Posts Tagged Panfilov Park

Day 4 – Let the music and musical instruments be the bridge between the peoples of the World

“Let the music and musical instruments be the bridge between the peoples of the World…You are the ambassadors and I wish you success” Izbazar Balbazulov – Director of Museum of Kazak Musical Instruments

The Minister of Culture pulls some strings. Arranged at the last minute, here we are in the presence of two great virtuosi back in the Museum of Kazak Musical Instruments. We are expectant of good playing, though nothing could prepare us for the brilliance of the emotional journey to follow.

04kbuz01.gifHe had arranged for us to meet one of the greatest exponents of the kobuz. This was an instrument that none of us knew much about so we crammed ourselves and our gear into the first Lada that would stop and headed for Panfilov park. Everywhere in Almaty people have been extremely helpful to us. They seem eager that their arts and culture are represented. This has been wonderful, but has made us aware of having a responsibility towards the artists that we meet. This spirit of helpfulness manifested itself in two musicians – Raushan Obrazbaeva the kobuz player and Aygul Ulkenbaeva a dombra player. We knew we were pushing our luck to record, film and interview them in the time that we had, yet still do them justice.

04aygul.gifAs we heard Aygul tuning her dombra we knew this was special. It was clear from the way that she handled her instrument that she was a virtuoso, not a folkloric performer of ‘museum’ music. As she began I was immediately struck by her poise and grace. Just like master musicians anywhere in the world, she transcended the apparent limitations of her instrument. Time stood still and we forgot that we were listening to a two stringed instrument, this music seemed universal. Paul came in from next door where he had been monitoring the recording, visibly paler. This was too good to miss, we just had to record it all. Aygul’s playing style is very extrovert and almost choreographed. She uses magnificent hand gestures to illustrate her music. It would be easy to make comparisons with extravagant concert pianists, but I felt this to be an integral part of her personal playing style. With her fully chromatic dombra she takes the instrument to new heights of expression. Her rasguedo strumming is flamenco in rhythm and fire. Her wide vibrato is almost as outrageous as the whammy bar on a Fender Stratocaster. Perhaps Aygul is a Segovia of the Dombra, extending its repertoire and range of tone colour, taking it to a new audience. This was very definitely classical music. There were no folk songs nostalgically invoking bygone eras, it was pure instrumental music. The drama of watching an instrumentalist weave a story in sound transcends any historical, national or cultural label.

04paint.gifThese are not every-day experiences, and my head buzzed with questions. I hadn’t realised there was a living and vibrant classical tradition in Kazakstan, with composers writing for traditional instruments. Essentially the classical music seems to have developed and refined the folk art form rather than losing contact with it entirely as seems to have happened in the West. This should be seen as a natural process, it has happened all over the world. It seems to be part of urban life, and increasing sophistication. It would be simplistic to describe this as the influence of ‘Russification’, although Russia has clearly been a huge influence here. We should not be bemoaning the loss of ‘traditional’ music, but celebrating the survival of a distinctly Kazak form of musical expression.

04raushn.gifRaushan now took the stage to play the kobuz. Both musicians had been wearing traditional costume, and Raushan looked extraordinary in her long embroidered velvet gown with fur trimmed hat complete with shamanic-looking feathers. Her two-stringed horse hair fiddle is capable of creating almost unbelievably intense sounds. Whereas Aygul had been outgoing and virtuosic in her performance style, Raushan was introspective, as if summoning up ancestral spirits. She plays with closed eyes and rocks like a pendulum, in the dim light of the museum. I feel I’m in the presence of something very, very special. The sound of the kobuz is at times very close to the human voice. The emotional impact is immediate, it almost wails sometimes and it breaks your heart. We were astounded, not just by technical ability, but by the intensity and passion of her playing. The sound seemed to come from everywhere, to embrace you. Multiphonic effects brought to mind Mongolian overtone singing, primal sounds that were curiously abstract, impossible to notate. Simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Raushan is able to move, in the space of one bow, from sorrowful and restrained Shostokovichian cello to guttural animal scream. I thought of Paul next door with his headphones turned up, and wondered what he must have been thinking. Once again all our expectations had been confounded. Gary pointed out during the performance that some of the music sounded very contemporary and accessible, and yet the pieces were hundreds of years old.

04kbuz02.gifI managed to find a moment to sit down with Raushan to ask her about the music. Is the kobuz the shaman’s fiddle? Are the attached jingles a vestigial shaman’s rattle? Can ancient Shamanic music connect with modern audiences? Join us tomorrow – let us have your views.

The curator Izbazar Balbazulov is a warm and enthusiastic man. He is extremely proud of his museum and rightly so. We gather with Alia in his kingdom, surrounded by paintings of Kazak greats. Musical instruments overflow from the shelves. As Gary and Paul fill in his guest book with good wishes and thanks, Izbazar points to a very special entry: President Yeltzin dropped by, back in 1991. Our gratitude is evident and he responds:”Let the music and musical instruments be the bridge between the peoples of the World…You are the ambassadors and I wish you success”.


He plays his dombra, Kathrin buys a kobuz, Jan blows on a hollowed out wooden Kazak ney, Paul checks his rushes, Gary checks his flys. On we go.

The musicians we heard today are innovators and trail blazers with a strong sense of identity.

Tomorrow I hope for a different perspective, I interview Alia, our interpreter about her Rhythm and Blues band, a young persons ‘take’ on Kazak music.

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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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