Posts Tagged United Kingdom

Day 39 – Home again

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This journey has resulted from a team effort. The technical back-up we have received from ‘civilised’ UK has been second to none and we would like to take this opportunity to thank a few people (I am sure we missed a few).

Technical Thanks

For the BBC Multimedia Centre

Marc Walker has been an angel. Working well beyond sensible hours he finally got us connected and made himself ill in the process!

Neil, Charlotte, Victoria, Judy (Music on Earth) and of course Danielle have provided much needed support, battling against the odds

In the early days Steve, Laura and Martin helped get things off the ground

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For LiveWire

When the going got tough and we struggled for a link with the outside world the LiveWire team worked especially hard to make thing happen

Special thanks to Tristan for the late nights calls and

Howard for personally delivering a working system after a 18 hour journey (See Day 13)

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Day 26 – Vultures Circle Looking for Musical Nomads?

26jkara.gifAs I write this at 9 pm Krygz time we are driving precariously close to a deep ravine carrying the Naryn river. We work our way up to the top of the Ala-Bel pass at 3184 metres. The road is rocky, slow and the team and equipment are being thrown around. It begins to rain. I have no idea if this report will reach you – will the satellite survive? We have a second pass to come, the Tor-Ashuu at 3600 metres when from the top in the dark, we will attempt to erect the satellite and send you today’s experience.

Last night we said to say Good bye to Bahadir, his son Alisher and Matluba.
26krgy1.gifHaving crossed the border with us to Osh, they turned round and headed back to Uzbekistan. Nuts. bread and chai for supper, (Uzbek food) 6 hours sleep and back on the road in a much older Russian built Nomad mobile. Out two drivers are friendly and helpful but we have been on the road for 17 days with Bahadir and his gruff manner has grown on us.

As the mountains close around us, the valley is the greenest so far. Agriculture stretches to the horizon, orchards and fields of sweetcorn. The view is occasionally blighted by early 20th century industrial ‘daymares.’ Vultures circle looking for musical nomads without water? We stocked up in Osh – is it enough for 16 hours? Nomadmobile 1 couldn’t travel into Kyrgyztsan – farewell to air-conditioning and the whiff of leaking petrol. Nomadmobile 2 has all the comfort necessary for a quick trip to the seaside on a cool Easter day in England.
26petrol.gifThis is Central Asia in August, the seats grind your bum and you sweat a pound for every mile.

Three time zones in one hour, as we cross briefly back into Uzbekistan and then back again into Kyrgyzstan. Even on the foothills of the mountains dreary Soviet style apartment blocks spring up like bloated fungus. The foothills remind me of Llangollen, Wales – without loo paper!

26write.gifKyrgyzstan is different. It is difficult to judge a country by its ‘truck’ stops and small apartments. There is a feeling in the air that these are people who like to move. The Kyrgz in the cities give you a feeling they are frustrated nomads. Kyrgyzstan has a more improvised feel to it. Buildings appear to be placed randomly, the road from Osh to Bishkek appears as a major artery on our map but is often no more than a mountain track. We are not complaining, this is the nomad life… or just mad life..

26lake2.gifThe country is vertical. The Soviet’s in their grand scheme obviously realised the enormous potential for damming key valleys and turning the region into a large electricity producer. One of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest exports is electricity. This policy has had some catastrophic effects, there are electric pylons everywhere and subsidiary industries have taken root in areas of great scenic beauty. There are though some positive effects. Traveling through sandy, dry hillscapes for five hours it comes as a magnificent and beautiful surprise to see deep gorges carrying cool turquoise water to large reservoirs. One of the most impressive is lake Toktogul. We turn a hairpin bend and it appears like a mirage, a large blue, mirror ‘sea’ stretching from horizon to horizon. If it were set to music it would be the timpani roll leading to a perfect orhestral cadence.26yurt.gifWe met some interesting characters enroute. One chap at a roadside chaikhana had a motorcycle. He was travelling the same route and was proud of the sheep he had killed for the seat on his bike. He then made an offer of four sheep for Kathrin, Gary suggested twenty dollars intead.

Close to the tea house on a long ridge stands a Burial area. A series of both enclosed and open mounds sit silent as a warm wind whistles. In the distance Lake Toktogul shimmers blue in the afternoon haze. The grave enclosures vary from cathedral-like structures to brick ‘yurts.’ Some even have yurt shaped metal frames, inside a simple mound of earth marks the spot. At the front of the ridge a body, simply wrapped in Muslin leaves an eerie and lasting impression.

It slowly goes dark. We have mountains to climb. Waterfalls and Yurts fade into the steep slopes. Its been a gruelling 18 trek. It’s 4 in the morning and we have just arrived in Biskek – sorry for the late transmission, goodnight. Tomorrow the capital Biskek and best music Krygyzstan can offer.

