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Day 30 – we try and make sense of our world Pt II

Whats new – Nomad Mixer

This afternoon we were visited by Saparbek Kasmambetov, one of Kyrgyztan’s few manas epic singers. Besides being an esteemed musician Saparbek is also a well known journalist. The parallels between journalistic ‘storytelling’ and the role of the storyteller/musician had already struck us when we met Shoberdy the bakshy singer.

Saparbek sang us some excerpts from the stories. The first is about two heroes. One Kyrgyz, Almanbet Chubak and a Chinese giant named Makeldur . They fight an epic battle in the mountains until Almanbet eventually traps the giant between two mountains and hits him on the head. The head is then displayed in a large bag next to a large pile of stones to demonstrate it’s size. Even without knowing much about Kyrgyz-Chinese relations the symbolism seems clear. We also heard a song about Saparbek’s travels to London. A trip which he recalls with affection. This he described as an improvisation – an elaboration on an existing structure but using contemporary events. Even without understanding the meaning of the words this is a very expressive medium for story-telling. Saparbek uses dramatic hand gestures and a kind of rhythmic chanting which draws the listener into the story. Even out of context it is possible to imagine the effect of this style of performance stretching over twelve or more hours – a kind of hypnotic state could be induced, or at least a heightened receptivity.

The manas epic is a story cycle which takes up to thirteen days to perform. Understandably this is a rare occurrence these days. Consisting of a series of legendary stories it often contains philosophical themes and historical references. It has been passed on orally from father to son for generations. Saparbek, an exception to this rule, ‘learnt it naturally’ and described how it is necessary to have a talent for manas – given by God. It is a huge task to learn all the stories and Saparbek is one of only two ‘manaschi’ who can improvise upon the themes of all the stories. Supposedly the first epics were composed in the 4th century but written references to them (in Arabic) only appear from the 8th century.

The contexts in which manas may be performed include: weddings, funerals and public occasions. It has come to represent a link to the past. A contemporary cultural icon which connects Kyrgyz people to an older way of life. The nomadic culture was non-literate it is therefore only through oral traditions that children learn about the past.

Day 0 raised many issues. ‘Through the telling of stories we try and make sense of our world’. The stories and songs of the three countries we have visited have a purpose. They tell of suffering, joy and of a long, rich past. The songs have a reason for existence and they are alive here. We have met performers who have developed in an oral tradition. A tradition where songs are passed down naturally to each subsequent generation. Like seeds, they grow and flourish if the environment supports them. Music survives through those willing to nurture and spread those seeds – Musical Nomads?

Kyrgyzstan has changed rapidly – according to Gulnaz, the Russians did not arrive until the 19th century. In this short space of time the majority of the population has become settled. Gulnaz works with Information Technology and is thoroughly at home on the internet. This is a hugely accelerated pace of change.

Gulnaz epitomizes what it means to be a citizen of Central Asia. Her family are Kyrgyz, but raised in Russian part of town she attended a Russian school. Her first language is Russian but she understands both Kazak and Uzbek. Her husbands language is also Russian but he speaks no Kyrygz. As they live in Kyrgyzstan she regularly interprets for him.

Gulnaz is a modern woman. She loves pop music especially ‘A-Studio’, Kyrgyzstan’s most popular band. Though she dances until dawn at local discotheques, Gulnaz became fascinated with our project and listened with rapt attention to our unaccompanied folk singers and virtuoso komuz players. A new career beckoned as Gulnaz became an enthusiastic clapper loader – putting the synchronization slates on the front of our recordings (take one etc.). Today Gulnaz leaves us and we shall remember her affectionately as ‘giggling

Tomorrow we return to Kazakstan, older perhaps wiser and certainly overwhelmed by the richness of culture that remains in Central Asia.
The journey has come full circle.
In the mountains near Almaty will we find a resolution?
Have there been any lessons learned?
Did the music and way of life of the people hold any answers?
Perhaps we will meet more musicians in the mountains who are not as settled and who have other perspectives to offer. It’s a long way from over yet, stick around for surprises to come.

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Day 7 – “My soul was taking flight” Navai

07bynls.gif“My soul was taking flight” Navai

Tashkent is Uzbekistan’s capital and by all accounts the busiest city in Central Asia. At first it feels very similar to Almaty, it has that Russian sprawlness about it, wide roads, an endless stream of Soviet structures surrounded by semi-shanty suburbia. Closer inspection reveals many hidden treasures. The apricot trees used in many musical instruments especially the tanbur, line up along the dusty Russian backroads and avenues, giving the place a Mediterranean feel.

