Archive for July, 1997

Day 3 – Communication happens in many ways

Communication happens in many ways. I was moved by Aby singing a Sufi melody and enjoyed the musical interplay between myself and Mayra with her remarkable voice and dombra playing. Music breaks down barriers.

03ballon.gifWe planned for months so that the technology of our project would do likewise; however, for the first few days some crucial pieces of equipment let us down. It has been a fraught time as we build stories for each day for transmission at 9pm only to be jilted at the final hurdle by an unhelpful portable satellite. Gary slowly deteriorates into a shadow of his former self after long days and even longer nights creating web sites and speaking to unhelpful people in far flung corners of the globe. At first the Inmarsat network wouldn’t send my bad spelling around the world. The box that was meant to send the data decided not to play ball. Various attempts to get a good signal included a 4.30 am trip into downtown Almaty searching for a powerpoint amidst late nights vodka stalls. On this last satellite trial a crowd of curious young men gathered, accusing us of being ‘James Bonds’ and making rather unsubtle advances towards Kathrin. Sadly it is all in vain. A new unit is ordered, the logistics of exchange of a large piece of equipment between UK and Kazakstan is underway. Once this has happened we hope to resume our conversation with the world.

03minstr.gifIt’s 10 o’clock in the morning and I am scheduled to meet the Minister of Culture for Kazakstan – Valery Kuzembaev. Possibly a very formal occasion, I wear my best T-shirt and Paul is even wearing socks (it’s 30 degrees already!). Gary is all keyed up to give a presentation on a multimedia laptop and Kathrin is ready to translate. Today given the occasion we have a local translator as well. Alia turns up in a trendy outfit, speaks perfect Liverpudlian scouse and plays a Gibson Les Paul guitar in a rhythm and blues band – just what we expected. It turns out Alia studied media at Paul McCartney’s fame school (LIPA) in Liverpool, England – the only Russian girl from Kazakstan ever to do this.

03boypol.gifThe Ministry of Culture resides in an old wooden building on Gogol Street. After some initial introductions the Minister began to tell us a little about the cultural situation in Kazakstan. “The difficult thing is the money”, he said. Everything else has to come second now.” Although this is the situation in London or anywhere in the Arts world, I get the impression that maintaining the level of cultural activity that was common here in Soviet times is very difficult. There are well-trained conservatoire musicians in Kazakstan, but unless they are star soloists employment must be difficult to find.The Minister himself is a violinist who taught at the Conservatoire. He explained to us that he still had students. He had once worked in a symphony orchestra in Mexico City. Opposite our hotel is a huge opera house but there are no queues of people to watch opera. It will be interesting to see whether there is anything scheduled for the next few days. The Minister seemed interested in our project and keen to support us in whatever way he could. He gave us the name of a well respected traditional musician whom we plan to meet tomorrow – she is a kobuz player. This is a traditional Kazak instrument with two strings, held vertically and played with a bow.


On our return to Kazakstan on 28th August we are hoping to venture into the Alatau mountains that surround Almaty in search of the nomadic roots of Kazak music. The Minister hoped he could arrange this. Fingers crossed, I could be in for an exciting few days towards the end of the trip.In the afternoon I headed for the voice of Asia Festival site in Gorky park (the other Gorky park). The main music events were not scheduled until 8 pm but during the day the park has the atmosphere of a public holiday. Everywhere families are enjoying the day out, boating on the lake enjoying the ferris wheels and roundabouts.


Karaoke is hugely popular and everybody from teenagers to mums and dads have a go at sing-a-long-a Beatles and some local Kazak pop. The karaoke units are very close together so you often hear three or four different tunes at once – interesting. There is of course not a dombra or kobuz in sight but there are some yurts, the local Nomad tents. I peered into one and was immediately invitedin for chai (tea). Very hospitable I thought and curled up on a fluffy felt cushion. Sat in the dappled light from the wheel shaped smoke hole in the roof, still sipping the refreshing sweet tea I admired the sumptuous felt drapery and also the intricate wooden framework which sustains their considerable weight. Its bad news for foxes as several pelts are hung as decoration from the ‘walls’, eagles aren’t too happy either – There’s a stuffed one perched by the door. Suddenly I’m filled with excitement at the prospect of seeing the real thing up in the mountains – complete with authentic music? Who knows. Then the tea bill arrives…. $25, ‘I made my excuses and left’.

