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Day 32 – Where there is spirit there is usually music

What oppression causes such sad faces in Almaty? In the hotel reception everyone glowers when you request directions to an urgently needed toilet. When I turn up for breakfast (the other half of bed and breakfast?) I’m marched off to reception where 8 dollars is demanded, cash, now! I smile at a floor manager (each floor of the hotel still has a KGB style ‘watchdog’). She glowers back uncomprehendingly. I point out my bathroom has no water to a hotel supervisor, she glowers at me for interrupting her chat with her friend. I assume this is all the legacy of the Soviet years – it will take a long time to heal these wounds.

Music is the food of the spirit. Outside of the modern cities that spirit seems more alive – perhaps further from beaurocracy and dogma?

In our absence no progress has been made on our proposed Yurt stay, we’ve been out of touch as Kyrgyzstan has no external phone service worth mentioning. We only have a few hours to organise this expedition.

Raushan Obrazbaeva – part two
What of music? One of my favourite musicians so far is Raushan, the hypnotic exponent of the kobuz. Her inspirational performance (Day 4) has remained a high point of the trip. I remembered she had spoken of musicians in the mountains. Perhaps she could help solve our predicament. I was also keen to ask her some more questions in the light of our experiences elsewhere in Central Asia.

In a small and rather noisy cafe in downtown Almaty we showed her how our Internet project had progressed. She was keen to hear Barkut (Day 29) the Kyrgyz kyl-kyiak player. Unfortunately, we did not include this track in our report but I showed her the instrument I had bought from him. Raushan was curious to play what she described as a Kyrgyz variant of the Kazak kobuz. She pointed out some significant differences in design, and sound. Unlike Western instruments, which are very standardised, Central Asian instruments vary widely. Kathy had also bought a Kazak kobuz, which was very different from either Raushan’s instrument or the Kyrgyz kyl-kyiak. The basic design of two string horse hair fiddle is constant – after that it seems to be up to the creativity of the maker. One of the main things Raushan pointed out about the kyl-kyiak was the different playing technique. She plays by pressing her cuticles on the strings like an Indian sarangi player (also a vertical fiddle but with sympathetic strings). The Kyrgyz players press on the strings with the fingertips. These differences are generalisations and there are pieces in the Kazak repertoire that demand different techniques.

“She plays with her cuticles”
Our conversation continued as we moved to the park to record Raushan in the open air – where she likes to play. [Also see Kurmangazi day 28]. She demonstrated some pieces that are inspired by animals – the wolf and the camel. I found myself astonished once again at the variety of expression that Raushan has, literally at her fingertips. Her instrument is close to nature in its simplicity. It produces a complex ‘unpurified’ sound with strong overtones. Raushan’s impressionistic renderings of animal sounds are very abstract in character, simultaneously ancient and modern.

Raushan also likes to play pieces from the European Classical repertoire, and she showed us how she changes the way she holds her bow to emulate a ‘cello. We could have chatted for ever about instrument design and playing techniques. We were conscious though that we had an expedition to organise and so time was short.

A kobuz masterclass and interview
Raushan told me of a village in the foothills of the Alatau Mountains only one hour away from Almaty – ‘The village of craftsmen’. Everyone there is a crafts person – the men making musical instruments and the women making clothing and jewellery. An instrument maker in this village had made her kobuz and she seemed delighted by my interest. It sounds like a beautiful area and apparently we can camp there overnight. Another region she recommends is a 6 hour drive away. This valley surrounding the Shinishke river has ‘real’ Kazak villages with people who still live in traditional ways. There are Yurt encampments – Nomadic herders settling in the rich pastures for the summer months. There is natural beauty. Thirteen thousand foot mountains, white water rivers and rare wildlife such as Ibex and Bobcat. Most importantly, Raushan told us that where there are people there is always music. She reiterated that Kazakstan is a very musical country. Suddenly our trip tomorrow is looking like an exciting adventure.

Raushan had given us some useful leads but we had a very short time to put the wheels into motion. This final week was meant to be a voyage of discovery and we seemed to be steering in the right direction. Nomadmobile 4 has to be organised – this time though we will be self-sufficient, living remotely, eating from carried supplies often miles from anywhere ‘civilised’. The electricity generator will now become our most important piece of eqipment as we send you daily episodes from deep in the mountains.

