Posts Tagged Europe

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 8 – The Land of Lutes

The Land of Lutes

Every journey has it’s trials and today we’re having our fair share. Last night I was struck down with a bug, without going into graphic detail. I am now laid up in bed unable to be of much use to anyone. As if this were not enough Gary and Kathrin are at various Government Departments wading through acres of red tape. The officials in Tashkent are very suspicious about our new imported Satellite transmitter – are we really James Bondski? Only a letter from the Minister of Foreign Affairs can convince them to release this much needed lifeline. Without this we cannot continue our dialogue or bring you the exciting music we have been hearing. We hope we will soon be ‘on-line’ eager to reply to your e-mails. Only Paul is left back at the ranch, Dat machine in one hand, camera in the other. He loves it really! While I catch up on much needed sleep I leave you in his capable hands. I know he’s dying to tell you about lutes.

07bedutr.gifAs one of the guitarists and sitarist in our team I’m fascinated by the ‘lutes’ we encounter. I’ve just been lent a dutar by Abdurahim Hamidov. Living with the dutar, having it around my room playing it, I feel invited in to a sort of magic. It has made me incredibly aware of the close relationship between all these Central Asian instruments and most of the world’s ‘lutes’. The two-stringed dombras and dutars have all the latent characteristics of the guitar, the Oud and the sitar. The tuning in fourths (and fifths), the tendency to play parallel patterns up and down the fingerboard – the modal scales are all common to these more familiar instruments. The rasguedo of the dutar is almost “flamenco” in character. The vibrato and portamento techniques are reminiscent of the classical Oud of Arabia.

If the lute began in Central Asia as many scholars believe, what fascinating journeys it has made – into China, India, Arabia and Europe – taking new names and new shapes but retaining its Central Asian roots.

07abdru.gifAbdurahim Hamidov who I met today is an incredible virtuoso on the dutar. He also knows many of the other lutes of the area and explained their relationship. According to Abdurahim the dombra which we heard a lot of in Kazakstan is primarily a folk instrument. Though if you refer back to Day 4, you can hear that Aygul Ulkenbaeva is now taking the dombra to a more sophisticated level.Abdurahim regards his dutar as a classical instrument, especially in the context of the Shash maqam though he often performs solo as well as accompanying singers.

Physically, the dutar is more sophisticated and highly decorated with beautifully made silk strings instead of the factory produced nylon strings of the dombra. Curiously his dutar retains its modal scale – it has not been ‘improved’ to a fully chromatic version (yet!). Abdurahim also asserts that his dutar has different tunings; in fourths, fifths and unison whereas he alleges the dombra doesn’t (I’m not convinced).

I encountered another fascinating lute yesterday, the Kashgar rubab played by Munajat’s teacher Shavkat Mirzaev. This is a five string lute with four metal and one silk string – an unusual mix. The silk string is very thick and provides a rich bass. The four metal strings are arranged in two pairs and are used for melody. The rubab has a haunting sound enhanced by its parchment sounding board and the harmonic richness of those pairs of metal strings. There are superficial relationships here to the saz of Turkey and the bouzouki of Greece. Earlier, in a taxi I heard the local version of Greek popular music or Rembetika – it’s a strange and wonderful world.

08patta.gifWow, another lute – today we met Pattahon Mamadaliev, a fantastic 70 year old guy. He sings with a consuming passion and accompanies himself on the tanbur. It has four bronze strings. In India bronze is a sacred metal, I must check out its significance here. The tanbur has very thick gut frets to enable a deep vibrato, it’s made from mulberry and apricot. Pattahon possesses an intensity of performance and a sincere unmannered humility. I played some Spanish lute music for the musicians, Pattahon and Abdurahim. Abdurahim said he understood this 15th century lute music perfectly, which is interesting. This music is very polyphonic ‘in many parts’ as opposed to most Central Asian music which is often monodic. They also enjoyed a bit of pseudo-Flamenco – this is also interesting as Pattahon’s passion and style is reminiscent of Canto Joto from Andalucia in Southern Spain, a deep form of flamenco. Somebody must have told the lute to “go forth and multiply “- I’m ever more convinced that the lute family originated here as most scholars assert.

I’m currently in the lap of luxury – our little guest house even has a tiny swimming pool. I banged my head trying it out – perhaps it will knock some sense into me? The food here is the best so far in Central Asia – delicious Vegetarian stuff – not that common in the land of the rising Kebab.

I08paulbd.gif got caught last night serenading five Muslim girls in their bedroom – their father just laughed and went to bed – not the expected reaction. The girls enjoyed a Bo-Diddly song but thought Shash maqam was ‘pretty cool’. They are on holiday from Chicago, so that probably explains their frankly modern behaviour. Jan still has the “montezumas revenge”, so retires early. Kathrin and Gary are simply exhausted, endless wrangling and still we can’t get our satellite out of customs.

Tomorrow, who knows?

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