Posts Tagged Kazak School

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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