Posts Tagged musical nomad

Day 37 – Timeless songs for the next generation

37agul1.gifI almost didn’t meet Aygul. As soon as I arrived in the village of Saty I was told of a dombra player I simply must hear. “Not another dombra player” went the cry. What a wonderful surprise then to meet a young girl of thirteen with such talent and charisma.

The Musical Nomad project is all about discovery. Finding out through the universal language of music about a people and their culture. On our penultimate day we left our campsite with very little hope of finding musicians. We headed for a town called Saty (meaning steps in Kazak) about 30 minutes drive away. We came out of the fertile tributary valley and into the wide, barren plain of the silty Charyn river. On our way smoke could be seen billowing from the grassy forested areas of the valley peaks. Occasionally a flame would explode, twenty or thirty feet high. The long hot summer is taking its toll and forest fires burn freely and naturally. In the long brown grasslands horses and cattle barely move in the midday heat. Suddenly the dusty road turns into the town.

37fire.gifWith very little to signify a transition, a row of houses appear. The town stretches for about a mile, the wide road lined on each side by wooden farm and administrative building. Next to a large yellow school a wooden hut doubles as the main store. We approached and bought drinks. We asked the shopkeeper if there are any local musicians. Moldira, our interpreter, scribbled down three names. One is an old man who apparently sings. We went to his house. A mad wolf-like dog attacked me. I then learned that the old man is ill and cannot be seen. I suspected the other contacts would prove as fruitless. It was now the hottest part of the day and we were trying to track down the second contact. Local people in the street seemed to point in the same direction when we ask. A group of teenagers passed us with a guitar. The guitar has a skull etched into the back and the boys also pointed in the same direction.
37agprnt.gifWe followed a road through the dusty, cattle infested streets. There was an air of sleepiness about the town. Occasionally a wagon filled with hay to dangerous levels careered carelessly through the narrow roads. We stopped near a large metal gate. Moldira peered over the top and confronted an old lady. After a short conversation I found out that this is a musical home. The whole family play dombra and sing. The daughter has won competitions and the eldest brother, currently working in the field, plays weddings and is well known to everyone in the village. We told the old lady, Salima about our project and who we are. She seemed almost expectant of our arrival. She invited the whole team with full equipment into her garden, her house, her world. A small girl in school uniform skipped towards the house. The garden is large. There are stables, small orchards and white clay ovens for cooking and bread making. This family like many others in this area are self sufficient. Salima asked us to take our shoes off and come into the house.

37agul3.gifInside the house we were shown around by Salima and introduced to her daughter, Aygul. Looking like any thirteen year old just back from school she greeted us politely. It was only a little later we discovered that she was the star musician of the family.

The traditional village house is small and simple, but very homely. The entrance way is wood panelled on the outside giving a very ‘alpine’ feel and metal clad on the inside. This looked, rather disconcertingly, like the inside of a spaceship with resonance’s of Shaykh Kushkarov’s centre. See day 20. Presumably this had some functional value of which we were not aware. Certainly the house was very cool. Within ten minutes Aygul was changing into national costume. She assumed an extraordinary presence as soon as she took the dombra into her hands. Seeing so many musicians in such a short space of time can cause the palette to become jaded. Aygul’s fresh and direct voice has a poignancy and honesty that is rare among performers of any age. All of us were touched by her performance. Aygul has recently won a music competition and so is no stranger to performing. She appeared on Kazak TV as a result. This might explain her natural manner in front of cameras and microphones. The fact that her family are all musical may also contribute. Whatever the reason it was noticeable that neither Aygul, or her brother Nurlan seemed in the slightest bit perturbed by our presence.

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People arrived at the house, watched, drank tea and left as if it was all completely normal. This was good for us as we didn’t feel we were putting them through an ordeal. Nurlan has an unusually strong and intense voice with an energetic style of dombra playing. He has been a school music teacher but now works the fields. He performs professionally at weddings (toys) and on public holidays. He’s been playing since childhood. It seems that both he and his brother have helped Aygul to learn to play, but they stress the fact that she had a desire to learn.

