Posts Tagged instrument maker

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 18 – Market Shares in Aladdin’s Cave

18flutce.gifThis morning I awoke at 5.30 am, it was still cool. I stepped out of the guest house to greet the morning light. The Samarkand back street that had been so quiet the night before had been transformed into a lively market. Traders were laying out their wares on rags. Acres of clothes, automobile parts, kitchen utensils, everything you could ever need, strewn along the road. I picked my way through the narrow streets towards the Registan, it’s grandeur tinged by the early morning light. [Registan Panorama] I had a rendezvous with some of the musicians we met last night. They were assembled in cheerful mood and demonstrated a melody in maqam style. The piece ended abruptly, the flute player adorned with Soviet medals, suddenly stopped and fumbled with something near his mouth, his false teeth had fallen out. They were then called to a rehearsal so we had to arrange another meeting with them later in the day.

18chang.gifFurther down from the relative peace of the Registan is the ‘produce market’.

18markt2.gifHundreds of people converge here at sunrise. Rays of sunlight dance across the colourful fruit and spices piled up on long stone slabs. The market is dwarfed below the large dome of the Bibi Kharnym and the scene is full of memorable images. I sat for a while and drank chai on a table in the melon ‘area’ of the market. I chatted to an old mullah called Abdullobobo who told me he comes here everyday at the same time to talk with his friends. He had a deeply soulful face which was both peaceful and wise. He sat contented and seemed to understand what life should be. After the tea break I chatted to a lady called Yura and her son Pahon who were sat by the melons with a fabulous backdrop of the market and mosque.

18shop.gifNext port of call was Musaffar’s workshop. It was small, dark and cave like, as an instrument maker’s shop should be. This was a refreshing change from the tourist-trap shops that now inhabit the old madrassahs in the Registan. Here was a maker and repairer who serves local musicians. Musaffar, age 57 is a small man with subtle oriental features. His family have run the ‘masters’ workshop for five generations and he has been in ‘residence’ for 35 years. He plays tar but says he can ‘have a go’ at any Central Asian instrument. Studying at Samarkand Music Institute he specialised in shash maqam vocal music and classical instrumental styles. I told him about the famous musicians we had met in Tashkent and Bukhara, as we spoke about Ari, Munadjat and Pattahon, he repeated their names and his face began to light up – we had seen some real classical ‘stars’. His son, who proudly sits next to his father, studied doira technique for 5 years at the same institute – he will take over the shop when his father ‘rests’ in a few years time.

18bibi1.gifMusaffar was repairing some high quality instruments and his own instruments seemed better than others in Samarkand. Trying out instruments turned into duets, Musaffar on tar, me on frame drum. He told me that Samarkand’s most popular instrument is the tar, followed closely by the Kashgar rubab and then an instrument he called a Saz (here a long necked lute, with six strings in pairs – used mainly as a solo instrument). In the shop there was also some interesting variants on the basic design of tar and rubab. Still no flutes however – Musaffar promises me faithfully that he will bring some tomorrow. Needless to say I left with a gidjak and another doira. I think I will need an extra flightcase to carry all this stuff.

Musaffar was surprised to find that we were not staying for the Samarkand festival. He is very excited about it – seven days of traditional music from forty Asian & Eastern European countries including many Shash Maqam artists.

18jdoir2.gifEarlier we had arranged to meet the two doira players from the Shir Dor madrassah ensemble at 5pm. The heat of the day, allegedly peaking at 45 degrees was easing off and the streets were now beginning to fill with people ready for early evening revelries. The rehearsals for the Music Festival were still in progress in the Registan and it was only after some argument with an officious policeman that we were allowed into the square. The sun cast long shadows through the West facing lattice gate creating a wonderful abstract on the cobbles of the madrassah square. We met the group of musicians relaxing before their next ‘package’ concert. They seemed delighted to see us again, perhaps because we showed more than a passing interest in their music? The leader of the ensemble, the gidchak and flute player was slightly unhappy when we requested to see only the doira players.

