Posts Tagged Indian Ocean

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 17 – Ten Second Tornadoes on the Road to Samarkand

17mount.gif“The Road to Samarkand” and not a sign of Bing Crosby or Bob Hope (one of Paul’s jokes for the oldies on the web).

We set off early from Baysun and received a ‘right royal’ send off from the mayor and deputy mayor – they carry our luggage and grip our hands in gratitude for spending time with them and ask us to return. As the ‘Nomadmobile” heads off out of the town a morning light glances low over the Zerafshan ridge. The vertical landscape is dotted occasionally with Yurts, small ‘ten second tornadoes’ and herds of goats. We have to swerve precariously close to the edge of steep gorges narrowly avoiding various bovine animals.

17sign.gifOur driver, Bahadir who has just had his fifth grandchild, is fully in control. Gradually the heat rises and the hills disappear as we come out of the mountains. A big right turn at Karsi and we are on a fast, flat, perpetually straight road to Samarkand – the only interest being an occasional near vehicle crash either through potholed roads or badly misjudged overtaking. Eventually we near the outskirts of Samarkand and say good-bye to Sasha, he has to catch a bus to Tashkent. “Farewell comrades”, he says.

This trip has had its highs and lows, from the exhilaration of meeting wonderful musicians to the frustration of having no petrol. Through it all one figure seems almost unruffled by anything. Always patient, calm and considered, Sasha, our translator and advisor is a kind of centre of gravity, a point of stability for us. He has been on the road with us now for ten days so is used to our strange ways. He has acted far beyond the call of duty, and his understanding of Uzbek social graces has been invaluable . He always seems to be considering some “problem” (a word he likes to use) or reading a book (preferably in classical Persian). Suddenly something will amuse him and his bearded face will ignite with infectious laughter.

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Things work at their own pace here and Sasha understands this better than anyone. It’s easy to forget that this mild mannered man is an accomplished scholar, he wears his learning lightly and doesn’t need to impress anyone.

In one conversation with Sasha I caught a glimpse of the difficulty musicians here face trying to communicate with the outside world. Sasha gave the analogy of an Asian musician trying to describe Beethoven using his own musical terms of reference. Inevitably distortions would arise. This situation compares roughly with the efforts of some European scholars who come to Central Asia to research music. Sasha was at pains to point out that there were Europeans who understood this music better than some local scholars.This problem of unconscious Euro-centrism is something which musicians treat with indulgence here. Sasha kindly added that our project had a completely different brief, to introduce this music to a wide audience.

Patience and wisdom are rare qualities, Sasha possesses them in abundance.

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I arrive in Samarkand to find there is no room at the inn (again!). Samarkand only has two ‘bed and breakfasts’ and they’re full. I’m shunted off to a small courtyard with some abandoned bedrooms and parking space for the Nomadmobile. Gary is concerned that we have a clear line of site to the Indian Ocean – whatever that means. (Satellite?) I’m just happy to wash the dust off my feet.

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Samarkand is often described as the ‘Pearl of the East.’ The tall madrassahs supporting deep blue domes and the majesty of scale could produce a thousand descriptive superlatives. The city is, like Bukhara undergoing major refurbishment and soon celebrates its 1250th year. It also hosts a week long “Music of the East” Festival starting 25th August, this is one of the biggest events in the area for many years.

The Registan, one of the most celebrated monuments shows signs of preparation – tomorrow I will see it in the dawn light and get you some photos. When we arrive twenty traditional trumpet players rehearse their fanfare and stage positions for the opening ceremony – it reminds me of a Dad’s Army drill. The whole city has a sense of life and movement. Things are changing, fast. There is transition and excitement in the air, music and dance are commonplace on the street and in the specially designated tourist areas. I will explore this more in the next two days.17regs.gifEverywhere in the world, folk culture is presented as entertainment for “package tourists”. Samarkand is no exception. At 6 pm every evening local musicians and dancers re-enact an Uzbek legend with music, mime, puppetry and fire eating. It’s beautifully done and although stylized maintains a joyful innocence.

17musi.gifThe costumes are probably exaggerated, the music simplified, the legend made larger than life with roaring flame. Yet for all that bemused confused tourists get a taste of a wonderful culture. If they want to know more there are CDs and ‘Musical Nomads’. I was particularly impressed by the doira (frame drum) players with their intricate poly rhythms – I arranged to see them for a detailed session on Usul – the rhythmic patterns of Central Asia. The chang (oriental hammered dulcimer) player is also worth a closer listen.

Join me tomorrow as we explore the city and meet frame drum and other traditional Uzbek folk musicians – I may even get to meet my first Central Asian flautist

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