The heat builds to a forbidding level by 10am and it’s best to keep out of direct sunlight, particularly in one of Tashkent’s most lively environments, Chorsu Bazar. Gary, who has traveled here before, suggested we look around. The bazar is a large market, a place where local people gather. The centre piece is a large skeletal dome at least 150ft high in the middle which envelops a vast range of spice, dairy and fruit stalls, spreading outwards in concentric circles. As we walked through here the smells of produce and sounds of multiple Uzbek ghetto blasters bellowing at distortion level seemed quite familiar. One of the first things I noticed are the women who dress in bright, traditional clothes – a far cry from the Almaty women who have adopted a relativly bland ‘chain store’ look.

07tashflt.gifThroughout the market there are stalls (often metal buckets with fruit in them), entertainers and chaikhana’s (small tables on which to sip tea). Paul was able to finally buy a belt for his decreasing waist and I was attracted by a lonely flutist, busking in a secluded corner. He was blind and gave the traditional open palm, hands over face to accept blessings whenever he felt some money land in his lap. He occasionally played a haunting Maqam-type melody and I was moved, not just by the music but by his obvious predicament. Not far from the flute player three young boys entertained.One was supplying the ‘come and see’ music on a Western snare drum beating a marching rhythm while circling the younger ones. They performed acrobatics and increasingly dangerous manoevres over broken glass and nails. I didn’t stay for the tricks they had planned for later in the act, some of the sharp implements were bigger than the boy’s themselves. Before we left the bazar I was struck by an image, a series of steps leading back up to the second level. On each side women sold bread as smoke from Shashlyk stands billowed across many brightly coloured metal ornamental stalls. This was where local people came to do their daily business, where you can eat good food for a tenth of the price of the Hamburger joints in the centre of town. Gary is right, this is the real Tashkent.

Later on that morning we ventured across town to the Museum of Applied Arts. A prosaic name for something very precious and visually stunning. It had once been the private house of a rich Russian with a taste for the traditional arts. The courtyard entrance leads up a staircase to a small hall. The hall is decorated in Islamic style with brightly painted plaster and wood carvings. Every direction is ‘candy’ for the eye. Alcoves hold vases aglow with primary tint and the marble centre piece turns out to be a perfect place for our stereo microphone. This morning we are meeting one of Uzbekistans most celebrated singers and her ensemble.07muna03.gifIn the serene calm of the hall we met Munadjat Yulchieva and her teacher and mentor Shavkat Mirzaev – if this wasn’t enough of a daunting prospect it was also to be our first encounter with the ancient Shash Maqam tradition of Central Asia.
Shash Maqam possibly dates from as far back as the Timurid dynasty, around the 15th century. It was the music of the courts and in the important centres of Bukhara, Khiva and Khokhand this repertoire flourished. The words Shash Maqam refer to the Bukharan tradition and mean six maqams (in Persian) there is also a Khivan tradition of Alti Yarim Maqam (6 and a half maqams) and from Khokand Chahar Maqam (four maqams)
The word Maqam is often translated as ‘mode’, but in fact the word has many more connotations than our ‘mode’ or ‘scale’. In this case it refers to collections of compositions ordered into cycles or suites. This represents the classical “art music” tradition of Uzbekistan.

Munadjat is one of the most popular performers in the Fergana- Tashkent style (four maqams). This school differs from the Bukharan style, it is strongly linked to the Uzbek language (as opposed to Tajik) and is sometimes referred to as ‘free maqam’.

For such a celebrity, Munadjat has taken an unconventional route to success. She was born in a small village near Andijan, and worked the feilds with the rest of her family. The story goes that she applied to the Higher Conservatoire of Music, vocal arts department, not realising that they trained opera singers. She was turned down for singing ‘out of tune’ but was heard from outside the door of the audition room by one of Uzbekistan’s most famous composers, Shavkat Mirzaev. He became her teacher and the rest, as they say, is history.

07muna04.gifIn the weeks leading up to this trip I had studied recordings of Munadjat for the purposes of research. I immediately found her voice almost absurdly moving and was soon listening to her constantly. Today’s meeting was a great opportunity to get a bit closer to the music and to find out more about its background.I am told that when Munadjat performed in London recently the audience cried and I can believe it. Besides being possessed of one of the most moving voices you have ever heard, she has an undefinable magnetism which is transfixing.
This seems to stem from a sincerity of feeling , a devotion that pervades every note and every gesture. The Uzbek and Persian texts that Munadjat sings are remarkable for the feelings of love and yearning they portray, even in English translation. These poems are classical texts written by famous Sufi poets. They cover philosophical and metaphysical themes, often using the metaphor of a lover yearning for their beloved. Through this device the poets portray the yearning for the presence of God. As Shawkat pointed out however, you need a special education to understand their poetry . The texts are multi-layered with words implying several meanings. One would need to speak several languages and have a training in Sufi philosophy and spiritual practice to plumb the depths of the meaning.

