The 1881 genocidal massacre of Turkmen people by imperial Russian troops in the village of Geök Tépé forever altered the musical culture of the Muslim nomadic tribes of Central Asia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Tsarist Russia’s thirst for conquering new territories fueled a desire to access commercial routes and the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean. Occupying the Turkmen lands was as a primary goal as the Turkmen nomadic lifestyle in the area presented a threat to the stability of the southern part of the Russian empire. Russians decided to attack the Tekke Turkmens who lived in Akhal to subjugate them. The vast conquest was accompanied by the mass killing of people to gain access to their lands and resources while expanding the Russian empire. In the battle fought at Geök Tépé, approximately 15,000 Turkmens, mostly innocent civilians, were killed while the Russian army suffered only around 400 casualties.
In the absence of written history, Turkmen collective memory predominantly relied on songs and melodies. For the Turkmen, the most important events, including the massacre, were remembered in music passed down from generation to generation, thereby building a collective cultural identity. The melancholic instrumental and vocal muqam performed by traditional musicians have for generations expressed collective grief. Turkmen muqams include three main categories: music inspired by real events in society, heroic and lyrical muqams, and descriptive muqams. In the music inspired by real events in Turkmen society, bagşys performed the role of historians or narrators of the Turkmen history and communicated historical facts through their music. These muqams are often found in times of war conflict, or injustice. The Geök Tépé muqam is likely the most famous of them all.
Learn more in “Geok Tepe muğam: A musical narrative of Turkmen massacre in 1881” by Arman Goharinasab and Azadeh Latifkar, an essay included in the volume Music and genocide (Peter Lang, 2015). Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.
Below is a video featuring a contemporary muqam performance by Zuleyha Kakayewa and Hatyja Owezowa on television show in Turkmenistan.