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She learnt naturally – in other words she’s largely self taught. Aygul has been surrounded by music from a young age. Both have extraordinary voices which they describe as ‘coming from nature.’ For such a musical family it seemed strange to us that they don’t perform together. They possess only one working dombra, and they explained that ‘each person has their own voice’. This means presumably that they have different vocal ranges, but perhaps also different ways of expressing a song. Theirs is a solo singing tradition.Aygul sang a love song called ‘Altynai’. This song is addressed to a girl whose name means golden moon. These kinds of songs seem quite typical. Nurlan’s song ‘Karagymai’ was also a love song “Sweetheart, life without you is nothing”

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Last night’s campsite had little to commend it, previous incumbents had left a trail of empty beer bottles and cigarette ends. We decided to move on and spend our last night on the steppe somewhere we wished to remember. Only twenty minutes drive found us further down the valley with a cleaner site and a clearer river.

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I decided to light a fire, to gather one last time around the ancient embers – to reflect. With singers like Aygul and Nurlan the tradition is in safe hands and some timeless songs will probably pass to the next generation. Tomorrow we journey 8 hours back to Almaty. The Musical Nomad project nears an end. Please join us as we, the Nomad team share our personal reflections on a journey that has changed us all.

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Day 34 – Take the first left on the A351

34cowboy.gifWe break camp at 9 am and leave the Almaty area passing the ominously titled ‘Panilov State Farm’. The A351 is a bumpy old ‘B’ road lined with fruit growers selling their wares. Delicious tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, remember those? Melons ooze sweet juice and the apples ‘tang’ in your mouth.

The mountains sit tantalizingly ten miles either side of the road. Horses run wild on the wide open plains. As we travelled we listened to the Kazak folk ensemble of Day 2. One melody that seemed very appropriate contained a Kazak traditional instrument – horses hoof castanets.

34camp.gifIn places the countryside is almost English but the rising thermometer shatters that illusion. There are ‘yurt’ shaped bus shelters decorated with colourful mosaic and men on horses with sun carved faces. Donkey carts pull whole families. Occasionally we encounter ‘the land that time forgot’ – rusting hulks of abandoned industry. Rows of dead cypresses await some forgotten promise of irrigation.

We are heading East from Almaty for supposedly 6 hours towards the Chinese border. In fact the journey turns out to be a 10 hour slog. Our route will take us enticingly close to China. This will be the furthest East that the Musical Nomad project will travel. The lanscape here is dramatic and mostly vertical, it is possible to drive for hours without seeing anyone.

34inter.gifDuring the journey we stopped off at the the Charyn River canyon. On some rocks precariously close to the edge of a 200 foot drop I chatted to Moldira our Kazak interpreter. (We have tried to include profiles of people that we have met on our journey. We hope to give a sense of the variety of lifestyles that still co-exist within a fairly small geographical area.)

I already knew that Moldira was a dancer and was very interested in music. So I asked her a bit about her life in Kazakstan.

Could you tell us about your job in Chimkent

34mold1.gifIn 1994 I worked in Chimkent, my native town. I was a producer of my own private music club. I had a music programmme on TV. It covered music from both the World and Kazakstan. It was pop music as young people were more interested in this rather than Kazak music. I was also a journalist in the local Chimkent paper called Sebja ‘My Paper’. The TV program was very popular because it was the only one of it’s kind and it was called M95. M for Music, Moldira and Molodjosh (youth). It began in 95. My program was on twice a week and in Chimkent it had 6000 viewers. I was very popular because I presented and scripted it.

Why did you leave?

The technical side was not very good and my aim was to make quality programmes. I think that it is better to have no programme at all rather than a poor one. We never had enough time for filming and we only had one camera. Also we could not travel much to meet musicians.

But it was a very popular TV programme?

I think so because every second or third person would stop me in the street and say ‘hello, I know your programme’

Do you think you want to continue working in television?

