Posts Tagged Moscow

Day 28 – Even the Wind Sings

28komuz.gifOn our journey through Uzbekistan we came into contact with a vast array of instruments. There were the lutes, Shoberdy’s dombra, Ari’s rubab, Abdurahim’s dutar and Mussafar’s tar to name but a few. The doira (frame drum) featured heavily in Fergana music and the gidchak (lap violin) in Bukharan maqam music. We also saw many other instruments in Samarkand such as the chang, trumpets, nais and surnais.

Traditional musical instruments in Kyrgyzstan do not seem at first glance to be as varied as in Uzbekistan. The key instruments here are the komuz (a 3 stringed plucked dombra, tuned tonic, fifth, tonic) and the kyl-kyiak (the bowed two string lap viol we first saw in Almaty on day 4). The one ‘som’ note (Kyrgyz currency) proudly displays both instruments, symbols of national identity. This identity was also evident in independence day rehearsals. Around the Lenin monument today, hundreds of children gathered in the midday sun. Dressed in bright sequined costumes and playing state issue komuz’s they practiced their routines. The sound was both inspiring and disturbing –

28univ.gifwhere is the individualism? In the West we expect at a young age to have a choice of musical instruments. Not surprisingly the cello-like kyl-kyiak is not present in today’s celebrations, it would be a nightmare to play, marching across city squares.

As this is a nomadic country there’s also a prevalence of rural, ‘shepherd’ instruments, some of which have been largely forgotten. Used almost as an accompaniment to nature rather than recital instruments, these include end blown flutes, jaws harps and side blown flutes – we find similar selections in other mountainous countries such as South America. In Biskek we are lucky to be guided by the multi-instrumentalist, Kurmangazy who introduces us to his collection.

28jkurm.gifKurmangazy and his friend and colleague Barkut Shatenov, play a huge variety of instruments, we only had time to see a few today. They performed in front of a large burzoi (yurt) in Biskek University, Department of Archaeology. In Central Asia it is possible to study the ‘national’ instruments in the conservatories. Barkut is a graduate of the conservatoire specialising in komuz and kyl-kyiak. He has considerable presence and mastery of his instruments and we later learned that he is a member of Krygyzstan’s foremost traditional music ensemble.

I asked Barkut about the melodies he played for us and he replied that some went back to the 18th Century. Whether this is part of a continuous older tradition or whether it has been ‘revived’ is hard to say. It is clear that professional players, here in Biskek are concert hall performers who

28komuz02.gifdress in national costume and may not have much first-hand experience of the original rural music. Both Barkut and Kurmangazy talked about visiting old, rural musicians to research their music. Kurmangazy asserts that to really understand his music it should be listened to in a rural setting where birdsong and the wind can be heard. Kurmangazy is trained as a classical flautist but he feels that since independence more people are interested in their national culture. He has adapted his classical technique to play a variety of wind instruments, some of which he has made himself. He is likely to produce unnerving vocal sounds at any time and there is a feeling that his sound world is inspired by nature. He plays mainly his own compositions and improvisations with titles such as ‘Conversations with Birds’, ‘Sailor’s Song’ and ‘Children’s Song’.

28kurm01.gifIt seems to be a feature of Kyrgyz and Kazak music that musicians will take a sound or rhythm that occurs naturally and translate it onto their instruments. By a process of alchemy this turns into something very poetic. A good example of this is Barkut’s performance of ‘Paravoz’ or train which the composer O. Tumanov, wrote in 1932 after hearing the first train in Kyrgyzstan. There are pieces based on galloping horses and waterfalls. Perhaps urbanisation has had a more disastrous effect on the music than we can comprehend. It is only through the efforts of a few musicians that the music survives in the cities.

The orientation towards nature, dimly perceptible through the din of modern urban culture may also be the reason why Islam never caught on. The Uzbeks already had a strong, settled urban culture before Islam (a very urban religion). The Kazaks and Kyrgyz were still fierce nomads. In the summer many contemporary city dwellers still head for the countryside to live in a burzoi for a month or two and relive their nomadic past.Deeply impressed by yesterdays parade of hats I’m off to buy my own at the Zum department store. I travel by Taxi – which is just another Lada with a light on top. I journey an epic 200 yards before grinding to a halt, we are out of petrol. Quick as a flash our friendly host Djik pulls out a syphon tube and a bucket, and we share petrol. All part of the rich “Central Asia Experience”.


Zum isn’t so much a department store as a bazaar with tickets. Like the infamous Gum store in Moscow you can’t spend money. You choose your item, show it to the assistant, get a ticket, go to a seperate money booth, pay, get another ticket, go back to where you started, and maybe get your item, though by now the assistant has probably forgotten who you are! I bought a hat and a tube of Fanta flavoured toothpaste. There are three sales floors with hats for sale on each – all at different prices! You can go up in the escalator but not down – once you’ve purchased you don’t deserve an escalator.

Each bizarre bazaar sells a variety of products, typically hats, bras, whips and toothpaste. The ramshackle atmosphere is quaint, like Littlewoods in the 50’s (for our British licence fee payers) or maybe the present New York Woolworths for all you colonials. My hat is brill – I will wear it at all forthcoming gigs.

Tomorrow we travel out into the Kyrgyz countryside to Lake Issyk-Kul and meet one of the last surviving rural musicians. Join us.


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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.”


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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