Jump to Content or Main Navigation

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

A Musical Encounter

Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Turkmenistan

Hear How the Dutar Captivated Dave.



My name is Dave Fossum, and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan, which is a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. It's bordered by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian Sea.

I was an education volunteer, a TEFL volunteer. I taught English in a school in a small town. There were about 500 students in the school, and I taught mostly to the older classes, and I worked a lot, also, with the teachers, helping improve their English and introducing some new teaching techniques. And that was my primary assignment.

Every Peace Corps Volunteer is assigned to a local counterpart, who is affiliated with your place of work, and mine was a man named Bäşim. And when I arrived to my site the first time, I had my guitar in my hand, and I stepped out of the mini bus that all the volunteers were in being dropped off at their sites. And there was Bäşim waiting for me. He saw my guitar, and he said, "Wow, you play guitar, that's fantastic!" I said, "Yeah, I play guitar, it's great!" And he said, "I've always wanted a Peace Corps Volunteer who was a musician and who played guitar."

So, he took me home to his house for lunch, and he showed me his local instruments, and it turns out he was a musician himself. He played both dutar and gjjak, and he liked to sing. He came from a family of musicians. His father was a popular local bagşy, a local singer. He has nine siblings, many of whom are also musicians, and his older sister, Mahri, is a very well-known folk singer within Turkmenistan. His oldest brother, Bilbil, is a virtuoso dutarist in addition to directing films and plays. His other brothers, Batyr and Cari, also like to sing at local weddings. One of his sisters is married to the number one pop star in Turkmenistan—that was a fun connection, as well.

One time in particular, I was about a year into my service, and actually, at the time, I was considering leaving early. I had an opportunity back in the States, and was thinking about taking it and actually had taken some steps to commit to that. But I went to a wedding in the capital with Bäşim, and his family provided the music. And as I was sitting there that night, just sipping tea with the locals, and the men in their huge sheepskin telpec hats, I had a moment where I just felt that if this was the most amazing experience, how could I possibly leave? That weekend came to an end, and I decided I wasn't going to leave. I went back to my site, and I talked to Bäşim. I said, "I'm staying, and I want to learn dutar. I’m determined. It's captivated me now, and help me find a teacher. Bäşim introduced me to his teacher, Annamuhammet Muğallym, we called him.

Annamuhammet Muğallym. "Mualem" means teacher in Turkmen, so it's a form of address. Annamuhammet Muğallym taught me dutar. I took lessons from him, initially, two to three times a week for an hour. But it quickly became something I was very captivated by—I didn’t understand it; I was frustrated. It's so different from western music that I would just spend hours and hours puzzled and just trying to make my hands work on this instrument. He also quickly became very interested in the fact that I was actually picking it up as an American and someone from such a different culture. I was already a musician; I’d been playing guitar for many years, so I was able to pick it up more quickly than most of his students. One hour lessons turned into two and three hour lessons, because he enjoyed it, too. And then staying for dinner and continuing. My final summer in Turkmenistan, I would spend five or six hours every day playing, many of those hours at his house socializing and spending time with his family, too.

When I began to play the dutar I thought this was something I would just be doing in my free time like other volunteers do when they read a book or watch tv, and I had certainly read my share of books, but this was going to be my next hobby or past time. What I discovered over time was that it was actually a project; it was actually something I was doing for the community. That was not my intention, but it worked out that way. I realized this when Peace Corps/Turkmenistan got a new country director. His first week in the country, he said he wanted to go see a site, and my site was within striking distance of the capital where our office is. So the staff said, "Why don't you go visit Dave?" He came out to my site, and I took him to my teacher's house, and we gave him a little concert. My teacher said something to him that I never heard him say before. He said, "We really appreciate what Dave's doing because an American is taking time to learn our music. It makes us feel valued, it makes us feel that there is beauty in our music that people from other cultures even appreciate."