For most of us, however, the pure sound of the language has a profound effect. The music tends to be slow, creating a feeling of space and serenity. Within this timeless space the yearning of the voice is almost painful

“My beloved was to come tonight, with his face like a rose and his figure like that of a cypress-tree; but he didn’t

The whole night, sleep deserted my eyes

Full of hope, I would take a few steps on the road towards him

My soul was taking flight, but this fickle betrayer didn’t come

Bereft of his angel face, I wept and wept like a mad woman

Whoever saw me must have thought that I was a fool

Is there such a thing as a faithful suitor? If there is one, why does not every step lead him to his beloved?

Navai, rejoice in the house of your heart

For sadness never floods a house where wine flows”
The song “Munadjat” means prayer, and the melody was used by Sufis even before the poem by Navai (1441-1501) was written. It is now a famous melody of the region and Munadjat (whose name also means prayer) has made it her own. The performance begins with the voice whispering a secret confidence. As the piece progresses the melody ascends in pitch and volume with incredible control and restraint. The climax of the piece (or awj) is searing in intensity and superhuman in volume.

07munint.gifDuring this trip we have been lucky enough to meet musicians who are national celebrities. They have been relaxed, accessible people who possess great humility. Munadjat and Shavkat are no exception.

As we sat and chatted to them about their lives and music, there emerged a sense that Shavkat and Munadjat feel music is an essential ingredient in life, it is impossible to live without it. To give vent to one’s feelings of pain and joy, almost in a Cathartic way is somehow purifying. When asked about Uzbek pop music Shavkat simply said that he did not listen to it. There was an implication, however, that he felt it might be detrimental to the Classical music.

Munadjat often defers to Shavkat to answer questions, which he does in a very articulate way. They seemed encouraged by the number of students training to play Uzbek Classical music. I was curious to know whether musicians still maintained a connection with the Sufi practice that inspired this heartfelt music. This is a difficult thing to judge, especially since Sufism was discouraged during Soviet times. There was an attempt to secularise this music, which the Russians saw as feudal, into an innocuous lyric poetry. Reading between the lines though, I sense that there are still musicians for whom music is a sacred art.

Tommorow we meet two of the most celebrated lutenists (dutar and tanbur) in the country, Abdurakim Hamidov and Pattahon Mamadaliev – who is also one of Uzbekistan’s foremost composer/singers. Join us for a full report.

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Day 3 – Communication happens in many ways

Communication happens in many ways. I was moved by Aby singing a Sufi melody and enjoyed the musical interplay between myself and Mayra with her remarkable voice and dombra playing. Music breaks down barriers.

03ballon.gifWe planned for months so that the technology of our project would do likewise; however, for the first few days some crucial pieces of equipment let us down. It has been a fraught time as we build stories for each day for transmission at 9pm only to be jilted at the final hurdle by an unhelpful portable satellite. Gary slowly deteriorates into a shadow of his former self after long days and even longer nights creating web sites and speaking to unhelpful people in far flung corners of the globe. At first the Inmarsat network wouldn’t send my bad spelling around the world. The box that was meant to send the data decided not to play ball. Various attempts to get a good signal included a 4.30 am trip into downtown Almaty searching for a powerpoint amidst late nights vodka stalls. On this last satellite trial a crowd of curious young men gathered, accusing us of being ‘James Bonds’ and making rather unsubtle advances towards Kathrin. Sadly it is all in vain. A new unit is ordered, the logistics of exchange of a large piece of equipment between UK and Kazakstan is underway. Once this has happened we hope to resume our conversation with the world.

03minstr.gifIt’s 10 o’clock in the morning and I am scheduled to meet the Minister of Culture for Kazakstan – Valery Kuzembaev. Possibly a very formal occasion, I wear my best T-shirt and Paul is even wearing socks (it’s 30 degrees already!). Gary is all keyed up to give a presentation on a multimedia laptop and Kathrin is ready to translate. Today given the occasion we have a local translator as well. Alia turns up in a trendy outfit, speaks perfect Liverpudlian scouse and plays a Gibson Les Paul guitar in a rhythm and blues band – just what we expected. It turns out Alia studied media at Paul McCartney’s fame school (LIPA) in Liverpool, England – the only Russian girl from Kazakstan ever to do this.