18jdoir1.gifAfter a long period they appeared out of their room in the wall, apparently they had been warming their drums by the fire – after a long day of 40 plus heat they were actually toasting their drums! (This drives the moisture from the skins and makes the drum ‘ring’). I sat with them on a chaikhana table, under a mulberry tree in the corner of the maddrassah. I asked them to demonstrate the range of sounds a doira can make. With the right hand they can produce five different sounds – deep rounded tones or bright slaps. The left hand which supports most of the weight of the instrument can produce three tones – finger flicks onto the edge of the frame drum. I asked them if they would play a simple two drum rhythm gradually adding more and more decoration – the resulting piece ended in a climax of poly-rhythmic virtuosity. A crowd of tourists had gathered and it was time for them to do their ‘show’. I could tell they had enjoyed showing us their skills, a welcome change from the repetitive ‘package’ they do every night.

Samarkand is a surprisingly accessible and diverse city. It has already exceeded many expectations. Tomorrow I will discover more. Here anything seems possible.

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Day 15 – Bukhara to Baysun, into the mountains at last

15shop.gifBefore setting off from Bukhara this morning, we called in at the workshop of an instrument maker, Karomat Mukimov. It was not long before we were surrounded by the master’s young apprentices and were being shown the intricacies of tuning tars. Karomat and Sasha had been at the Tashkent Conservatory together 23 years ago, so there was a mini reunion going on. Amongst the instruments in his shop was a tanbur from the nineteenth century, it had been lovingly restored by this master. It transpired that the tanbur had once belonged to Leviche Babakhanor, grandfather of Ari (a musician we met three days ago). This news came as something of a shock. Why would the family sell such a beautiful instrument? It was heavily inlaid and was quite obviously made for an important player. Sasha told us that Ari had referred to an instrument of Leviche’s which had been sold to a maker. This tanbur was an antique with historical value, having belonged to one of the last Bukharan court musicians. Here it was for sale. Admittedly not cheap, but we would have been free to take it abroad. It crossed our minds to buy it and give it back to Ari – where it belonged. The story went that one of Ari’s brothers had gone to live in Israel and had exchanged this instrument for an new one. It seemed sad to see it here but at least it was now restored and perhaps would end up in the hands of a player.

My thoughts now turned to a doira, a frame drum, that I had seen several days before, but had then seemed absurdly overpriced. Whether it was the effect of half an hour of conversation, or Sasha’s connection with the instrument maker, I’ll never know, but the price suddenly dropped by a third. We struck a deal and I walked away the proud owner of a high quality doira. Now all I have to do is persuade someone to show me a few tricks.

15van.gifThis project involves plenty of travelling around Central Asia. After all I am the ‘Musical Nomad’. Of course the truth of the matter is I am accompanied by a small, specialist team. Our ‘nomad horse’ for the last two weeks is a Volkswagen Caravelle, with enough seats for six people and five large flightcases.In Central Asia a driver is more than simply a driver, he constantly nurses and cleans the car, never leaves it and finds petrol in the most unlikely places. Our Uzbek driver Bahadir is a real character and devout individual. He is a stout man with a face half resembling Mel Brooks and a sleepy manner. We were amused watching Bahadir buying petrol. He would chase lorry drivers, hug and kiss them and spend hours in the back yard of strangers.

16bah.gifOur delicate computer, communications and audio/video equipment are at the mercy of his driving skills and we all too often have to tell him, through Sasha, to ‘slow down!’ This gets lost in the translation as within minutes we are once again careering through potholed hairpin bends. Bahadir also has an uncanny ability to forget things – only basic things such as which town we asked to stop in!. With all his faults though he has some key redeeming features – his devotion to his religion and his mild manner which conceals a strength alien to many in the West.

Yurts and oil wells line the improbable road to Baysun. A semi desert of stunted shrubs strectches to a hazy horizon. The mode of transport switches from dodgy trucks to lively donkeys, laden with unknown produce bound for market.

