Posts Tagged Charyn river

Day 37 – Timeless songs for the next generation

37agul1.gifI almost didn’t meet Aygul. As soon as I arrived in the village of Saty I was told of a dombra player I simply must hear. “Not another dombra player” went the cry. What a wonderful surprise then to meet a young girl of thirteen with such talent and charisma.

The Musical Nomad project is all about discovery. Finding out through the universal language of music about a people and their culture. On our penultimate day we left our campsite with very little hope of finding musicians. We headed for a town called Saty (meaning steps in Kazak) about 30 minutes drive away. We came out of the fertile tributary valley and into the wide, barren plain of the silty Charyn river. On our way smoke could be seen billowing from the grassy forested areas of the valley peaks. Occasionally a flame would explode, twenty or thirty feet high. The long hot summer is taking its toll and forest fires burn freely and naturally. In the long brown grasslands horses and cattle barely move in the midday heat. Suddenly the dusty road turns into the town.

37fire.gifWith very little to signify a transition, a row of houses appear. The town stretches for about a mile, the wide road lined on each side by wooden farm and administrative building. Next to a large yellow school a wooden hut doubles as the main store. We approached and bought drinks. We asked the shopkeeper if there are any local musicians. Moldira, our interpreter, scribbled down three names. One is an old man who apparently sings. We went to his house. A mad wolf-like dog attacked me. I then learned that the old man is ill and cannot be seen. I suspected the other contacts would prove as fruitless. It was now the hottest part of the day and we were trying to track down the second contact. Local people in the street seemed to point in the same direction when we ask. A group of teenagers passed us with a guitar. The guitar has a skull etched into the back and the boys also pointed in the same direction.
37agprnt.gifWe followed a road through the dusty, cattle infested streets. There was an air of sleepiness about the town. Occasionally a wagon filled with hay to dangerous levels careered carelessly through the narrow roads. We stopped near a large metal gate. Moldira peered over the top and confronted an old lady. After a short conversation I found out that this is a musical home. The whole family play dombra and sing. The daughter has won competitions and the eldest brother, currently working in the field, plays weddings and is well known to everyone in the village. We told the old lady, Salima about our project and who we are. She seemed almost expectant of our arrival. She invited the whole team with full equipment into her garden, her house, her world. A small girl in school uniform skipped towards the house. The garden is large. There are stables, small orchards and white clay ovens for cooking and bread making. This family like many others in this area are self sufficient. Salima asked us to take our shoes off and come into the house.

37agul3.gifInside the house we were shown around by Salima and introduced to her daughter, Aygul. Looking like any thirteen year old just back from school she greeted us politely. It was only a little later we discovered that she was the star musician of the family.

The traditional village house is small and simple, but very homely. The entrance way is wood panelled on the outside giving a very ‘alpine’ feel and metal clad on the inside. This looked, rather disconcertingly, like the inside of a spaceship with resonance’s of Shaykh Kushkarov’s centre. See day 20. Presumably this had some functional value of which we were not aware. Certainly the house was very cool. Within ten minutes Aygul was changing into national costume. She assumed an extraordinary presence as soon as she took the dombra into her hands. Seeing so many musicians in such a short space of time can cause the palette to become jaded. Aygul’s fresh and direct voice has a poignancy and honesty that is rare among performers of any age. All of us were touched by her performance. Aygul has recently won a music competition and so is no stranger to performing. She appeared on Kazak TV as a result. This might explain her natural manner in front of cameras and microphones. The fact that her family are all musical may also contribute. Whatever the reason it was noticeable that neither Aygul, or her brother Nurlan seemed in the slightest bit perturbed by our presence.

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People arrived at the house, watched, drank tea and left as if it was all completely normal. This was good for us as we didn’t feel we were putting them through an ordeal. Nurlan has an unusually strong and intense voice with an energetic style of dombra playing. He has been a school music teacher but now works the fields. He performs professionally at weddings (toys) and on public holidays. He’s been playing since childhood. It seems that both he and his brother have helped Aygul to learn to play, but they stress the fact that she had a desire to learn.

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She learnt naturally – in other words she’s largely self taught. Aygul has been surrounded by music from a young age. Both have extraordinary voices which they describe as ‘coming from nature.’ For such a musical family it seemed strange to us that they don’t perform together. They possess only one working dombra, and they explained that ‘each person has their own voice’. This means presumably that they have different vocal ranges, but perhaps also different ways of expressing a song. Theirs is a solo singing tradition.Aygul sang a love song called ‘Altynai’. This song is addressed to a girl whose name means golden moon. These kinds of songs seem quite typical. Nurlan’s song ‘Karagymai’ was also a love song “Sweetheart, life without you is nothing”

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Last night’s campsite had little to commend it, previous incumbents had left a trail of empty beer bottles and cigarette ends. We decided to move on and spend our last night on the steppe somewhere we wished to remember. Only twenty minutes drive found us further down the valley with a cleaner site and a clearer river.