Later on when we returned to the park the place had taken on a different aura. The entrance gate glowed in the dying sunlight and their was an air of expectancy as the young people of Almaty gathered and moved. The distant sounds of multiple Karaoke were almost softened into new age ambience and the odours of a hundred shashlyk stands merged into one ‘smoky’ haze. I bought a concert ticket and headed for the far side of the park.On the way I was enthusiastically requested to join a social gathering in the Yurt I visited earlier. After emphatically refusing several times (the polite thing to do) I was obliged, in the space of two minutes, to drink two vodkas and eat some decidedly chewy sheep meat. I again made my excuses but this time they had more weight as the team were waiting outside anxious to get to the concert.


As we approached the main stage it became obvious that this was no excursion into so-called ‘World music’. The entrance to the arena was guarded by an army of oddly dressed police. Young people were filing in through a maze of barriers. The stage, when it finally came into view, seemed out of place. It was Eurovision, Asia style. A large pyramidal shape pointed skywards over an outrageously lit ‘TV’ stage. Cameras and lights buzzed around the performers as they were ceremoniously wheeled on, one after another to mime to their overly prepared backing tracks. This was ‘pop’, a powerful symbol of an aspiration towards Western values and lifestyle. I watched a couple of local Kazak boys chewing gum and smoking, affecting “attitude” straight from a pop video.The performance standard of the singers from countries ranging from Italy to Kazakstan was good yet there seemed to be something lacking. Audience involvement seemed minimal, the modern production techniques had built a wall between audience and performer.


This was ‘live TV’ but ‘dead’ performance compared to some of the local traditional music. Occasionally one of the singers would use inflections from a traditional singing style but most of the pieces were indistinguishable from Euro-pop. Later on we sat in another bigger Yurt nibbling salad and, yes you guessed it, shashlyk. Out of the darkness came the heart rending sound of the ney, a simple end-blown flute. We were silent, the people outside seemed to stop moving. How is it possible that a single piece of reed can burn into the heart more than any over produced concert? As with the satellite, real communication is weakest when the technology is the message and strongest when you have something to say from the heart.

Join us tomorrow when we meet two highly esteemed musicians of Kazakstan who speak through their instruments, communicate through kobuz and dombra.

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Day 2 – I didn’t realise it would happen on the second day!

“I had hoped that during this trip I would have the chance to play the flute alongside some of the musicians I had encountered. I didn’t realise it would happen on the second day!”

02museam.gifThe museum of Kazak Musical Instruments has a surreal air about it. It’s a wooden ‘fairy-tale’ castle enclosed in a cocoon of Soviet administrative architecture. Surreal also because as you enter the building there is a feeling of setting foot in a timeless world of ancient practice and frozen tradition. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, the treasures inside slowly emerge. A large map of Kazakstan clearly displays the instruments of each of its regions. A few surprises for me – is that an ocarina near Almaty? Are harps so widely used throughout Kazakstan?

02aby2.gifThe six or so rooms that constitute the Museum are devoted mainly to three things. The composers of Kazak music (many of whom were once politicians in the Soviet system), the instruments (many originals used by the composers themselves) and some ancient artefacts which illustrate the origins of Kazak music. The rather sad looking musical instruments are ceremoniously displayed behind glass cases, deprived of a musicians touch. A small button now allows you to hear wonderfully ‘grainy’ recordings of their instruments. The playing sounds remarkably authentic and has an honesty about it. Some highlights include a bass dombra, presumably scaled up to provide the ‘low end’ to Russian designed Kazak ensembles and a selection of a horse hair string instruments. One of these is very similar to the West African “khallam” (from the Wolof people).

02jaws.gifAs we wandered around engrossed we were joined by Abylai, our friend who yesterday invited us to join him and his ensemble for a performance and chat about his world.Later I endeavoured to talk with Abylai a little about himself and about music. He was born in China, of Chinese parents, and went to a Kazak School. There is a large Kazak population in China, where the peoples are quite integrated. It was here that he acquired a taste for Kazak music. He studied music in Peking and since coming to Kazakstan in 1975 has been increasingly involved in local music. As something of a “musical nomad” himself he is liable to give you a list of all the styles of music he is able to play. He played us a musical medley which seemed to encompass most of Asia and considerable parts of Southern Europe. It was impossible to fathom the full depth of his knowledge in this short encounter. In one respect he emulates his mentor Al Farabi, he is a polymath, a philosopher, a performer and composer. Al Farabi is a famous name in Islamic scholarship, mostly for his Kitab al-musiqi al-kabir (the great book of music). This is a widely translated classic. Al Farabi was a true Hakim in the Islamic tradition, a man of wide learning. His scholarship extended to the religious sciences; mathematics, philosophy, astrology,physics and so on. Most importantly he was keen to convey the connections between these areas of knowledge which science now views as separate disciplines. Abylai could have talked to us for days about Al Farabi, as he had written about him extensively. My curiosity was certainly aroused and I made a mental note to do some reading-up when I get home. What else I could discover about this almost legendary figure from musicians here in Central Asia? Another important figure in Abylai’s opinion was Yasavi, a Sufi poet composer whose Mausoleum was depicted in the Museum. He performed a song composed by Yasavi. At this point Abylai’s voice lowered and his countenance became more reverent. We were all moved by this performance.