34canyon.gifI don’t know because there are still technical problems in Alpha TV, Chimkent (the TV company I worked for). I like languages and I want to speak better English and German. Maybe in the future I will want to return but I haven’t studied economics or management and showbusiness is heavily connected to money. I was the manager of my own dancing group. and I managed a music club in Almaty which was the first of it’s kind. In 1992 there was a competition between Almaty music clubs and ours was the best.

What sort of music club was it?

Some years ago it was discotheque, now it is a TV and Radio station. Bigger, programmes, concerts, music competitions.

What do you think of Kazak TV?

Some programmes are primitive. They are often samey and repetitive

Do you still dance?

I haven’t studied dance but I like it very much. I can do any kind of dance. Especially funk. I know Kazak traditional dancing of course, it’s in my blood.

Do you like Kazak traditional music?

It is natural for me to like it, Yes.

Is it common to find pop music with Kazak melodies?

34joes.gifThere are some traditional melodies in modern mixes and I enjoy this. Because it’s old music with a new look. We can’t forget our old musical traditions. It is very important.

How do feel about Kazakstan after independence?

The first things that were changed in our country specifically in Almaty were the restaurants, nightclubs. We have freedom, liberty

Is this good?

I think it is not just good. But it is freedom. Each person can feel free. To visit interesting places not just the Kino, cinema, which is primitive. So many foreigners come to Almaty which makes it very interesting.

Do you feel positive about the future?

I hope but I don’t know

Do you feel its possible to find a job?

Yes I think its possible if you have ambition.

The kind of work you have been doing, TV, Radio could you have done that before independence?

Yes but now it is more easier.

You told me you like the natural beauty around Almaty?

34wagon.gifNature is my second home. I like it very much. Fresh air and the mountains are fabulous. People are nothing compared to the mountains. That is an important point. I dream about the lakes, rivers, nature, mountains, rocks, deserts.

Do you think more people will visit Kazakstan to see these places?

Yes. I have worked with many foreigners and they usually say it is so beautiful. The mountains and the stars and this makes me happy.

We drive on through desert steppe at the edge of the mountain – a yellow furze, almost a cowboy’s Arizona. In a valley near Zalanas I see my first ‘wild’ Nomad yurt. As the sun sets, after nine hours drive, a man on horse-back tells us we can camp near his yurt. We set up our tents somewhere in the wilds of Kazakstan.


Tomorrow. We visit the nearby local village. Join us and see what happens.

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Day 33 – another half-ready kobuz nestled like a hibernating wild animal

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“It looked like a tree trunk”

For some time now we have been traveling from one Central Asian city to the next, in search of sometimes elusive musicians. It comes as something of a shock to find myself in dramatic mountain scenery within an hour of leaving Almaty. Seemingly vertical surfaces of rock carry the eye upward, to the hazy skyline.

We are camped by a stream in a beautiful valley, this feels like the first opportunity I’ve had to reflect on our journey. Thirty days on the road is a long time in some ways, but it has been a whirlwind tour. I would have been happy to spend weeks visiting any one of the musicians we’ve encountered. I have the impression of being allowed a brief glimpse into a fascinating and absorbing world.

Thinking about Raushan’s kobuz playing yesterday, its directness and simplicity, I felt the urge to improvise a piece about being here in the mountains. I have with me a simple three-holed flute from Africa, which seems the perfect instrument. It’s not every day you get to play in a concert hall like this. The wind carries the sound away very quickly and I feel small in such a vast location. It seems appropriate though – being here gives a sense of perspective on life.

33childs.gifWe had been told that the ‘village of the masters’ was one hour from Almaty. When Nomadmobile 4 set off we were unreliably informed that the village was over a 3000 metre pass. Looking forward to a spectacular ride through the Alatau mountains the Musical Nomad cavalcade started up. After what seemed like twenty minutes we turn off the main road across a small stream and up a steep rocky slope. Two large yellow apartment blocks and a small row of houses nestle in an avenue of electricity pylons. “This is the masters village” the driver informed us. My image of wooden shacks on a wooded hillside was immediately shattered. As soon as we switched off the engine several men began to display carpets and silver ware in the road outside the larger of the two apartments. The crafts are good quality and I bought a rug. Gradually a crowd of village children gathered and we become the centre of attention on a dull Saturday afternoon. They were confused by our presence – this place obviously doesn’t get many visitors.

