Turkmen folk traditions are similar to those of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Many Turkmen folk songs are based on traditional Turkmen poems and epics. Many songs have the name of the writer in the last stanza. This is an old tradition that dates back to a time when poets did this to prevent their rivals from stealing their work. See Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Turkmen music is most alive at weddings. Many Turkmen musicians make their living by performing at weddings. Many of these groups use Western instruments such as fiddles and accordions rather than traditional Central Asian instruments. Even so the musician stay true to their roots. [Sources: Rough Guide to World Music]

Ashkabad is a group from Turkmenistan that has recorded for the Real World label and performed at the WOMAD Festival. Many foreigners like them, The five member group features a clarinet, accordion, fiddle, hand drum and dombro. Their music has a solid Middle Eastern beat and wild lute and according playing and excellent violin playing, The group has traditionally played at weddings. The music is influenced by the music of Persia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. A good CD is “City of Love “ (Real World CDRW).

Bakhshi Singer-Storytellers

The nomadic traditions of the Turkmen people are reflected in rich oral traditions and epics such as Koroglu traditionally sung by itinerant bards called bakhshi (bakshy), who also often acted as healers, shaman and magicians. Bakhshi sang either without an instrument or with an instrument such as the two-stringed lute called dutar. [Source:]

Bakhshi have always been honored and respected in Turkmenistan. They have traditionally wandered with their songs from one village to another. Villagers prepared for their visits in advance: they arranged conversation topics, a place for the event and entertainments. They unrolled a carpet on the big platform and light a big fire. A few meters from the fire a dastarkhan (feast cloth) was set with fruit, chel-pek (thinly cut fried dough) and other goodies on it. Sometimes as many as 2,000 people showed up to listen to a bakhshi. [Source: =]

According to Turkmen customs, a bakhshi wore special clothes: a don (heavy cotton wool dressing gown), telpek (an Afro-like wooly cap made of white and black ram’s wool), a white shirt, soft skin boots and wide trousers. They drank water taken from their own well, and used their own canteen to carry it everywhere with them.=

Bakhshi typically started singing at five-six o'clock in the evening and continued until eight or nine o'clock the next morning. After each two hour session he took a short 10- to 15-minutes break, during which he drinks tea and chats with people. The bakhshi is at all times accompanied by an assistant who knows his habits and tastes very well. =

Turkmen Musical Instruments

The Dutar — a lute-like stringed instrument — is the most well-known Turkmen musical instrument. The word dutar is derived from the two Iranian words: du (two) and tar (string). The most ancient musical instrument (said to date back to the A.D. 3rd century) is the oscar. It is a ceramic wind instrument that produces a sound similar to a flute. It and similar instruments are popular not only in Central Asia but also in India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. [Source: =]

The dutar consists of three parts: the body (kedi), neck (sap) with frets (perde) and lid (gapak). The body is made of mulberry wood, the neck of apricot wood stuck with 13 frets of metal wire. In the past the dutar had silk strings and the melodic string (lower first ) consisted of 8 silk strands spun by hand and the second string consisted of 10 starnds. Metal strings came into use in the 1930s with the need to increase the loudness of of the instrument. [Source: ||||]

The gopuz is a Jews-harp-like instrument with a vibrating reed. A musician holds it with his lips and uses his tongue to produce a very unusual sound. Another popular string instrument is the ghidzhak. It is played with a bow, and is sometimes called an Oriental violin. =

The tuiduk is a wind instrument similar to surnai, an instrument played throughout Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. Turkmen say that when Adam was moulded from clay he had no soul. It was only after the melodious tuiduk playing of the Archangel Gabriel that life was breathed into him. According to a Turkmen legend the devil played a central role in inventing the tuiduk. According to one old Turkmen tradition, which purportedly dates back to ancient times, two tuiduk players stand in front each other, point their instruments upwards and play in unison before guests who have gathered for a celebration. While doing this they perform magic circular movements that are believed to be part of old shamanist rituals. =