03boypol.gifThe Ministry of Culture resides in an old wooden building on Gogol Street. After some initial introductions the Minister began to tell us a little about the cultural situation in Kazakstan. “The difficult thing is the money”, he said. Everything else has to come second now.” Although this is the situation in London or anywhere in the Arts world, I get the impression that maintaining the level of cultural activity that was common here in Soviet times is very difficult. There are well-trained conservatoire musicians in Kazakstan, but unless they are star soloists employment must be difficult to find.The Minister himself is a violinist who taught at the Conservatoire. He explained to us that he still had students. He had once worked in a symphony orchestra in Mexico City. Opposite our hotel is a huge opera house but there are no queues of people to watch opera. It will be interesting to see whether there is anything scheduled for the next few days. The Minister seemed interested in our project and keen to support us in whatever way he could. He gave us the name of a well respected traditional musician whom we plan to meet tomorrow – she is a kobuz player. This is a traditional Kazak instrument with two strings, held vertically and played with a bow.

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On our return to Kazakstan on 28th August we are hoping to venture into the Alatau mountains that surround Almaty in search of the nomadic roots of Kazak music. The Minister hoped he could arrange this. Fingers crossed, I could be in for an exciting few days towards the end of the trip.In the afternoon I headed for the voice of Asia Festival site in Gorky park (the other Gorky park). The main music events were not scheduled until 8 pm but during the day the park has the atmosphere of a public holiday. Everywhere families are enjoying the day out, boating on the lake enjoying the ferris wheels and roundabouts.

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Karaoke is hugely popular and everybody from teenagers to mums and dads have a go at sing-a-long-a Beatles and some local Kazak pop. The karaoke units are very close together so you often hear three or four different tunes at once – interesting. There is of course not a dombra or kobuz in sight but there are some yurts, the local Nomad tents. I peered into one and was immediately invitedin for chai (tea). Very hospitable I thought and curled up on a fluffy felt cushion. Sat in the dappled light from the wheel shaped smoke hole in the roof, still sipping the refreshing sweet tea I admired the sumptuous felt drapery and also the intricate wooden framework which sustains their considerable weight. Its bad news for foxes as several pelts are hung as decoration from the ‘walls’, eagles aren’t too happy either – There’s a stuffed one perched by the door. Suddenly I’m filled with excitement at the prospect of seeing the real thing up in the mountains – complete with authentic music? Who knows. Then the tea bill arrives…. $25, ‘I made my excuses and left’.

Later on when we returned to the park the place had taken on a different aura. The entrance gate glowed in the dying sunlight and their was an air of expectancy as the young people of Almaty gathered and moved. The distant sounds of multiple Karaoke were almost softened into new age ambience and the odours of a hundred shashlyk stands merged into one ‘smoky’ haze. I bought a concert ticket and headed for the far side of the park.On the way I was enthusiastically requested to join a social gathering in the Yurt I visited earlier. After emphatically refusing several times (the polite thing to do) I was obliged, in the space of two minutes, to drink two vodkas and eat some decidedly chewy sheep meat. I again made my excuses but this time they had more weight as the team were waiting outside anxious to get to the concert.

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As we approached the main stage it became obvious that this was no excursion into so-called ‘World music’. The entrance to the arena was guarded by an army of oddly dressed police. Young people were filing in through a maze of barriers. The stage, when it finally came into view, seemed out of place. It was Eurovision, Asia style. A large pyramidal shape pointed skywards over an outrageously lit ‘TV’ stage. Cameras and lights buzzed around the performers as they were ceremoniously wheeled on, one after another to mime to their overly prepared backing tracks. This was ‘pop’, a powerful symbol of an aspiration towards Western values and lifestyle. I watched a couple of local Kazak boys chewing gum and smoking, affecting “attitude” straight from a pop video.The performance standard of the singers from countries ranging from Italy to Kazakstan was good yet there seemed to be something lacking. Audience involvement seemed minimal, the modern production techniques had built a wall between audience and performer.