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Day 21 – the person who arrives is not the one who left

Yesterday I found myself reflecting on some words from day 0

‘the person who arrives is not the one who left’.

This trip has been very intense for me. Meeting so many people, visiting so many places in such a short span. Some ‘moments’ have had a profound effect on me. Day 4, as I encountered the intense Shamanistic music of Raushan and her kobuz. Day 7, hearing Munadjat moved me to tears. Day 11, the quiet reflection of Hoja Ismail al Bukhari?s Tomb. Day 12, the intimacy and humour of a family lunch with ‘the last of his kind’, Ari Babakhanov. Day 13, at last the satellite works and I share my discoveries and invite your questions. Day 16, I meet the wild man of Baysun, Shoberdy Bakshy who dares to dance to a different drum. Yesterday the Sufi Shayk Kushkarov astounded me with his strength of spirit, generosity and wit. The internet site though is the tip of an iceberg.

21ensem.gifAfter tracking the Baysun Ensemble several hundred kilometres across Uzbekistan, we finally caught up with them in Tashkent. They assembled in Friendship Square at 3.00 in the afternoon heat. Despite the conditions we managed to catch a brief example of their unique brand of folk music. The Ensemble is large, 45 people including musicians and dancers. We only saw 30 of them today, but I still had the impression of a village collectively telling a story. Baysun itself is renowned for its music [see Day 16] and the

21jensem.gifEnsemble have a considerable reputation in Uzbekistan. Established for ten years they have travelled widely, including UK, Turkey, Bulgaria and USA. Their music might be described as folk revival, aiming for a reconstruction of traditional music about everyday life. It is a long way from the Russian inspired ‘folkloric’ groups, and retains something of the simplicity and directness of authentic folk music. Stories and poems are sung and semi-staged. The repertoire is adapted for the concert hall and is very well rehearsed. Its naturalness conceals years of painstaking reconstruction, mostly from oral sources. They now adapt traditional melodies to modern texts.

21duet.gifI sat down with their manager, Abdunabi Ravshanov and their musical director and flute player, Habib Umarov. After some discussion about the Group’s history and current activities, I asked about the similarities between their music and the music of the Balkans, particularly Bulgaria. This similarity had struck me particularly strongly this afternoon. Habib said that Uzbeks and Bulgars had mixed with Turkic people. I took out my flute and played a Turkish melody. Habib’s face flashed a smile of recognition. Within seconds he was playing along and I was trying to imitate some of his ornamentation and variations. It seems this tune is from Istanbul. We each knew slightly different versions but it was undoubtedly the same melody. It was a strange but hard-warming feeling to be sitting in a Tashkent hotel with a Baysun flute player playing a melody from Istanbul.

21habib.gifIt crossed my mind that because musicians seem to pick up tunes wherever they hear them, the music itself becomes nomadic – it travels. This has always been the case. Habib played ‘What do we do with the drunken sailor?’ to which he knew a strange variation on the words presumably picked up on a tour of the UK. On day 2 Abylai played us an Italian tune, on day 18 the chang player in Samarkand entertained us with Mozart. With my Russian limited to one or two words this is by far the best way to get acquainted.

The journey continues, we turn another corner. The Shaman eludes us, and we still only glimpse real yurts on distant hill sides. 19 more days, tomorrow the Ferghana valley and then onward to Krygyzstan.

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Day 13 – a satellite beams from Bukhara

13jkeng.gifHuman contact can take many forms. There is contact when you play or hear a piece of music which triggers a primal reaction within. There is contact when you meet someone who, though living a different life to your own, can understand and relate. There is a contact through ‘communications’, be it a simple conversation or a satellite bouncing signals around the world. Today we made contact. Through music, with people of Bukhara and finally, at last with you the audience.

In our wonderful location preparations are underway to turn the already lavish interior into a ‘new’ set for a different musician. Today we meet a gidchak player (traditional lap violin). Video and audio are in record pause and the scene is set for action. We suddenly get the news that the musician has had to ‘do’ a wedding and cannot make today. Our first ‘non-starter’! Simultaneously, a young man who has traveled eighteen hours to be with us walks into ‘The Musical Nomad’ circle. Howard Drake has brought us a new, fully functional portable communications satellite unit – this is the third one and expectations are high. Will the project finally become two way?
13gary.gifGary becomes more ecstatic as the levers are pulled and the turbines begin to roll – we feel there is a direct parallel here with the early days of TV, this shaky yet elegant production echoes those early pioneers. Suddenly we get full connection, we are in full contact with the outside world. There is little jumping up and down, it’s too hot for that but a great sense of relief as the music, photographs and writing of the past twelve days are efficiently pumped onto the World Wide Web.

