called the International Piano Academy Lake Como, Italy), followed by the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio, USA and the UMKC Conservatory of Music, Missouri-Kansas City, USA.

Ioudenich’s debut recital was at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, USA and he has performed and collaborated with many international conductors and won various awards. In fact, he is the youngest pianist to be invited to give master classes at the International Piano Academy at Lake Como, where he also holds the position of vice president. At the time of writing, he is also an associate professor of music at both Park University, Missouri and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, also in Missouri.

Aman Mahajan

Aman Mahajan is an Indian pianist-composer from Bangalore who released his debut solo album called Refuges in 2019. His work is inspired by both traditional and modern music from around the world and he uses music to focus on the human condition.

He attended Hyderabad Public School in India after which, in 2005 he moved to Boston, USA to study jazz at the famous Berklee College of Music. He was awarded a Bachelor in Music, Cum Laude and both the Berklee International Grant and Achievement Scholarship in 2007. He then returned to India where he has worked with a variety of musicians and producers.

He teaches both privately at his piano studio and the Global Music Institute, Delhi.

Mahajan also likes to blend jazz with Hindustani rhythms.

In 2014 he was a presenter at TEDx Bangalore and in 2015 he joined the Global Music Institute in Bangalore as a faculty member.

Upendra Lal Singh

Nepali jazz pianist Upendra Lal Singh incorporates jazz and rock and is considered to be a pioneer of jazz in Nepal. His album ‘Murchchhanaa’ which means ‘spiritual transition’ or ‘musical movement’ represents the evolution of Nepali music.

His 1st music teacher was his uncle and as a teenage boy, he saw a child playing ‘Dance Little Lady Dance’ by Tina Charles on guitar. This was the inspiration for him to focus on music. Unfortunately, there were no piano teachers in Katmandu, so in 1987 he moved to Bangkok, Thailand to learn the piano.

Singh completed his schooling in music theory at Suparnagan Music School, Thailand over 20 years ago and to date, he is the only Nepali musician who has been exclusively educated on the piano.

After graduating he returned to Nepal and started performing in hotels and casinos. Individuals began approaching him for private lessons and he then began teaching piano at the Nepal Music Center.

Although he is competent in a wide range of musical genres including classical, jazz and rock, his favourite genre is jazz and Keith Jarett, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Joe Sample are among his favourite musicians.

And so in our armchair travels across south and central Asia, we have identified a mindbogglingly wide variety of traditional music styles and musical instruments. We have examined present day music in both the south and central regions of Asia and we have also witnessed some of the struggles that musicians often have to deal with. Finally, we have shone our spotlight on both classical and jazz pianists and celebrated those pioneers who are using music to educate and empower people across the region.