I15grp.gifn many Islamic countries you wield a camera at your peril. In Tunisia for example, even pointing a camera at a person is considered deeply offensive. I entered the lively market at Karsi full of trepidation. Everywhere the rich fruit colours of high summer beg for Kodachrome. Reds in apples and tomatoes, golden yellow pears, grapes, as black as night. In direct competition for photogenic appeal were the gorgeous Tajic clothes of the Uzbek women. I gestured to my camera with a thumbs up and a smile – smiles were returned. Suddenly I was the most popular guy in town – everybody wanted to be photographed and video’d. It gets better. The fruit sellers started to compete for my attention by paying me in fruit. I left the market laden with bags, totally bemused but thrilled. The generosity of these people had been such a surprising contrast.

15bays.gifIn the cities of the former Soviet Union the legacy of too many conquering Tzars and an autonomous state is a frozen fear still reflected in faces. Here in the country people further from the hub of beaurocracy seem to retain an earlier innocence. As we arrive in Baysun unannounced in the early evening, word spreads fast. Soon a whole greeting committee turn out to welcome us to this small town in the mountains famous for its music.

Tomorrow the ‘Bakshy of Baysun’.

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Day 5 – When I play it seems that I understand the Shamanic tradition

“When I play it seems that I understand the Shamanic tradition. There was a time when I had a supernatural connection with the audience but now I have lost this a little.”

05rauch1.gifRaushan is softly spoken and very articulate . She speaks passionately about Kazak music and in particular about the kobuz. She comes from a musical family. Her father, also a musician, always wanted Raushan to play the kobuz. They are from a region near the Aral Sea, which has its own rich musical tradition. Her sisters play flute and oboe, by all accounts outstandingly well. This musicality stretches back for generations.

I started by asking about the history of the kobuz. She explained that very little had been formally recorded as this was predominantly an oral tradition. She recounted a legend of a real person, Korkut, who is often looked upon as a father of the kobuz tradition. He was a Shaman. At his birth the heavens opened and the climate changed. There was thunder and lightning, people were terrified. When the child was older, it became clear that he could foretell the future, and people were afraid of him. They named him Korkut which means the terrible one. One night he was visited in his dreams by an old man who told him that he would die when he was very young.Korkut set about trying to evade death by playing the kobuz. He could not play day and night and so everywhere he went people would dig graves for him. He would ask “Who are these graves for?” They would reply “They are for Korkut.”

05rauch2.gifRaushan explained that Korkut wrote many melodies for the kobuz, and is now seen as a classical composer. She performed a piece for us which utilised the metal jingles attached to the instrument. This was a medley of his tunes and is called Abistolgan. This is very ancient music and she often plays it for herself. “It has to be with me always.”

I was very interested by the connection between this instrument and Shamanism. Raushan explained to me that the Shamans had used rattles to heal people. This was the origin of the jingles attached to her instrument. The Shamans improvised on the kobuz, not playing set pieces. It was a sacred instrument.

When Islam came to Central Asia the Muslims disapproved of the Shamans and tried to discourage their practices. As Raushan was a Muslim I asked whether she felt the two traditions were compatible. She said that she felt that they were, but it was not a logical thing. She played me a melody representing how she felt when she read the Koran.
Raushan is a living, creative musician who makes sense of life through sound. This is not a rational process, and it is precisely this ability to evoke things which cannot be explained which marks out a true musician.

“When I play it seems that I understand the Shamanic tradition”.

“There was a time when I had a supernatural connection with the audience but now I have lost this a little.”

05kbzst.gif

Raushan’s instrument is one of the most extraordinary I have ever seen. She explained that the basic design was one which was common amongst the Turkic peoples. This particular one is made in the traditional way, from one piece of wood with no glue or nails. The resonating membrane at the bottom is made of camel skin. The camel, she explained, was almost a sacred animal to her; “A camel’s voice is deeply moving.” The skin used for the instrument comes appropriately from the camel’s throat.

