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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