13bsun.gifSomething significant is happening in Bukhara. The ancient city takes on a new role. No longer a staging post on the silk road, Bukhara’s main asset in now its magnificent architecture. Everywhere scaffolding is springing up and crumbling fortresses and monuments are acquiring a facelift. People who remember the city in its faded glory fear ‘Bukhara-Disney’ and ‘theme park city’. Personally I am sure it will look magnificent. The Bukhara that celebrates 2500 years is part manufactured but somehow the spirit rings true. What I would like to see is a stronger resistance to Coca Cola culture and cheap diluted europop – both already starting to take over in the otherwise tranquil city square.

Everything moves on and its important that we keep some record of the past. The tools of a musician develop and change with the needs of the music.
13jark.gifIn the local museum I saw some sad old relics of what used to be a gidchak, a tanbur and some 17th century drums. In an unprecedented way the guide allowed us to play one of the drums and again its voice rang out. Living instruments need this, when stuffed and entombed in glass they die – the strings rot and the heads split and they no longer represent the essential vivacity of their function.

The Musical Nomad project fulfills and important function – with every musician we meet we make a state of the art digital audio visual record of their technique, they play at least one whole piece. We hope in this way to make a living record of Central Asian Music now – a real legacy for our grandchildren.

13maus.gifIts is common in Bukhara to find yourself sitting on a wall or bench to admire a building or chat to locals. I chatted to Mohammed, I asked him whether he knows any musicians in town. “My brothers are musicians”, he said, “they run a music shop”. Not quite believing our luck we followed him to his house in the early evening. After a few minutes walk through the narrow backstreets we entered a simple local house with a characteristic courtyard, reminiscent of an African compound. We greeted Mohammed’s wife, Aisha and their young son of three months old lay asleep on a blanket. Soon their two young daughters aged about three and five arrived home from playing in the streets. We drank tea and Mohammed went to fetch some musical instruments.

13comp.gifThere is an ease about people in Bukhara. A warmth which shows itself in the small everyday incidents. Bukharans are naturally hospitable and still curious enough about foreigners to stop and chat . It is obvious however that times are harder since independence and some locals are struggling. Encounters with people like Mohammed’s family are precious therefore for getting an insight into how people live. Undoubtedly Mohammed wanted to sell us instruments but he was also pleased to be able to entertain. We chatted to his daughters and when the conversation ran out I played a Hebrew folk song on my flute – the children seemed intrigued and listened intently. Out came the photo album and we saw their wedding snaps and family momentos. We were asked if we had children. Aisha was surprised that only Paul and I did (she was married when she was seventeen and must only be in her early twenties now). Missing my baby son Tal back home in the UK, I picked up their little one and felt him to be a comforting presence there in my lap. These are feelings that translate well wherever you find yourself in the world. Feelings everyone understands.

13family.gifMohammed returned with his instruments and a raucous noise was struck up within seconds. Rubab, doira, surnai and nai. Unfortunately all the instruments were of poor quality and I bought the ney more as a souvenir of the evening than as a useful instrument. Mohammed seemed pleased and we all trooped cheerfully out into the now dark Bukharan backstreets. We said our good-byes, promised them a copy of the photo Gary had taken of the family, and headed back to the guest house.



Tomorrow I meet a musician playing a gidchak, the traditional violin of Uzbekistan. I then go on a pilgrimage to the tomb of a 13th Century mystic, one of my main reasons for coming to Central Asia

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Day 10 – Seven Heavens Beneath a Waterfall

10jnalph.gifIt was a strange experience walking into a BBC building in the middle of Tashkent – a small piece of England, a refuge, an embassy. Jenny Norton who runs BBC Monitoring Tashkent had been a very good contact for us when this journey was planned. Today she met us in her office, a room rented as part of a hotel complex. Being very interested in our journey, she was happy to advise us about the areas we are planning to travel to. She pointed out that as part of our description of musicians and music it is likely some sensitive issues will be touched on. “Tell it like it is” she announced. She mentioned the relative peace and stability in Uzbekistan compared with the problems in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. She assured us we would be safe following the planned route of the rest of our journey.

10alpha.gifWhilst wandering around Tashkent in the sweltering heat, we came across an intriguing character standing by a fountain in Alimdjan’s Square – in memory of the great Uzbek writer. His face had the weather-beaten look of someone who spends a lot of time in the open. He could have been forty …or sixty, it was hard to tell. He started to tell us about the significance of this place. It was not, as we had thought, just another piece of grandiose Soviet architecture but had all kinds of cosmological significance. This genial and likeable gentleman goes by the rather unusual name of Alpha-Omega. Intrigued by his stories, we followed him down some steps to what appeared to be a maintenance room of some kind – this was his home. He welcomed us in, sat us down and offered us tea. He then continued with his story.