Jan ‘older and wiser’
Our Kazak interpreter Mary knew of an agency who were allegedly experts in the expedition field. Visiting their premises inspired some confidence. A large ‘ordnance survey’ style map of South East Kazakstan proudly enveloped one wall. In another room professional climbing and camping equipment. They seemed sympathetic to our requirements and listed everything we would require as we told them of our needs. We talked vehicles. Their first suggestion of a decrepit bus was soon jettisoned – the seats were lose, the bodywork crumbling and the wheels buckled. We stipulated two ‘modern’ Gazelle vans which would accommodate the Nomad team, cook, interpreter and drivers. There was also a lengthy conversation about safety. If we were in danger or someone was ill do we have a 24 helicopter rescue number? – they told us no general Kazak ‘mountain rescue’ service existed but the agency had a helicopter for emergencies. As the hours went on we realised we would have to furnish many ‘expedition’ items ourselves. A desperate rush around Almaty’s bazars and prestige shops then ensued. Gary, Paul and myself haggling with old women over the price of cheese and pears. On our way back through the commuter streets of Almaty, white shopping bags in hand we at last felt at one with the city – the locals around seemed to accept us. A pity that tomorrow we finally say good-bye to this, our most familiar city.

Tomorrow we head for the village of the masters, then on into unknown territory, little visited villages of Nomads and Yurts. Music? Who knows. Usually where there is spirit there is music

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Day 27 – Two Weddings and a Satellite

We have set up the satellite in many strange places – it is surprising the number of times we have managed to get a clear view of the Indian Ocean receiver without venturing beyond the nearest road. Sadly there have been too many times when mountains, trees or Soviet apartment blocks have got in the way. Today we had to go somewhere. In a children’s playground in the suburbs of Biskek, Kyrgyzstan, English Nomads could be seen setting up a bizarre array of equipment – morning entertainment for the youngsters. The sound of a motor generator and sight of a ‘sputnik’ in the middle of their playground was too much to resist. After some confused policemen had left us a throng of children gathered and cheered us on as we connected to the world. No big flashing lights or music just Gary saying ‘great – another one off’. We asked them to return at 10 PM for part two.

27lenin.gifI had the opportunity to spend a late Sunday afternoon walking through Biskek with our new Kyrgyz translator Gulnaz Abdrahmanova. It has been 42 degrees for the last few weeks. Now, after a sudden rain, the weather is typically British and a welcome change for the team. One of the first things that strikes me is the people – they are, like in Almaty, dressed in ‘modern’ clothes, very different from the traditional Muslims of the Fergana Valley of two days ago. The city itself is wide, open and filled with Soviet style buildings and monuments. As we walked through Dubovy park filled with decaying carvings, Gulnaz explained how Biskek had bought up many Russian artifacts from other ex-Soviet countries – they were quite keen to pass them on! Biskek is the most ‘Russian’ city we have visited. It is the only ex-CIS city with a statue of Lenin still dominating it’s main square. It is difficult to know how most of the city react to these relics. Will Lenin last much longer? The people do seem proud of some of thier monuments, especially Urkuya Saliyevas a reformer from Osh who led the Kyrgyz female movement after the revolution.

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Along the main street there is the familiar mix of subway markets, karaoke cafes and photographer stalls. There are eccentric props used by the photographers including large white gorillas, dead birds in a palm trees and broken down cars. One street stall that caused the team much surprise was an evil spirit removal and fortune telling service. A man in jeans and green shirt waved his arms and hissed Shaman-like chants around each customer. A queue of women sat in the open as each were treated in turn. Our presence caused some embarrassment but we were told this service is very much in demand. Gulnaz’s husband goes once a year and she told me how valuable it was to him. I found it so strange to see this kind of thing performed so openly and I thought how much it differed from our meeting with Shaykh Kushkarov on day 20.

The musician, Kurmangazy Aiylchievich who we are going to meet tomorrow, is larger than life. There is something about him that reminds me of Shoberdy – the Baysun Bakshy [see Day16]. He is a wild, flamboyant virtuosic vodka drinker. Unlike Shoberdy he talks extravagantly about musical healing, Shamans and holistic principles but also plays popular hits at public functions.

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By reputation Kurmangazy is Kyrgyzstan’s top musician. I’ve been invited by Kurmangazy to a special location. A double celebration of a 70th birthday and a 50th wedding anniversary. As I climb the staircase of the ‘Kyrgyz National Restaurant’, I’m immediately struck by a sea of hats – the white Alpine-like national hat of the Kyrgyz nomads. The old women all wear head scarves softening their sun-gold faces, few smile, their heads filled with memories?

