Posts Tagged Alatau mountains

Day 33 – another half-ready kobuz nestled like a hibernating wild animal

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“It looked like a tree trunk”

For some time now we have been traveling from one Central Asian city to the next, in search of sometimes elusive musicians. It comes as something of a shock to find myself in dramatic mountain scenery within an hour of leaving Almaty. Seemingly vertical surfaces of rock carry the eye upward, to the hazy skyline.

We are camped by a stream in a beautiful valley, this feels like the first opportunity I’ve had to reflect on our journey. Thirty days on the road is a long time in some ways, but it has been a whirlwind tour. I would have been happy to spend weeks visiting any one of the musicians we’ve encountered. I have the impression of being allowed a brief glimpse into a fascinating and absorbing world.

Thinking about Raushan’s kobuz playing yesterday, its directness and simplicity, I felt the urge to improvise a piece about being here in the mountains. I have with me a simple three-holed flute from Africa, which seems the perfect instrument. It’s not every day you get to play in a concert hall like this. The wind carries the sound away very quickly and I feel small in such a vast location. It seems appropriate though – being here gives a sense of perspective on life.

33childs.gifWe had been told that the ‘village of the masters’ was one hour from Almaty. When Nomadmobile 4 set off we were unreliably informed that the village was over a 3000 metre pass. Looking forward to a spectacular ride through the Alatau mountains the Musical Nomad cavalcade started up. After what seemed like twenty minutes we turn off the main road across a small stream and up a steep rocky slope. Two large yellow apartment blocks and a small row of houses nestle in an avenue of electricity pylons. “This is the masters village” the driver informed us. My image of wooden shacks on a wooded hillside was immediately shattered. As soon as we switched off the engine several men began to display carpets and silver ware in the road outside the larger of the two apartments. The crafts are good quality and I bought a rug. Gradually a crowd of village children gathered and we become the centre of attention on a dull Saturday afternoon. They were confused by our presence – this place obviously doesn’t get many visitors.

33toleg.gifA man resembling Shayhk Kushkarov of Day 20 suddenly appeared and amongst his Kazak I recognise the word kobuz. I say Raushan’s name and immediately we have connected. The housing block is home to a community of craftspeople. Tolegen Sarsenbaev, the kobuz maker invites us in to his simple abode. He has a very friendly face, bearded with deep passionate eyes. I immediately sensed his creativity and devotion to his craft. This was a man used to working in harmony with nature. Three large rooms operate as workshop, bedroom , living room, artist studio and kitchen. A tree-trunk in his studio serves as a stand for his musical instruments which he says charges them with energy . He seems to understand why we have come and begins laying out half made kobuz’s all over the living room floor. They look wonderful. Variations on a theme for sure but in their raw state they have an embryonic perfection, living things almost ready. Another partially ready piece which caught my attention was a kobuz case. This looked like a tree trunk and inside another half ready kobuz nestled like a hibernating wild animal.

33toleg2.gifTolegen told me that most of his kobuz’s are designed on the theme of wild animals. He had a bird, a camel and a owl. The profile of the instruments were indeed animal-like. Tolegen described the shape of the soundboard, which on most instruments resembles a heart with a trench underneath. He said this helped the sound to flow from the bottom of the instrument into the centre enabling it to project forwards. He seemed enthusiastic to talk about the technical aspects of his work. I asked him about Raushan’s instrument, particlarly the fingerboard and the lifted nut. He said this was an experiment many years ago and Raushan had requested it particularly for her ‘cuticle’ technique we mentioned yesterday. He was keen to talk about the uses of his instruments and mentioned how the kobuz is a favourite of Shaman for inducing trance like states. He didn’t have a finished instrument to play to us so I showed him my kyl-kyiak which produced some amusement. He refused to play it saying it was ‘imitation kobuz’ So much for Kazak-Kyrgyz relations.

33tolpnt.gifWe also talked about Tolegen’s passionate interest in Shamanistic rituals and his recent meeting with a Shaman, Temish, in Kyrgyzstan at Lake Issyk-Kul. He met Temish when he stayed in the house of Ama, an ‘old and wise babushka’ who is teaching Temish all about the ancient traditions of zikr and Shamanic dances. Tolegen is now making a kobuz for Temish this is the instrument that Shamans used to play in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan during zikr’s. I was surprised to hear of Shaman rituals which include zikr. Zikr is an Arabic word used to describe a specific Sufi practice. Perhaps this supports Shaykh Kushkarov’s assertion that the two traditions are connected in Central Asia.

33camp.gifTolegen is keen to join a zikr next month for which he will hike across the river Yur-Kemin and the Kungey Alatau mountain range (over 4000m high) into Kyrgyzstan and then hitch a lift along Lake Issyk-Kul. I’m interested to know which of the instruments I’ve seen in his workshop is intended for Temish – I’m told he chose one shaped like a bird in flight – a metaphor for the animal spirit.

As we make camp a competition soon emerges for best attempt at rigging a tent. Paul’s team wins hands down, predictably with help from the girl guides. I take advantage of the ‘cold and cold’ running water and avail myself of that handy bush. Gary is in seventh heaven as he plays his Krygyz Komuz and rigs his satellite next to his tent. His feet grounded in the stream, at last a long way from a power point.


As the evening shadows shape new contours into the eternal hills, this is definitely a place to make music. I’m sure tomorrow will bring us closer to the nomad spirit of these Kazak people. We will camp near some mountain villages and via our new interpreter Moldira attempt a dialogue with their remote inhabitants. The musical nomad has truly landed….. ‘When you sleep outside your thoughts are as high as the stars’.