The zhulzhul is an instrument played by children shaped like a mountain goat or bird, usually a nightingale. It is similar to the Kazakh tas-tauyk (stone chicken) or uskirik. The instrument has two finger holes, and a blowing hole. By direct blowing only three sounds can be made but by blowing harder the range can be doubled. It is easy to play and produces a whistling sound. ||||

Turkmen Songs

Topics of traditional Turkmen songs are often connected with different aspects of people's lives. Mothers sing lullabies to their children; children sing during their games; family members of the bride and groom sing during a wedding; women sing labour songs while weaving carpets and milking camels. Shepherds sing songs to calm their animals. [Source: =]

Epics, poems, fairy tales, legends and stories are often sung or at least rhythmically chanted. The great Turkmen epics are often combined with poetic verses which are sung with a dutar as accompaniment. Traditional Turkmen singing is very unique. Singers strain their vocal cords to reach very high notes. The demands of living is steppes and deserts along with the nomadic lifestyle produced the habit of talking loud so one can be heard over a long distance. Such loud singing contrasts sharply with the silent gentle sound of a dutar. =

Improvised instrumental variations of songs are common in the Mary area. Musicians of this area can play versions in different time and rhythm. This tradition also exists in Akhal. The term "mukam" in Turkmen folk music signifies a group of developed instrumental pieces, pieces of music with a similar harmonic structure, or a complete performance of bakhsha and sazandar lasting some 10-12 hours. ||||

There are links between Turkmen music and the music of other peoples. The "Mukamlar bashy' and "Meshrep" appear in Uighur mukams, and the titles "Koche bagy' and "Torgay-gushiar" turn up in Uzbek music, as do the "Turkman kyuy' among the Kazakhs. The melody "Garadeli", favoured by the Karakalpaks, is associated with the name of the famous Turkmen musician Garadeli Goklen (1800-1880). Some pieces of music bear the names of Turkmen tribes and clans. These are the "Yylgaylar", "Memish gbkleng", "Bayat iline", Ybrayym-shadilli" and "Saltyklar". ||||

Music Under Niyazov

Saparmurat Niyazov, the first President of Turkmenistan, banned car radios, opera, ballet and the playing of recorded music on national holidays, television and even at wedding parties. He issued the ban on recorded music in a 2004 decree to protect traditional musicians from “negative influences” such as lip-synching. In a televised address, Niyazov said: “Unfortunately, one can see on television old voiceless singers lip-synching their old songs. Don’t kill talent using lip-synching...create pure new cultre.”

Singers and composers who were asked their opinion on the matter agreed the decision and thanked Niyazov for his parental care. A singer by the name of M. Bayramgeldiyev was quoted in the Times of London saying: “It is impossible to express one’s deep love of the homeland, people and the native land when there is a sound of recording instead of live voice and live sound.”

The BBC reported: “Niyazov's decree was published in the official daily newspaper Neitralny Turkmenistan (Neutral Turkmenistan). It banned sound recordings "at musical performances on state holidays, in broadcasts by Turkmen television channels, at all cultural events organised by state... in places of mass assembly and at weddings and celebrations organised by the public". The president was quoted by the newspaper as saying the move aimed to "protect true culture, including the musical and singing traditions of the Turkmen people". [Source: BBC, August 23, 2005]

Poems and Ripped-Off Songs by the Turkmen President

At a concert in Ashgabat honoring Turkmenistan’s Independence Day, some poems of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov such as "Go! And only forward native land - Turkmenistan! " — that had been put to music by the president — were performed. The newspaper "Turkmenistan: the Golden Age " reported:"This inspirational song sounded like a beautiful melody of the country, every day life is marked by great victories, labor achievements and, indeed, a national holiday. " The newspaper is noted that the concert was attended by "heads of the Mejlis (Parliament) of Turkmenistan, members of the Government, heads of military and law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organizations accredited to Ashgabat diplomatic missions and international organizations." [Source:, news from Ukraine and Russia, October 31, 2014 +]