The kobuz has a heart-shaped resonating chamber which in this case is painted dark red emphasising the heart-like imagery. Inside the heart were placed some small pieces of mirror. This was not traditional, but could represent a number of things; summoning ancestral spirits or reflecting bad thoughts were two possibilities. I mentioned the Sufi image of “polishing the mirror of the heart”, a description of purifying the heart for God. She thought it likely that this instrument maker had thought along these lines. There were a number of small details on the instrument – carved symbols representing sun, moon and a star. There were resonances of the Islamic Star & Crescent but subtly changed.

Raushan expressed a wish to search for more repertoire for the kobuz, and to research old pieces.

“Modern composers don’t understand the spirit of the tradition……..they spoil everything…… Kolumbaev was a brilliant player who composed and arranged pieces for the instrument. He was a brilliant improviser…. now he is gone nobody can replace him.”

Raushan aims to play like the ancient masters, not literal authenticity but preservation of the spirit.


Alice, our interpretor during the past few days, invited me to chat with her in her parents home not far from the centre of Almaty. When we arrive the clouds that had been gathering during the day, suddenly opened. The heat of the last few days is immediately quashed by torrential rain. The thunder rages in the darkening sky as I sit down in her room and ask a few questions about her life and music. She talks with an accent divided evenly between Russian and scouse.

05alica.gifWould you like to be called Alia or Alice?

It doesn’t matter, I’m not bothered

Tell us a little bit about what you are doing in Almaty

I am actually involved in pop music, not really classical traditional but I do appreciate traditional roots, mostly pop musicians and blues based musicians. I have just got back from LIPA which is an institute in Liverpool that was opened by Paul McCartney two years ago. What I really want to do is to participate in the music scene here in Almaty, Kazakstan – because I think its booming now at the moment. Brilliant musicians, absolutely fantastic musicians – guitar players, drummers, vocalists. I want to get a band together. I do have a bass player and a singer but we need a drummer and were gonna start gigging at the end of August. What I wanna do is loads of gigs, I think that’s actually the way to success, do loads of gigs so the word gets spread around. Then probably do a single, then probably an album… I know it sounds cynical but I just wanna be rich and famous, have a jet and travel everywhere.

How would you say the musicians here differ from the musicians you’ve come across in England?

Oh they differ tremendously, because all the guitar players at LIPA (Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts) are into really weird stuff like White Zombie, Panthera and Metallica. Even Metallica is too soft for them. I found that really weird. Plus people are into things like Prodigy which are not popular here at all. In the former Soviet Union Rock and Roll was forbidden, you could go to jail for possessing an Elvis Presley record or wearing bell bottoms or whatever, ridiculous things like that. But still people were really into rock and roll, records were brought here illegally and then copied thousands of times onto tapes. People here are still into things like Nazareth and Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and that sort of stuff. Nazareth are number one in the charts in Moscow at the moment. They’re into classical rock and classical blues.

Can you see in the future a kind of rock that will be unique to this part of the World, perhaps combining traditional music with rock music?

There is a band at the moment here which attempts to do that and they are just bloody, bloody awful. They are all conservatoire graduates and they study things like Dombra and Kobuz but they just sound awful. Just the worst band I have ever heard in my life… At LIPA for example we were studying guitar players like Ingui Malmsteim, Richie Blackmore and Steve Mores. Once they invited a guitarist, a very distinguished player from Moscow whose name Sasha Lipinsk, he came over to demonstrate his technique. he was playing Jimi Hendrix, all the standards Chuck Berry. People were asking questions like do you wanna play some Russian traditional music something specific weve never heard before something authentic. “No thanks just Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Be Good” stuff like that.

So music is primarily a vehicle for you to be rich and famous rather than the music itself?

I do my music and express myself. I would never do the sort of pop music that some people do in Russia, sort of whores on TV that really sell themselves to become rich and famous, I would never do that I think that is ugly and horrible. Rock and roll comes first really.


I am off to Tashkent, Uzbekistan tomorrow. The journey is either a ten hour drive or a two hour flight. I think I will choose the latter. Join us tomorrow, new country, new city, new music.

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