Jewish settlements in Central Asia were first established in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khwarezm (now in Uzbekistan), Balkh (now in Afghanistan) and Merv (now Mari, Turkmenistan), by Iranian Jews before Mongol invasions destroyed these cities in the 13th century. Jewish life in Samarkand and Bukhara was renewed during the Timurid era, which formally began in 1370. Although they share many musical features of the Iranian tradition, at the end of the 18th century Bukharan Jews (as Jews of Central Asia are commonly termed) adopted elements of Sephardi liturgical practice from a Moroccan rabbi, Yusuf Mamon Mogribi, who took up residence in Bukhara in an attempt to revive Jewish customs and traditions.
The different genres of liturgical music practised by Central Asian Jews show varying degrees of assimilation of local Muslim practices. The least assimilation is in biblical cantillation, as Idelsohn demonstrated in the first systematic documentation of the oral tradition of Jewish liturgical music from Central Asia (HoM, iii, 1922/R). Idelsohn's informants were emigrants living in Palestine, and his work established that Central Asian styles of cantillation follow the melodic contours governed by the Masoretic accents (te‘amim) and the modal configurations used by other ‘Oriental’ Jewish communities; ex.26 is an example of Bukharan Pentateuch cantillation. In contrast, among Jews still living in Central Asia prayer tunes, piyyutim and the chanting of the Sefer ha-zohar (Book of splendour) largely reflect the melodic and rhythmic characteristics of the (non-Jewish) Bukharan art song, in particular the Central Asian court music repertory known as shashmakom (‘six makom’). For example, the Sabbath song Deror yiqrah (ex.27) is set as a contrafactum to melodies from the shashmakom. Liturgical texts, however, are not accompanied by the frame drum, which is ubiquitous in art song, and are typically sung with more rubato than is present in art song. Bukharan Jewish musicians have also performed the shashmakom to Hebrew spiritual poetry and share a common repertory of spiritual songs with Muslims, although they ascribe the texts to biblical, rather than Islamic, sources.
Assimilation of Islamic music and chant into Jewish liturgical practice has been facilitated by the overlapping social and religious worlds of Muslims and Jews. For example, Jewish musicians have long been active as performers of art song among urban Muslims in Central Asia (see below, §V, 1).
Moreover, a number of these performers were chalas (hidden Jews), who outwardly practised Islam but secretly preserved Jewish ritual traditions. Certain non-canonical practices have been borrowed from Muslims, for example antiphonal funeral laments called haqqoni (from Arabic haqq: ‘truth’ – one of the names of God frequently invoked in Iranian Sufism), which are sung by men and resemble the tensed, high-tessitura katta ashula performed by a Muslim hāfizduring the Sufi ritual of dhikr, and shaydo-i ovoz (Persian: ‘chant of one possessed’), a rhythmic funeral chant led by a professional female mourner (guyanda) with refrain singing provided by other female mourners. When the deceased has not witnessed the wedding of a son or daughter, shaydo-i ovoz may assume a highly emotional form, often accompanied by drumming.
Among paraliturgical practices, the chanting of the Sefer ha-zohar is an important element of synagogue worship and provides one of the main vehicles for the display of cantorial talent (ex.28). Excerpts from the Sefer ha-zohar are chanted not only at the start of morning and afternoon services, but in the home during Sabbath meals, and on occasions commemorating the dead. Singers use different melodic modes and melodies to adapt the performance of the Sefer ha-zoharto these various occasions, and successive verses are often performed in turn by different singers, each striving to display vocal virtuosity in a kind of undeclared competition.
Other popular forms of paraliturgical song include a large corpus of Sabbath hymns (Heb. shi'ra), songs for Holy Days, among which Purim, Simhat Torah, and Pesah are especially rich, and festive dance-songs performed at life-cycle celebrations known generically as toi, especially at marriages or circumcisions. In Bukhara and Samarkand, groups of female Jewish entertainers (sozanda) operated like a guild, singing and dancing at both Jewish and Muslim tois, and accompanying themselves on frame drums (dâyra) and stone castanets (qayrak). All these forms of paraliturgical singing share a tendency towards the alternation of solo verse and choral refrain, encouraging communal participation in music-making.
With the increasing freedom to practise their religion that accompanied the break-up of the Soviet Union, Bukharan Jews came under the influence of missionaries from the hasidic Lubavitcher sect, who introduced changes intended to bring the Bukharan liturgy in line with Orthodox practices. At the same time, many Bukharan Jews emigrated from Central Asia to New York and Tel-Aviv.
By the end of the 20th century, Central Asian liturgical traditions were arguably more alive in Tel-Aviv and New York than in Transoxania.
Jewish music, §III, 8: Liturgical and paraliturgical: Central and East Asia