33toleg.gifA man resembling Shayhk Kushkarov of Day 20 suddenly appeared and amongst his Kazak I recognise the word kobuz. I say Raushan’s name and immediately we have connected. The housing block is home to a community of craftspeople. Tolegen Sarsenbaev, the kobuz maker invites us in to his simple abode. He has a very friendly face, bearded with deep passionate eyes. I immediately sensed his creativity and devotion to his craft. This was a man used to working in harmony with nature. Three large rooms operate as workshop, bedroom , living room, artist studio and kitchen. A tree-trunk in his studio serves as a stand for his musical instruments which he says charges them with energy . He seems to understand why we have come and begins laying out half made kobuz’s all over the living room floor. They look wonderful. Variations on a theme for sure but in their raw state they have an embryonic perfection, living things almost ready. Another partially ready piece which caught my attention was a kobuz case. This looked like a tree trunk and inside another half ready kobuz nestled like a hibernating wild animal.

33toleg2.gifTolegen told me that most of his kobuz’s are designed on the theme of wild animals. He had a bird, a camel and a owl. The profile of the instruments were indeed animal-like. Tolegen described the shape of the soundboard, which on most instruments resembles a heart with a trench underneath. He said this helped the sound to flow from the bottom of the instrument into the centre enabling it to project forwards. He seemed enthusiastic to talk about the technical aspects of his work. I asked him about Raushan’s instrument, particlarly the fingerboard and the lifted nut. He said this was an experiment many years ago and Raushan had requested it particularly for her ‘cuticle’ technique we mentioned yesterday. He was keen to talk about the uses of his instruments and mentioned how the kobuz is a favourite of Shaman for inducing trance like states. He didn’t have a finished instrument to play to us so I showed him my kyl-kyiak which produced some amusement. He refused to play it saying it was ‘imitation kobuz’ So much for Kazak-Kyrgyz relations.

33tolpnt.gifWe also talked about Tolegen’s passionate interest in Shamanistic rituals and his recent meeting with a Shaman, Temish, in Kyrgyzstan at Lake Issyk-Kul. He met Temish when he stayed in the house of Ama, an ‘old and wise babushka’ who is teaching Temish all about the ancient traditions of zikr and Shamanic dances. Tolegen is now making a kobuz for Temish this is the instrument that Shamans used to play in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan during zikr’s. I was surprised to hear of Shaman rituals which include zikr. Zikr is an Arabic word used to describe a specific Sufi practice. Perhaps this supports Shaykh Kushkarov’s assertion that the two traditions are connected in Central Asia.

33camp.gifTolegen is keen to join a zikr next month for which he will hike across the river Yur-Kemin and the Kungey Alatau mountain range (over 4000m high) into Kyrgyzstan and then hitch a lift along Lake Issyk-Kul. I’m interested to know which of the instruments I’ve seen in his workshop is intended for Temish – I’m told he chose one shaped like a bird in flight – a metaphor for the animal spirit.

As we make camp a competition soon emerges for best attempt at rigging a tent. Paul’s team wins hands down, predictably with help from the girl guides. I take advantage of the ‘cold and cold’ running water and avail myself of that handy bush. Gary is in seventh heaven as he plays his Krygyz Komuz and rigs his satellite next to his tent. His feet grounded in the stream, at last a long way from a power point.


As the evening shadows shape new contours into the eternal hills, this is definitely a place to make music. I’m sure tomorrow will bring us closer to the nomad spirit of these Kazak people. We will camp near some mountain villages and via our new interpreter Moldira attempt a dialogue with their remote inhabitants. The musical nomad has truly landed….. ‘When you sleep outside your thoughts are as high as the stars’.

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