The poem, "Forward! And only forward native land - Turkmenistan! "was published on October 2014 in the newspaper" Neutral Turkmenistan ", together with a portrait of Berdymukhammedov. In Turkmenistan secondary schools students study Berdymukhamedov poems such as "Bird of Happiness" (President of the father), "The Good Name of Incorruptible" (his grandfather) and "Living Legend" (about Turkmen carpets). Students also study a novel about the president — "Grandson, to Realize the Dream of His Grandfather" — "Ode to Joy", written when Berdimuhamedov was named "Man of the Year" in Romania, as well as poems of praise for the horse of the president. +\

In 2011, Radio Free Europe reported: “Berdymukhammedov has surprised his people by making an appearance on stage to perform his new song. Before a packed house, he is shown in a video running above the stage strumming a guitar to the accompaniment of...himself, shown also playing accordion. It was no doubt hard for many to believe their president was also a songwriter, and indeed, there is reason not to believe it. Although state television has identified Berdymukhammedov as the writer and performer of the song "My White Rose For You," it bears an uncanny resemblance to "On My Wedding Day," written and performed by Dovlet Amanlykov and posted on YouTube in 2009. Still, it was a look at a lighter side of Berdymukhammedov, whose attire seemed to have come from the American children's show "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood." And the video of him "rocking out" in Ashgabat did have people on their feet. Who would dare to sit while Turkmenistan's head of state was crooning on stage?” [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, August 16, 2011]

Jennifer Lopez Serenades Turkmenistan President

In July 2013, Jennifer Lopez sang at a birthday concert for Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The performance was condemned by human rights groups as Berdymukhammedov had been accused of committing numerous human rights abuses. Lopez's publicist said she would not have performed had she known there were human rights issues in the country. [Source: Adam Sherwin, The Independent, September 3, 2013 ^*^]

Christie Dzurilla wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Jennifer Lopez “was apologizing for singing "Happy Birthday to You" to the president of Turkmenistan at a concert in that country. Seems the concert was put together on behalf of China National Petroleum Corp. for the entertainment of their executives working in Turkmenistan, according to a statement from J.Lo's rep obtained by E! News, and "was not a government sponsored event or political in nature." "The event was vetted by her representatives, had there been knowledge of human rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended," the statement continued. However, the corporation folks made a last-minute request for a "birthday greeting" before the singer took the stage, and President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov got a 56th birthday serenade. [Source: Christie Dzurilla, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2103 ***]

“The Human Rights Foundation criticized the performance in a strongly worded statement released Sunday, prompting the apology. According to the nonprofit, Berdymukhamedov has "ruled the country with an iron fist since 2006." The HRF statement, which listed the country's alleged rights abuses and cited other groups' rankings of the country among "the worst of the worst," was not without a bit of snark. "Lopez obviously has the right to earn a living performing for the dictator of her choice and his circle of cronies, but her actions utterly destroy the carefully-crafted message she has cultivated with her prior involvement with Amnesty International’s programs in Mexico aimed at curbing violence against women," said the foundation's president, Thor Halvorssen. "What is the next stop on her tour, Syria? The dictator of Kazakhstan’s birthday is July 6, maybe she will also pay him a visit?" Halvorssen asked. ***

“It's not the first time Lopez has found herself a focus of international attention linked to a concert in a situation where human-rights abuses have been alleged. In July 2010, Lopez canceled a performance that was to celebrate the opening of a hotel in the breakaway northern part of the island of Cyprus. Some saw Lopez's planned performance as an endorsement of the self-declared state. "Jennifer Lopez would never knowingly support any state, country, institution or regime that was associated with any form of human rights abuse," said a statement issued at the time of the cancellation. That gig, scheduled for J.Lo's 41st birthday, reportedly would've come with a $3-million paycheck.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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