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A to Z of world music

Kurdistan may be a hopeful fiction, rather than a geopolitical fact, but to its far-flung inhabitants - in London and Berlin, as well as Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and Iraq - this notional state is intensely real. And music plays a key part in bolstering this ethnic identity. As a result, it's become a casus belli between the Kurds and their oppressors: in Turkey, all songs in Kurdish were until recently banned on pain of imprisonment, while in Iraq the penalty for singing them has sometimes been death. Only in Armenia have Kurdish musicians been left peaceably to pursue their art. The Rough Guide to World Music (Penguin) has an admirable chapter anatomising the past, present, and problematic future of Kurdish musicians everywhere.

Kurdish music, which predated (and helped form) Persian classical music, has accompanied work, weddings, births, funerals, and feasts for millennia. Its primary focus is on epic songs, whose heroes include that great 11th-century Kurdish prince Salahaddin - the Saladin of the Crusades. Its instruments are the flute, oboe, lute, spike-fiddle, drum and duduk (below); its styles are based on the same "maqam" forms that you find everywhere else in the Arab world.

With this heterogeneous diaspora, it's hard to single out "representative" exponents, but the Iranian family group The Khamkars have an exhilarating CD available here (Nightingale with a Broken Wing on the Real World label). Meanwhile, the exiled Turkish Kurd Sivan Perwer, who has now found a safe haven in Sweden, sometimes visits his fans in Britain. He learned the art of ballad-singing from his father, leaped to fame as a protest singer at Ankara University and in 1976 was forced to flee abroad. He's a tireless opponent of the racially oppressive policy of the Turkish government, but his philosophy is one of peace. He'd love to go back home, but fears reprisals against his extended family in Turkey if he did. Listening to his records (on the Global Heritage label) you can quite see why the Turkish authorities regard him as a threat: accompanying himself on the tenbur lute, he sings with a thrilling virtuosity in a huge range of styles.

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