Shams: Tajikistan’s answer to The Beatles

Article published on Dec. 13, 2007
From the magazine
Article published on Dec. 13, 2007
That’s how the band are known in their home country, where they are the most popular group around. Despite their success they’re still fighting the CD pirates and are broke at the end of the month

(Photo: EM/

In a basement in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, hidden behind the Musical Instrument Museum, the group rehearses and records their albums. An unusual setting for a successful band, it’s a small dark and empty sound-proofed room, with guitars and costumes lying around.

Formed in 1995, Shams are today one of Tajikistan’s best rock bands. Much has happened since their first gig in Almaty in Kazakhstan, where the original members were living to escape the civil war at home. After the ceasefire in 1997 they returned to Dushanbe, and the peace treaty was settled just a few months later. Since then the group of seven musicians, aged between 25 and 40, have made up the country’s most well-known band, amongst families and children as well as amongst teenage music fans. The line-up often changes but Shams’ continued fame is ensured thanks to their 37-year-old lead singer Nobovar Chanorov and guitarist Beropsho Rusvarta.

Using traditional instruments and electric guitars, Shams’ own unique style is a mix of traditional songs and original compositions. Exceptional melodies are combined with poetic lyrics and musical skill – a rare quality in a country flooded with US commercial music and cheap Russian techno. Other than the classic rock inspirations – The Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones – the group are fans of ‘Santana, Sting and Cheb Mami,’ says Chanorov.

The name ‘Shams’, meaning ‘Sun’ in Tajik, suits the band’s identity well. ‘The sun is the source of life. We like to write poetry, talk about god, about prayer, about nature and all that we encounter in life. Sometimes a love story. That’s all we need.’

Other than by setting out in business or working for an international organisation, in Tajikistan it can be hard to put food on the table. It is easy, however, to be a singer, as Chanorov admits: ‘It’s not hard to be a singer here. Everyone loves music, it’s a tradition for us.’

The members of Shams, who come from musical families from the mountainous Pamir region, have music in their blood. ‘We sing because we love it. It’s harder today than it was for our parents. In the past people sang just for the beauty of making music. Today people sing to make money’.

Listen to the Shams

Even though Shams are so famous, even though their songs are on radio playlists and everyone can hum their tunes, the band members make no money at all from CD sales. ‘We don’t even know how many CDs we sell, seeing that there are no official CDs sold here’.

It’s true – in all the record shops on Rudaki, the main avenue running through the city centre, it’s impossible to find a bona fide original CD. Only pirated CDs are sold and it is easy to see why – real CDs are often too expensive, so the cheap pirated ones still like hot cakes. For just 2 dollars you can buy any pirated video you want, for 6 dollars you can have the back catalogue of any current singer on mp3. ‘Luckily there are always concerts and wedding receptions to play – that’s how we know we’re famous, because we get so many requests. And that’s where people really live our music – not on a rip-off CD.’

‘Homo Sovieticus’: result of a wager started a year ago between Evangeline Masson, 24, and Patricio Diez, 26. Fighters and lovers of the east, they spent ten months backpacking through the fifteen former republics of the Soviet Union, from Uzbekistan to Estonia through to Russia. To mark the fifteen year anniversary of the fall of the former USSR, they met more young people from countries which today stand out from a communist empire

In-text photos: (EM), homepage (Leo Reynolds/ Flickr)