Posts Tagged Asia

Day 27 – Two Weddings and a Satellite

We have set up the satellite in many strange places – it is surprising the number of times we have managed to get a clear view of the Indian Ocean receiver without venturing beyond the nearest road. Sadly there have been too many times when mountains, trees or Soviet apartment blocks have got in the way. Today we had to go somewhere. In a children’s playground in the suburbs of Biskek, Kyrgyzstan, English Nomads could be seen setting up a bizarre array of equipment – morning entertainment for the youngsters. The sound of a motor generator and sight of a ‘sputnik’ in the middle of their playground was too much to resist. After some confused policemen had left us a throng of children gathered and cheered us on as we connected to the world. No big flashing lights or music just Gary saying ‘great – another one off’. We asked them to return at 10 PM for part two.

27lenin.gifI had the opportunity to spend a late Sunday afternoon walking through Biskek with our new Kyrgyz translator Gulnaz Abdrahmanova. It has been 42 degrees for the last few weeks. Now, after a sudden rain, the weather is typically British and a welcome change for the team. One of the first things that strikes me is the people – they are, like in Almaty, dressed in ‘modern’ clothes, very different from the traditional Muslims of the Fergana Valley of two days ago. The city itself is wide, open and filled with Soviet style buildings and monuments. As we walked through Dubovy park filled with decaying carvings, Gulnaz explained how Biskek had bought up many Russian artifacts from other ex-Soviet countries – they were quite keen to pass them on! Biskek is the most ‘Russian’ city we have visited. It is the only ex-CIS city with a statue of Lenin still dominating it’s main square. It is difficult to know how most of the city react to these relics. Will Lenin last much longer? The people do seem proud of some of thier monuments, especially Urkuya Saliyevas a reformer from Osh who led the Kyrgyz female movement after the revolution.

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Along the main street there is the familiar mix of subway markets, karaoke cafes and photographer stalls. There are eccentric props used by the photographers including large white gorillas, dead birds in a palm trees and broken down cars. One street stall that caused the team much surprise was an evil spirit removal and fortune telling service. A man in jeans and green shirt waved his arms and hissed Shaman-like chants around each customer. A queue of women sat in the open as each were treated in turn. Our presence caused some embarrassment but we were told this service is very much in demand. Gulnaz’s husband goes once a year and she told me how valuable it was to him. I found it so strange to see this kind of thing performed so openly and I thought how much it differed from our meeting with Shaykh Kushkarov on day 20.

The musician, Kurmangazy Aiylchievich who we are going to meet tomorrow, is larger than life. There is something about him that reminds me of Shoberdy – the Baysun Bakshy [see Day16]. He is a wild, flamboyant virtuosic vodka drinker. Unlike Shoberdy he talks extravagantly about musical healing, Shamans and holistic principles but also plays popular hits at public functions.

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By reputation Kurmangazy is Kyrgyzstan’s top musician. I’ve been invited by Kurmangazy to a special location. A double celebration of a 70th birthday and a 50th wedding anniversary. As I climb the staircase of the ‘Kyrgyz National Restaurant’, I’m immediately struck by a sea of hats – the white Alpine-like national hat of the Kyrgyz nomads. The old women all wear head scarves softening their sun-gold faces, few smile, their heads filled with memories?

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The details vary but I’m sure these occasions have common ground the world over. Solemn vodka laced speeches about ‘fifty happy years,’ on a stage decorated with bouquets and fruit. Children reluctantly pushed to the front, perform party pieces – this time on the national instrument, the komuz. A special delicacy is presented to table – today it’s horse meat – another nomad symbol? Perhaps amongst the gossip there is nostalgia for a Soviet era of greater prosperity and a more certain infrastructure. Nostalgia tempered now by an influx of jobs in fizzy soft drink factories and the fluorescent appeal of catalogue fashions – it’s Sunday and everybody looks their best. In the key of slightly Eb auntie Flo will sing a song: ‘Her mother should know’ – the band struggles to follow.

27komuz.gifSpecial occasions need special music and Kurmangazy seemed happy to provide the crowd-pleasers. To European ears his band is a bizarre cocktail of popular Kyrgyz melodies, South American music, Jazz and Classical pops. His band are all accomplished conservatoire-trained musicians and appear very relaxed.

27kurm.gifKurmangazy fronts the band with a frantic energy, swapping frequently between his many wind instruments. The band’s funked-up versions of everything receive a somewhat cool response from the audience of over 50s. The medley of ‘Classic’ hits which Kurmangazy dedicated to us included snippets of Bach, Mozart and Paganini, all arranged in a ‘hooked-on-Classics’ style with a synthesised back-beat. He invited us to attend a healing session he will conduct at midnight!

Once again the team have to extricate themselves from a tricky situation. We are invited to stay and drink endless vodkas and eat horse with the band. Horse intestines are a local delicacy and it testifies to the wealth of the host that it was in plentiful supply. We were told each horse makes four plates of ‘delicacy’ and costs about 1500 USD. We decide to sneak off and send you this transmission.

27shawms.gifEmerging into the street we encounter a traditional wedding in full flight. Two surnai (shawm) players and a drummer play spiralling polyrhythmic music that makes you want to dance. The bride, groom and entourage arrive and a circle dance starts up in the street. Money is pushed into the hands of the dancers. There is a strong link here with the music of Turkey (the Kyrgyz people are a Turkic people) but the surnai is also very similar to the ghaita of Morocco. In France there is a similar double-reed instrument, the bombard. The double headed drum exists worldwide and in France it is known as the tabor. These connections must be well documented, but to see it in real life gives a startling sense of the cultural overlap between Europe and Asia.



Tomorrow we meet the extraordinary Kurmangazy again and hope to discover more about both his music and his research into ancient Kyrgyz culture.

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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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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.

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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.

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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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