02shamen.gifIt was clear that in some ways at least Kazak music has changed little and the fact that the melodies we heard today are from the nomadic period seems to support this. Elsewhere, this way of life is still alive, even though these professional performance ensembles seem to be an urban, post 1917 phenomenon. The Soviet system seems to have been a mixed blessing. Whilst state ensembles were supported and musicians were paid, it may have brought about some changes in the music. Since independence, a living still has to be made and this means that the ensembles now frequently travel abroad to perform their music.Abylai was very keen for us to hear a ‘traditional’ ensemble. They gathered ‘concert style ‘ in their own auditorium in the museum . This curious round space, shaped like a yurt tent is made of wood and has an extraordinary resonance.


The instruments played were; two dombra, an accordion (probably from Russia) a bass dombra, a shetigen (a zither which probably originated here and travelled the silk road to become the Japanese koto), a frame drum with two heads (unusual), some castanets made of animal hooves (very loud) and an ulbek (an ocarina). The ensemble also featured a jaws harp, apparently a very ancient instrument.I had hoped that during this trip I would have the chance to play the flute alongside some of the musicians I had encountered. I didn’t realise it would happen on the second day! Mayra the dombra and ocarina player taught me a Kazak melody. This haunting but simple melody fits easily into our Western diatonic scale, yet somehow it has a decidedly non-European feel.


Music is too often cited as the international language but this time it worked. It will be interesting to see how I get on with the musicians further afield in Uzbekistan and the Fergana Valley

Tomorrow should present more opportunities for exploring East-West fusions. The Voice of Asia festival starts this evening. Log on tomorrow for a live update.

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Day 1 – We disembark with a sense of foreboding

After months of preparation and several near disasters, we finally land in Almaty. We disembark with a sense of foreboding.

01ussrwo.gifIn London, Heathrow customs hadn’t wanted us to board the plane with a satellite phone. After some wrangling Gary, the project’s producer, emerged from the customs’ office looking exhausted, we hadn’t even left the country! As the plane took off, the flight had been delayed for 20 minutes and we still didn’t know if customs had allowed the satellite aboard.The kit for this project when it’s packed consists of four large flight cases, including a 35 kg generator, several smaller cases of assorted gadgetry and our own bags. All of this together amounts to about 30 pieces of luggage. The prospect of getting all of this through customs avoiding x-rays was somewhat daunting. In fact, it turned out to be easier than expected. Arriving at our first hotel the fun really began. Getting the equipment to our 6th floor rooms, through lift doors approximately two foot wide became the team’s first real challenge.

Challenge number two was finding something to eat at midnight in Almaty. The choice seemed to be: Shashlyk, the local lamb-on-skewer speciality or some shops which sold antique bread and dubious looking slabs of processed cheese. We went for the cheese, complimented by a cup of tea and a lamb doughnut. Perfect. At 2.30 am we crawled to bed still without a very clear idea of where we were.

01janmln.gifMasha (one of our contacts in Almaty) had told us that the Voice Of Asia Festival had been delayed by a day. This meant our excitement at arriving in the midst of furious musical activity was curtailed. Still no need to be downhearted. Almaty like many other cities of the World often shows its true colours through its markets. London has Camden or Portobello, New York has Greenwich Village, Toyko it’s Ginza. The number 9 trolley bus took us from our hotel to Almaty’s central market. This outdoor and indoor market is a feast for the senses. The sights, sounds and smoky smells struck an immediate chord. The place is alive. The scene is literally on fire. ‘Shashlyk’ sellers prodding their charcoal barbecues filling the scene with flames and a familiar odour . Bustling colourful arcades with women chattering in dazzling clothes contrast with the serene fortune teller women with their small white and black stones.