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I decided to light a fire, to gather one last time around the ancient embers – to reflect. With singers like Aygul and Nurlan the tradition is in safe hands and some timeless songs will probably pass to the next generation. Tomorrow we journey 8 hours back to Almaty. The Musical Nomad project nears an end. Please join us as we, the Nomad team share our personal reflections on a journey that has changed us all.

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Day 35 – as words fail Diana dies on the Kazak Steppe

In 1961 there was no such medium as the World Wide Web. Had it existed it would probably have failed to announce the birth of Diana Spencer. Last night we stood in a Kazak field a thousand miles from anywhere and logged on with our daily episode. As the news of Diana’s tragic death was announced we stood in disbelief and horror. The national anthem rang out across the Kazak steppe and we fell to silence.

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The morning light revealed a lone horseman tying up his horse near his yurt. I approached with a smile and shook hands. His wife and young son joined us with more smiles. I pointed to my video camera asking permission. A gesture and a nod and he mounted his horse, parading with some pride. His young son then took the reins. Eager to share something I offered him a playback of the video. One by one the family watched themselves and amongst the Kazak speech the word ‘Television’ emerged. For the second time in a few hours communications technology found a strange role.

The horseman then gave me his horse whip as a gift, no doubt to him a valuable asset. I gave him a wooden flute in return. Sometimes human understanding has it’s own language even as words fail.

35horse.gifMy encounter with Bulat, his wife Gulja and son Almas, had to be curtailed because of our voyage of discovery to a local village. It was only a 15 minute drive from our campsite and it took us further up a scenic tributary valley of the Charyn River. As we neared the village distant snow covered peaks appeared above the wooden rooftops. Alongside each of the valley walls pine forests increased and an occasional shepherd on horseback darted in and out of the rocky outcrops. We passed a hillside graveyard and someone whistled the theme from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, this really is the town with no name. At this time of the day most villagers are on the hillside working the land or herding sheep.

35stday.gifWe had made the decision that this part of the journey was to be an adventure. No ‘fixed up’ professional musicians. We are in the Kazakstan wilderness and we intend to discover local musicians the hard way. We stopped and spoke to a passing ‘horse man’. Did he know of any local musicians? The driver communicated by making guitar poses and saying the words dombra and komuz. To our amazement the horseman repeated the word komuz and beckoned us to follow him. Our first conversation with one of the villagers and he seems to be a komuz player! We go to his wooden house fifty metres further down the road. He holds up his hands and says ten tenge (Kazak currency) whilst pointing towards a bucket full of milk. Moldira suddenly tells us the word for milk here is kumyz. Ah well, we thought things were going too smoothly.

A bit further down the road we decided that we need a different approach. How do you find about the cultural life of a small Kazak Village?

35kids.gifAt that moment we passed a building that looked like a school. Children were assembled in a courtyard singing a song which turned out to be the Kazak national anthem. In every school I’ve known the head teachers have always been a mine of information regarding the parents of the children. Perhaps this would be the ideal place to find out who the musicians are in the village. Being the first of September this was the first day back at school but the headmaster had time to talk to us. He was very friendly and welcomed us. The school is housed in a new building which seems well designed. The classrooms are cool and light and everything looks well organised. The word ‘welcome’ is displayed in English above the main entrance. This is possibly because the village is called Kurmetui which means ‘welcome’.

35stday2.gifIn the spirit of exchange we offered the school a short presentation during which we would play to them and tell them a little about our project. In return the headmaster offered to allow us to observe a music lesson. He also gave us the names of some musicians two of whom are teachers in the school. It will be fascinating to see how the children respond to our music and also to some of our technology. We will meet them tomorrow at twelve. Who knows what will happen?

Within a few minutes one of the teachers came strolling down the road with his dombra. Kuan, the sports teacher, is also a musician. On the verandah of the school Kuan stood proudly in front of a small group of school children and the Nomad crew. He warmed up by roughly strumming his instrument. This gave an impression of quiet confidence. Suddenly he began to sing and everyone stopped talking and listened. He had a powerful, resonant voice.

35kuan.gif After a short time he performed in front of our two video cameras, his headmaster and the school children. Occasionally he faltered, perhaps not used to this kind of pressure. As in electron microscopy the act of investigation changes the thing you are studying. We are now in a sensitive environment and our presence is possibly an intrusion. It has been my experience that in Central Asia and the much of the world music is often born out of intimacy and trust. Malika and Rakhimahon were good examples. Asking musicians to perform in a ‘professional’ way sometimes causes imbalance. The musicians become ‘the watched’ we are the ‘the watchers ‘. Even the school children, not familiar with cameras, began to freeze.


Tomorrow we will attempt to share.

