Day 28 – Even the Wind Sings

28komuz.gifOn our journey through Uzbekistan we came into contact with a vast array of instruments. There were the lutes, Shoberdy’s dombra, Ari’s rubab, Abdurahim’s dutar and Mussafar’s tar to name but a few. The doira (frame drum) featured heavily in Fergana music and the gidchak (lap violin) in Bukharan maqam music. We also saw many other instruments in Samarkand such as the chang, trumpets, nais and surnais.

Traditional musical instruments in Kyrgyzstan do not seem at first glance to be as varied as in Uzbekistan. The key instruments here are the komuz (a 3 stringed plucked dombra, tuned tonic, fifth, tonic) and the kyl-kyiak (the bowed two string lap viol we first saw in Almaty on day 4). The one ‘som’ note (Kyrgyz currency) proudly displays both instruments, symbols of national identity. This identity was also evident in independence day rehearsals. Around the Lenin monument today, hundreds of children gathered in the midday sun. Dressed in bright sequined costumes and playing state issue komuz’s they practiced their routines. The sound was both inspiring and disturbing –

28univ.gifwhere is the individualism? In the West we expect at a young age to have a choice of musical instruments. Not surprisingly the cello-like kyl-kyiak is not present in today’s celebrations, it would be a nightmare to play, marching across city squares.

As this is a nomadic country there’s also a prevalence of rural, ‘shepherd’ instruments, some of which have been largely forgotten. Used almost as an accompaniment to nature rather than recital instruments, these include end blown flutes, jaws harps and side blown flutes – we find similar selections in other mountainous countries such as South America. In Biskek we are lucky to be guided by the multi-instrumentalist, Kurmangazy who introduces us to his collection.

28jkurm.gifKurmangazy and his friend and colleague Barkut Shatenov, play a huge variety of instruments, we only had time to see a few today. They performed in front of a large burzoi (yurt) in Biskek University, Department of Archaeology. In Central Asia it is possible to study the ‘national’ instruments in the conservatories. Barkut is a graduate of the conservatoire specialising in komuz and kyl-kyiak. He has considerable presence and mastery of his instruments and we later learned that he is a member of Krygyzstan’s foremost traditional music ensemble.

I asked Barkut about the melodies he played for us and he replied that some went back to the 18th Century. Whether this is part of a continuous older tradition or whether it has been ‘revived’ is hard to say. It is clear that professional players, here in Biskek are concert hall performers who

28komuz02.gifdress in national costume and may not have much first-hand experience of the original rural music. Both Barkut and Kurmangazy talked about visiting old, rural musicians to research their music. Kurmangazy asserts that to really understand his music it should be listened to in a rural setting where birdsong and the wind can be heard. Kurmangazy is trained as a classical flautist but he feels that since independence more people are interested in their national culture. He has adapted his classical technique to play a variety of wind instruments, some of which he has made himself. He is likely to produce unnerving vocal sounds at any time and there is a feeling that his sound world is inspired by nature. He plays mainly his own compositions and improvisations with titles such as ‘Conversations with Birds’, ‘Sailor’s Song’ and ‘Children’s Song’.

28kurm01.gifIt seems to be a feature of Kyrgyz and Kazak music that musicians will take a sound or rhythm that occurs naturally and translate it onto their instruments. By a process of alchemy this turns into something very poetic. A good example of this is Barkut’s performance of ‘Paravoz’ or train which the composer O. Tumanov, wrote in 1932 after hearing the first train in Kyrgyzstan. There are pieces based on galloping horses and waterfalls. Perhaps urbanisation has had a more disastrous effect on the music than we can comprehend. It is only through the efforts of a few musicians that the music survives in the cities.

The orientation towards nature, dimly perceptible through the din of modern urban culture may also be the reason why Islam never caught on. The Uzbeks already had a strong, settled urban culture before Islam (a very urban religion). The Kazaks and Kyrgyz were still fierce nomads. In the summer many contemporary city dwellers still head for the countryside to live in a burzoi for a month or two and relive their nomadic past.Deeply impressed by yesterdays parade of hats I’m off to buy my own at the Zum department store. I travel by Taxi – which is just another Lada with a light on top. I journey an epic 200 yards before grinding to a halt, we are out of petrol. Quick as a flash our friendly host Djik pulls out a syphon tube and a bucket, and we share petrol. All part of the rich “Central Asia Experience”.


Zum isn’t so much a department store as a bazaar with tickets. Like the infamous Gum store in Moscow you can’t spend money. You choose your item, show it to the assistant, get a ticket, go to a seperate money booth, pay, get another ticket, go back to where you started, and maybe get your item, though by now the assistant has probably forgotten who you are! I bought a hat and a tube of Fanta flavoured toothpaste. There are three sales floors with hats for sale on each – all at different prices! You can go up in the escalator but not down – once you’ve purchased you don’t deserve an escalator.

Each bizarre bazaar sells a variety of products, typically hats, bras, whips and toothpaste. The ramshackle atmosphere is quaint, like Littlewoods in the 50’s (for our British licence fee payers) or maybe the present New York Woolworths for all you colonials. My hat is brill – I will wear it at all forthcoming gigs.

Tomorrow we travel out into the Kyrgyz countryside to Lake Issyk-Kul and meet one of the last surviving rural musicians. Join us.


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