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Day 32 – Where there is spirit there is usually music

What oppression causes such sad faces in Almaty? In the hotel reception everyone glowers when you request directions to an urgently needed toilet. When I turn up for breakfast (the other half of bed and breakfast?) I’m marched off to reception where 8 dollars is demanded, cash, now! I smile at a floor manager (each floor of the hotel still has a KGB style ‘watchdog’). She glowers back uncomprehendingly. I point out my bathroom has no water to a hotel supervisor, she glowers at me for interrupting her chat with her friend. I assume this is all the legacy of the Soviet years – it will take a long time to heal these wounds.

Music is the food of the spirit. Outside of the modern cities that spirit seems more alive – perhaps further from beaurocracy and dogma?

In our absence no progress has been made on our proposed Yurt stay, we’ve been out of touch as Kyrgyzstan has no external phone service worth mentioning. We only have a few hours to organise this expedition.

Raushan Obrazbaeva – part two
What of music? One of my favourite musicians so far is Raushan, the hypnotic exponent of the kobuz. Her inspirational performance (Day 4) has remained a high point of the trip. I remembered she had spoken of musicians in the mountains. Perhaps she could help solve our predicament. I was also keen to ask her some more questions in the light of our experiences elsewhere in Central Asia.

In a small and rather noisy cafe in downtown Almaty we showed her how our Internet project had progressed. She was keen to hear Barkut (Day 29) the Kyrgyz kyl-kyiak player. Unfortunately, we did not include this track in our report but I showed her the instrument I had bought from him. Raushan was curious to play what she described as a Kyrgyz variant of the Kazak kobuz. She pointed out some significant differences in design, and sound. Unlike Western instruments, which are very standardised, Central Asian instruments vary widely. Kathy had also bought a Kazak kobuz, which was very different from either Raushan’s instrument or the Kyrgyz kyl-kyiak. The basic design of two string horse hair fiddle is constant – after that it seems to be up to the creativity of the maker. One of the main things Raushan pointed out about the kyl-kyiak was the different playing technique. She plays by pressing her cuticles on the strings like an Indian sarangi player (also a vertical fiddle but with sympathetic strings). The Kyrgyz players press on the strings with the fingertips. These differences are generalisations and there are pieces in the Kazak repertoire that demand different techniques.

“She plays with her cuticles”
Our conversation continued as we moved to the park to record Raushan in the open air – where she likes to play. [Also see Kurmangazi day 28]. She demonstrated some pieces that are inspired by animals – the wolf and the camel. I found myself astonished once again at the variety of expression that Raushan has, literally at her fingertips. Her instrument is close to nature in its simplicity. It produces a complex ‘unpurified’ sound with strong overtones. Raushan’s impressionistic renderings of animal sounds are very abstract in character, simultaneously ancient and modern.

Raushan also likes to play pieces from the European Classical repertoire, and she showed us how she changes the way she holds her bow to emulate a ‘cello. We could have chatted for ever about instrument design and playing techniques. We were conscious though that we had an expedition to organise and so time was short.

A kobuz masterclass and interview
Raushan told me of a village in the foothills of the Alatau Mountains only one hour away from Almaty – ‘The village of craftsmen’. Everyone there is a crafts person – the men making musical instruments and the women making clothing and jewellery. An instrument maker in this village had made her kobuz and she seemed delighted by my interest. It sounds like a beautiful area and apparently we can camp there overnight. Another region she recommends is a 6 hour drive away. This valley surrounding the Shinishke river has ‘real’ Kazak villages with people who still live in traditional ways. There are Yurt encampments – Nomadic herders settling in the rich pastures for the summer months. There is natural beauty. Thirteen thousand foot mountains, white water rivers and rare wildlife such as Ibex and Bobcat. Most importantly, Raushan told us that where there are people there is always music. She reiterated that Kazakstan is a very musical country. Suddenly our trip tomorrow is looking like an exciting adventure.

Raushan had given us some useful leads but we had a very short time to put the wheels into motion. This final week was meant to be a voyage of discovery and we seemed to be steering in the right direction. Nomadmobile 4 has to be organised – this time though we will be self-sufficient, living remotely, eating from carried supplies often miles from anywhere ‘civilised’. The electricity generator will now become our most important piece of eqipment as we send you daily episodes from deep in the mountains.

Jan ‘older and wiser’
Our Kazak interpreter Mary knew of an agency who were allegedly experts in the expedition field. Visiting their premises inspired some confidence. A large ‘ordnance survey’ style map of South East Kazakstan proudly enveloped one wall. In another room professional climbing and camping equipment. They seemed sympathetic to our requirements and listed everything we would require as we told them of our needs. We talked vehicles. Their first suggestion of a decrepit bus was soon jettisoned – the seats were lose, the bodywork crumbling and the wheels buckled. We stipulated two ‘modern’ Gazelle vans which would accommodate the Nomad team, cook, interpreter and drivers. There was also a lengthy conversation about safety. If we were in danger or someone was ill do we have a 24 helicopter rescue number? – they told us no general Kazak ‘mountain rescue’ service existed but the agency had a helicopter for emergencies. As the hours went on we realised we would have to furnish many ‘expedition’ items ourselves. A desperate rush around Almaty’s bazars and prestige shops then ensued. Gary, Paul and myself haggling with old women over the price of cheese and pears. On our way back through the commuter streets of Almaty, white shopping bags in hand we at last felt at one with the city – the locals around seemed to accept us. A pity that tomorrow we finally say good-bye to this, our most familiar city.

Tomorrow we head for the village of the masters, then on into unknown territory, little visited villages of Nomads and Yurts. Music? Who knows. Usually where there is spirit there is music

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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