As far as we could understand, he was describing all the cosmic forces acting upon this spot. He gave an explanation of the ‘seven heavens’, the five parts of the human body and the four elements. His wide-ranging conversation darted from one subject to the next, seemlessly. Somehow it all seemed connected. By now there were complex cosmological diagrams and mathematical symbols drawn on a piece of paper.He explained how all the religions were in fact one and how Jesus Christ was coming again soon, in fact he was already born. He described himself as a Dervish, a Sufi holy man and said that he was a reincarnation of Ibn Al Arabi, a famous Andalucian saint. This statement was followed by a complex astrological breakdown of how this fortuitous event (his reincarnation) had happened.

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A couple of books we saw lying around his room were indeed works by classical Sufi authors. He lived very tidily in this simple room and wanted no money from us. ‘Everyone is welcome here’, he said. We asked if he knew any musicians. ‘I’ve met some… up there’ , and he pointed to the sky.

Tomorrow we are travelling to the Holy City of Bukhara. Our first real interception with the Silk Road. I am eagerly anticipating this city – log in and find out about musicians we will be meeting.

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Day 9 – Red Tape Hell, Musical Heaven

08conver.gifHaving been out of action for a while I have not been able to tell you about our meeting with Pattahon Mamadaliev. Sometimes it’s difficult to interview musicians here because of their modesty . if you ask them about themselves they will naturally represent themselves in a very humble way. Pattahon is a good example of this.A respected maqam performer he is particularly famous for his wedding singing in the Fergana style. He is professor at Tashkent state Conservatoire and has performed numerous times on TV and Radio. In fact, the people working in our hotel were thoroughly surprised to see him sitting in their dining room. Perhaps the thing that most distinguishes him is his status as a composer. Pattahon was the first musician to be awarded the honorary title of Hafiz by the new administration after independence. This title is used in the Islamic World to describe one who has learned the Koran by heart, but it can also refer to a master musician. Pattahon is not only an interpreter, he also composes maqam music and texts.

I always enjoy watching older musicians who have played for years, they often have a minimalist style, an economy of expression. Pattahon plays as if his tanbur is a part of him and his voice still retains a power which belies his seventy years. Interestingly when we asked about the age of the tanbur he said it was not old, only fifty years.

09kathas.gifAs Pattahon’s life spans much of the period of Soviet rule in Uzbekistan I was keen to ask him about the changes that had come about. Both he and Abdurahim were clear that it had been an ill conceived experiment on the part of the Russians to try to change the musical tradition here. They felt it to be a tribute to the strength of the music and the peoples’ feeling for it that it had survived. Sasha our interpreter and musicologist companion pointed out that this viewpoint was fairly nationalistic and not necessarily representative of all musicians in the country, although there is much evidence that Soviet Cultural Policy had set out to repress the music. Sasha can be heard translating this viewpoint in an excerpt from the interview.This day was to be special for the project. A high ranking official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was going to make customs give us our satellite phone. We left for the airport at 9 am in triumphant frame of mind believing we would return within the hour. At 2 pm two bedraggled people walked through the door, black satellite phone in hand. We had been through red tape hell. The country may have reached independence but the old Russian way of doing things remains fully intact. An endless stream of grey concrete ‘huts’ scattered randomly around a wide, bland pot-holed road leading away from the airport. Sleepy Army soldiers guard rusty gates and several stages of payment, slips of paper and rubber stamps get you in.

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Over a roaring fire a large wok containing gallons of water. Lumps of dirty raw meat and vegetables, sit bubbling away in the middle of one of the yards – who is it for? The atmosphere of the place is slow and still, certainly not an area bubbling with efficiency. The various stages that Uzbekistan customs ask you to go through to acquire your own property is excruitiatingly painful when like us, you are in a rush. The paperwork and arguments burn irretrievably into the memory of all who pass through each ‘hut of frustration’.Though I’m still unwell, I’m keen to see how the new satellite is shaping up. I descend the stairs to find Gary and Paul surrounded by 100 pieces of wreckage – I can’t believe it, the replacement satellite has possibly been corrupted in transit and they are trying to trace an obvious fault. Despite all their efforts the team cannot find one, desperate calls to England are hampered when we can’t get a phone line. I retire to a safe distance, Gary and Paul are not happy. Ten minutes later I am awoken by a combined banging and throbbing – what now? Peering through the door I see Gary manfully priming a petrol generator and Paul planting an earth spike in the dusty courtyard. There wasn’t enough current in the local electricity supply to even work a soldering iron, so this is the solution – make your own electricity. It’s bizarre seeing all this sophisticated satellite gear driven by a petrol generator.

We are told a third satellite transmitter will be hand delivered in a few days to Bukhara. Please stick with us we are doing everything we can, normal ‘service’ will commence shortly.

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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.”

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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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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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