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Music and Genocide


Wojciech Klimczyk and Agata Świerzowska

At first glance, no two experiences could be further apart than genocide and music. Yet real, live culture usually goes beyond rational divisions. It is now fairly commonly known that art is not absent from the sites of mass killings. Both victims and prosecutors engage in artistic activities in prisons and camps, as well as at other places where genocides take place. What is the music of genocide? Can the experience of ultimate terror be expressed in music? How does music reflect on genocide? How do we perceive music after genocide? What is music and what is silence in a world marked by mass killings? Is post-genocidal silence really possible or appropriate? The goal of the volume is to reveal and, maybe even to some extent, resolve the most profound dilemma that was expressed by Theodor W. Adorno when he asked «whether it is even permissible for someone who accidentally escaped and by all rights ought to have been murdered, to go on living after Auschwitz.» It is not for the sake of pure curiosity that the relation between music and genocide is examined. In a sense we are all survivors who accidentally escaped genocide. It might have happened to us. It may still happen.
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Geok Tepe Muğam: A Musical Narrative of Turkmen Massacre in 1881



The central Asian steppes from the east coast of the Caspian Sea to Amu Darya have been inhabited by the Turkmens for more than one thousand years. These lands, which are now divided between Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, initially hosted traditional nomadic pastoral people (the Oghuz) in the early medieval centuries. In the 11th century, when the Oghuz embraced Islam, they were named Turkmen. They continued their nomadic lifestyle in the mostly arid lands of central Asia, depending on their portable houses (yurt), their strong horses, and stockbreeding. Almost constant conflicts arose with various governments of central Asia, Persia and later, the Russian Empire, over the grasslands.

The Turkmens’ nomadic traditions were complemented by their religious (Orthodox Islam) customs. Some of their traditions, as can be noted in their music and literature, were rooted in shamanism. In Turkmen culture, as with many others, poetry, stories and music serve as a means of passing down history from one generation to the next. Bagşys (musicians who play and sing) served as Turkmen narrators, singing about Turkmen historical events and daily life throughout the years through musical compositions (aydim) at wedding ceremonies, soirees and other social events. The oppression of the Turkmen people by the Persian and Russian empires is one of the tragic themes that have affected their musical traditions, both in form and content.

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