01janmrk.gifThe people are mostly Kazaks selling and buying local produce which ranges from automobile parts to giant melons. As we walk through the markets, there is a sense you are in some surreal disco. The throb of 130 beats per minute Euro disco collides with the same a few meters away. The music ranges from three year old UK hits to bizarre remixes of Jean Michel Jarre and Ennio Morricone. Strange at first, then you pause in a cool shaded area and two ‘techno’ rhythms combine producing a more fascinating hybrid. Here we are in Central Asia hoping to meet traditional musicians yet all we have heard so far is heavy beat music.

Suddenly amongst the market chaos I stumbled across this glorious old gentlemen playing his Dombra and singing an ‘epic’ song (whose lyrics tell very long traditional tales).

01janred.gifThe Dombra seems to be the most popular instrument in this area – a two stringed long necked lute, tuned in this case in an open fifth (five notes apart) like a violin. The right hand technique is a gentle rhythmic strum with one or two fingers, the left hand utilizes the thumb, not just as a pivot but actually stopping the strings. This technique encourages parallel movement in the resulting melodies, a distinctive feature of Kazak Dombra music. Anyone familiar with Spanish guitar music, particularly Villa Lobos, will recognize the sound.
In the market Julduz and I posed for this photo with myself on miniature ‘tourist’ Dombra. Julduz helps run a stall selling Dombra amongst the fruit and vegetables. Interestingly she tuned her Dombra to fourths like a guitar.
Leaving the bustle of the market, we ate a picnic lunch in Panfilov Park and headed for the park’s memorial. This imposing tribute to the Soviets killed in two World wars constrasts strongly with market life. The monument, once a much visited shrine, is tranquil since independence.

01aby.gifTOMORROW – Also in the park, dwarfed by concrete Soviet architecture is the Museum of Kazak Music – a tiny traditional wooden building. Resident guide Abylai is burning to share with us his enthusiasm for Kazak music, but that’s another story. Join us tomorrow to hear Aby and his ensemble.

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Day 0 – Through the telling of stories we try and make sense of our world

‘Through the telling of stories we try and make sense of our world’.

I invite you to share a live story and a journey.

A story in the present tense, a journey about to begin!

Our ancestors gathered around the campfire, our grandparents the radio, our parents the TV. We gather now around the luminescent glow of the World Wide Web.

Is this the ‘The Global Campfire’?

The Millennium draws us to reflect. Our technology has woven a powerful web but has eroded personal contact, many of us crave a ‘sense of belonging’.

My journey in Central Asia is an epic quest. In the tradition of storytelling, I invite you to participate to engage.

Let me hear your voice.

I’m a musician. Musicians are traditionally storytellers, poets, philosophers, priests, teachers and inventors. In Central Asia this holistic role is alive. As we encounter these musicians, shall we rediscover the integration of life and music?

Nomadic musicians now settled in former Soviet cities, cling to their music. Do they retain an urge to wander?

This will be a ‘live’ journey from ‘concrete jungle’ to wild nomadic pasture. I will travel from the ‘Holy City’ of Bukhara through Samarkand, the ‘Pearl of the East’, along the borders of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Together with the nomads I plan to venture into the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan and the Alatau range of Kazakstan.

I want you to share and contribute to discovery, to meet others whose lives echo distant truths. We will encounter musical traditions and ancient rituals closer to nature and rooted in a shamanistic* past. The desire to search for ‘alternatives’ and ‘chase’ dreams persists.

Share your dreams

‘When we travel there is no past or future. We engage with the moment. So much that we take for granted, is suddenly in question as we pack our world into a suitcase.’

Much ‘modern’ life is built around obsessive planning for some mysterious almost mythical ‘future.’ When you travel you live in the ‘now’ – that for me is dangerous and exciting.

As this aircraft descends to Almaty on the 28th July I will again be truly alive!

I become ‘the digital hunter-gatherer.’ Tell me what you seek

What’s out there in that dark city full of new smells and unfamiliar sounds? What secrets lie on tomorrow’s page?

For the next six weeks share the sounds and culture of Central Asia, experience that sense of the present, engage daily with each new corners’ revelation.

The ancients said ‘the person who arrives is not the one who left’.

Join me on a journey of 2500 miles, a thousand faces and as many stories. As the ‘Old Silk Road’ merges with the ‘information superhighway’… perhaps we too will change?

  • ‘the drummer who gives life to the spirit’

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