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Day 34 – Take the first left on the A351

34cowboy.gifWe break camp at 9 am and leave the Almaty area passing the ominously titled ‘Panilov State Farm’. The A351 is a bumpy old ‘B’ road lined with fruit growers selling their wares. Delicious tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, remember those? Melons ooze sweet juice and the apples ‘tang’ in your mouth.

The mountains sit tantalizingly ten miles either side of the road. Horses run wild on the wide open plains. As we travelled we listened to the Kazak folk ensemble of Day 2. One melody that seemed very appropriate contained a Kazak traditional instrument – horses hoof castanets.

34camp.gifIn places the countryside is almost English but the rising thermometer shatters that illusion. There are ‘yurt’ shaped bus shelters decorated with colourful mosaic and men on horses with sun carved faces. Donkey carts pull whole families. Occasionally we encounter ‘the land that time forgot’ – rusting hulks of abandoned industry. Rows of dead cypresses await some forgotten promise of irrigation.

We are heading East from Almaty for supposedly 6 hours towards the Chinese border. In fact the journey turns out to be a 10 hour slog. Our route will take us enticingly close to China. This will be the furthest East that the Musical Nomad project will travel. The lanscape here is dramatic and mostly vertical, it is possible to drive for hours without seeing anyone.

34inter.gifDuring the journey we stopped off at the the Charyn River canyon. On some rocks precariously close to the edge of a 200 foot drop I chatted to Moldira our Kazak interpreter. (We have tried to include profiles of people that we have met on our journey. We hope to give a sense of the variety of lifestyles that still co-exist within a fairly small geographical area.)

I already knew that Moldira was a dancer and was very interested in music. So I asked her a bit about her life in Kazakstan.

Could you tell us about your job in Chimkent

34mold1.gifIn 1994 I worked in Chimkent, my native town. I was a producer of my own private music club. I had a music programmme on TV. It covered music from both the World and Kazakstan. It was pop music as young people were more interested in this rather than Kazak music. I was also a journalist in the local Chimkent paper called Sebja ‘My Paper’. The TV program was very popular because it was the only one of it’s kind and it was called M95. M for Music, Moldira and Molodjosh (youth). It began in 95. My program was on twice a week and in Chimkent it had 6000 viewers. I was very popular because I presented and scripted it.

Why did you leave?

The technical side was not very good and my aim was to make quality programmes. I think that it is better to have no programme at all rather than a poor one. We never had enough time for filming and we only had one camera. Also we could not travel much to meet musicians.

But it was a very popular TV programme?

I think so because every second or third person would stop me in the street and say ‘hello, I know your programme’

Do you think you want to continue working in television?

34canyon.gifI don’t know because there are still technical problems in Alpha TV, Chimkent (the TV company I worked for). I like languages and I want to speak better English and German. Maybe in the future I will want to return but I haven’t studied economics or management and showbusiness is heavily connected to money. I was the manager of my own dancing group. and I managed a music club in Almaty which was the first of it’s kind. In 1992 there was a competition between Almaty music clubs and ours was the best.

What sort of music club was it?

Some years ago it was discotheque, now it is a TV and Radio station. Bigger, programmes, concerts, music competitions.

What do you think of Kazak TV?

Some programmes are primitive. They are often samey and repetitive

Do you still dance?

I haven’t studied dance but I like it very much. I can do any kind of dance. Especially funk. I know Kazak traditional dancing of course, it’s in my blood.

Do you like Kazak traditional music?

It is natural for me to like it, Yes.

Is it common to find pop music with Kazak melodies?

34joes.gifThere are some traditional melodies in modern mixes and I enjoy this. Because it’s old music with a new look. We can’t forget our old musical traditions. It is very important.

How do feel about Kazakstan after independence?

The first things that were changed in our country specifically in Almaty were the restaurants, nightclubs. We have freedom, liberty

Is this good?

I think it is not just good. But it is freedom. Each person can feel free. To visit interesting places not just the Kino, cinema, which is primitive. So many foreigners come to Almaty which makes it very interesting.

Do you feel positive about the future?

I hope but I don’t know

Do you feel its possible to find a job?

Yes I think its possible if you have ambition.

The kind of work you have been doing, TV, Radio could you have done that before independence?

Yes but now it is more easier.

You told me you like the natural beauty around Almaty?

34wagon.gifNature is my second home. I like it very much. Fresh air and the mountains are fabulous. People are nothing compared to the mountains. That is an important point. I dream about the lakes, rivers, nature, mountains, rocks, deserts.

Do you think more people will visit Kazakstan to see these places?

Yes. I have worked with many foreigners and they usually say it is so beautiful. The mountains and the stars and this makes me happy.

We drive on through desert steppe at the edge of the mountain – a yellow furze, almost a cowboy’s Arizona. In a valley near Zalanas I see my first ‘wild’ Nomad yurt. As the sun sets, after nine hours drive, a man on horse-back tells us we can camp near his yurt. We set up our tents somewhere in the wilds of Kazakstan.


Tomorrow. We visit the nearby local village. Join us and see what happens.

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