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An introduction to the Turkmen dutar, from Shukur Bagshy to P. Saryyev

Written by on Tuesday, 2 October 2012
Culture and History, Turkmenistan

Traditional dutars. Photograph by Flickr user Allan Grey (CC-usage).

When the world thinks about the Turkmen, what comes to mind? Natural gas, carpets, and Akhal-Teke horses, and maybe most of all, the dutar. One can’t think of Turkmen art and culture without thinking about the dutar. This post is intended to introduce readers, especially from outside of Central Asia, to the instrument.


The instrument’s been with us for a long time. Archaeological finds in Mary [Merv] such as the “wandering bakhsbi” or the Toprak-kala manuscript, which contains a picture of a girl musician, demonstrate this.

The word “dutar” doesn’t actually appear until the fifteenth century. Previously, it was called “tanbur”, “tambur”, “tambura”, and “tamdyrd” (the last still crops up among some Turkmen), e.g., the fourteenth century poet Khusayynguly-murze:

Perdeter arkaly soz sozleyen tamdyramyn tary
Gulak sal, ol menin yurek syrymy beyan ediyer.

In Turkmen destans, one finds the word “saz”, which signifies either a tune or a musical instrument, and appears in the widely-known epic destans of “Görogly”,” Shasenem-Garyp”, “Asly-Kerem” and “Nejep-Oglan”. Some classical poets have used the word as a synonym for dutar, e.g., Seyitnazar Seydi:

Yogyndan getirsin, yukadan yonsun
Sapy menek-menek, her yana donsun
Chalanda ustune bilbiller gonsun
Gosha dilli gyz sypatly saz bolsun


The dutar consists of the following parts: 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. The wood should be fruity, otherwise you can’t get a nice voice from the dutar, but these special material requirements can sometimes make production challenging. When/if you get the wood, you should dry it during the summer under a strong sun, which also enhances the sound.

In the past, the dutar had silk strings. The melody string (lower first) consisted of 8 silk strands spun by hand, and the second string consisted of 10. Metal strings came into use in the 1930s due to changing performance spaces (amphitheaters), which meant there was a need for the instrument to be louder.

The republic’s educational institutions nowadays use mainly reconstructed dutars which are of imperfect quality and can onlyreproduce the color of traditional melodies with difficulty. Increasingly, though, there is a return to the good quality traditioal dutars, especially for major instrumental pieces such as “Kyrklar”, “Saltyklar” and “Mukamlar”.

Famous performers

The most famous dutarist has got to be Shukur Bagshy (1838-1928). The son of an agriculturaist, he was born in Gokdepe etrap and lived in the village of Dushak. His first teacher was Aly bagshy, and he took courses from Garadali Goklen, a famous dutarist at the time. Shukur has an uncountable ouevre, but his most famous pieces are “Salmadan bökdüreni” and “Söýli halany”, which are still listened to today. Legend has it that he rescued his brother from İranian soldiers by competing against — and defeating — the famous Gulam Bagshy of Iran. It’s actually quite an exciting legend, because as they were fighting, a string off of Shukur’s dutar. Everybody thought it was the end for him, but Shukur kept right on playing, using only one hand.

Spur of the moment dutar performances are common in Mary Welayat and Akhal. Musicians from there can play in all sorts of different time sequences and rhythms. This tradition also exists in Akhal. There can be huge differences between dutarists: the song “Satashdym” when played by P. Saryyev differs greatly from that played by M. Tachmuradov, although the two were both pupils of the same player, Kel-Bakhshi.

Moreover, there are some singers that mix dutars with modern pop music and produce a new style of song [Ed.: See Annasoltan's post for more information]. An example is Begmyrat Annamyradow, who’s been well-received by the population. It’s good, because he’s keeping the instrument alive among teenagers, who are much more interested in modern Western instruments like the guitar, keyboard, etc. So, people like Annamyradow have a big mission on their hands. Our government should be more sensitive to this and support dutarists, e.g., with competitions, festivals, etc.

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