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This was ‘live TV’ but ‘dead’ performance compared to some of the local traditional music. Occasionally one of the singers would use inflections from a traditional singing style but most of the pieces were indistinguishable from Euro-pop. Later on we sat in another bigger Yurt nibbling salad and, yes you guessed it, shashlyk. Out of the darkness came the heart rending sound of the ney, a simple end-blown flute. We were silent, the people outside seemed to stop moving. How is it possible that a single piece of reed can burn into the heart more than any over produced concert? As with the satellite, real communication is weakest when the technology is the message and strongest when you have something to say from the heart.

Join us tomorrow when we meet two highly esteemed musicians of Kazakstan who speak through their instruments, communicate through kobuz and dombra.

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Day 1 – We disembark with a sense of foreboding

After months of preparation and several near disasters, we finally land in Almaty. We disembark with a sense of foreboding.

01ussrwo.gifIn London, Heathrow customs hadn’t wanted us to board the plane with a satellite phone. After some wrangling Gary, the project’s producer, emerged from the customs’ office looking exhausted, we hadn’t even left the country! As the plane took off, the flight had been delayed for 20 minutes and we still didn’t know if customs had allowed the satellite aboard.The kit for this project when it’s packed consists of four large flight cases, including a 35 kg generator, several smaller cases of assorted gadgetry and our own bags. All of this together amounts to about 30 pieces of luggage. The prospect of getting all of this through customs avoiding x-rays was somewhat daunting. In fact, it turned out to be easier than expected. Arriving at our first hotel the fun really began. Getting the equipment to our 6th floor rooms, through lift doors approximately two foot wide became the team’s first real challenge.

Challenge number two was finding something to eat at midnight in Almaty. The choice seemed to be: Shashlyk, the local lamb-on-skewer speciality or some shops which sold antique bread and dubious looking slabs of processed cheese. We went for the cheese, complimented by a cup of tea and a lamb doughnut. Perfect. At 2.30 am we crawled to bed still without a very clear idea of where we were.

01janmln.gifMasha (one of our contacts in Almaty) had told us that the Voice Of Asia Festival had been delayed by a day. This meant our excitement at arriving in the midst of furious musical activity was curtailed. Still no need to be downhearted. Almaty like many other cities of the World often shows its true colours through its markets. London has Camden or Portobello, New York has Greenwich Village, Toyko it’s Ginza. The number 9 trolley bus took us from our hotel to Almaty’s central market. This outdoor and indoor market is a feast for the senses. The sights, sounds and smoky smells struck an immediate chord. The place is alive. The scene is literally on fire. ‘Shashlyk’ sellers prodding their charcoal barbecues filling the scene with flames and a familiar odour . Bustling colourful arcades with women chattering in dazzling clothes contrast with the serene fortune teller women with their small white and black stones.

01janmrk.gifThe people are mostly Kazaks selling and buying local produce which ranges from automobile parts to giant melons. As we walk through the markets, there is a sense you are in some surreal disco. The throb of 130 beats per minute Euro disco collides with the same a few meters away. The music ranges from three year old UK hits to bizarre remixes of Jean Michel Jarre and Ennio Morricone. Strange at first, then you pause in a cool shaded area and two ‘techno’ rhythms combine producing a more fascinating hybrid. Here we are in Central Asia hoping to meet traditional musicians yet all we have heard so far is heavy beat music.

Suddenly amongst the market chaos I stumbled across this glorious old gentlemen playing his Dombra and singing an ‘epic’ song (whose lyrics tell very long traditional tales).

01janred.gifThe Dombra seems to be the most popular instrument in this area – a two stringed long necked lute, tuned in this case in an open fifth (five notes apart) like a violin. The right hand technique is a gentle rhythmic strum with one or two fingers, the left hand utilizes the thumb, not just as a pivot but actually stopping the strings. This technique encourages parallel movement in the resulting melodies, a distinctive feature of Kazak Dombra music. Anyone familiar with Spanish guitar music, particularly Villa Lobos, will recognize the sound.
In the market Julduz and I posed for this photo with myself on miniature ‘tourist’ Dombra. Julduz helps run a stall selling Dombra amongst the fruit and vegetables. Interestingly she tuned her Dombra to fourths like a guitar.
Leaving the bustle of the market, we ate a picnic lunch in Panfilov Park and headed for the park’s memorial. This imposing tribute to the Soviets killed in two World wars constrasts strongly with market life. The monument, once a much visited shrine, is tranquil since independence.

01aby.gifTOMORROW – Also in the park, dwarfed by concrete Soviet architecture is the Museum of Kazak Music – a tiny traditional wooden building. Resident guide Abylai is burning to share with us his enthusiasm for Kazak music, but that’s another story. Join us tomorrow to hear Aby and his ensemble.

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