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The details vary but I’m sure these occasions have common ground the world over. Solemn vodka laced speeches about ‘fifty happy years,’ on a stage decorated with bouquets and fruit. Children reluctantly pushed to the front, perform party pieces – this time on the national instrument, the komuz. A special delicacy is presented to table – today it’s horse meat – another nomad symbol? Perhaps amongst the gossip there is nostalgia for a Soviet era of greater prosperity and a more certain infrastructure. Nostalgia tempered now by an influx of jobs in fizzy soft drink factories and the fluorescent appeal of catalogue fashions – it’s Sunday and everybody looks their best. In the key of slightly Eb auntie Flo will sing a song: ‘Her mother should know’ – the band struggles to follow.

27komuz.gifSpecial occasions need special music and Kurmangazy seemed happy to provide the crowd-pleasers. To European ears his band is a bizarre cocktail of popular Kyrgyz melodies, South American music, Jazz and Classical pops. His band are all accomplished conservatoire-trained musicians and appear very relaxed.

27kurm.gifKurmangazy fronts the band with a frantic energy, swapping frequently between his many wind instruments. The band’s funked-up versions of everything receive a somewhat cool response from the audience of over 50s. The medley of ‘Classic’ hits which Kurmangazy dedicated to us included snippets of Bach, Mozart and Paganini, all arranged in a ‘hooked-on-Classics’ style with a synthesised back-beat. He invited us to attend a healing session he will conduct at midnight!

Once again the team have to extricate themselves from a tricky situation. We are invited to stay and drink endless vodkas and eat horse with the band. Horse intestines are a local delicacy and it testifies to the wealth of the host that it was in plentiful supply. We were told each horse makes four plates of ‘delicacy’ and costs about 1500 USD. We decide to sneak off and send you this transmission.

27shawms.gifEmerging into the street we encounter a traditional wedding in full flight. Two surnai (shawm) players and a drummer play spiralling polyrhythmic music that makes you want to dance. The bride, groom and entourage arrive and a circle dance starts up in the street. Money is pushed into the hands of the dancers. There is a strong link here with the music of Turkey (the Kyrgyz people are a Turkic people) but the surnai is also very similar to the ghaita of Morocco. In France there is a similar double-reed instrument, the bombard. The double headed drum exists worldwide and in France it is known as the tabor. These connections must be well documented, but to see it in real life gives a startling sense of the cultural overlap between Europe and Asia.



Tomorrow we meet the extraordinary Kurmangazy again and hope to discover more about both his music and his research into ancient Kyrgyz culture.

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Day 11 – A great deal of what we see depends on what we are looking for

11samar.gifAt last I hit the old silk road although now it’s cotton that lines the highway. I travel in hope from Tashkent to Bukhara, the Holy City. Hot miles of fields, the vanishing point defined by incongruous power lines. Was this really the road trodden by Ghengis Khan, Marco Polo and Timur. It is 90 degrees in the shade but the only shade is an 11th century Caravanserai, and even that crumbles, returns to sand. Hundreds of miles of overgrown irrigation ditches are the only vestige of some bold ten year plan. At a tiny oasis beneath an exotic maple? I take chai and admire the local faces.

Back on the road a combine harvester reaps the Nomad plain. From a hill I catch my first sight of Samarkand, Bibi Khanum. The dome shimmers blue in the midday haze.

11tomb.gifNot far outside Samarkand lies the tomb of Imam Ismail Al Bukhari, an important figure in early Islamic history. He is famous for collecting Hadith, or stories of the life of the prophet Mohammed. As Bahadir, our driver, wanted to pray we thought we would have a look around. The entrance to the mosque complex opens into a serene and tranquil garden with artificial lakes and fountains. Venerable looking gentlemen sit on the “Iwan” or raised platforms, characteristic of all Central Asian chaikanas or teahouses. As people slowly gather for the Friday prayers chatting and catching up with news, I notice that everyone is in their equivalent of Sunday Best. Older men in their silk frock coats, knee length leather boots, sashes and turbans, women in colourful silks.

11water.gifAlthough people tend to cover their heads out of respect it doesn’t seem compulsory. Visitors are welcome to stay in the gardens to watch the prayers as long as they show some decorum. This is a holy place but there is an overriding tolerance and hospitality. These are not values that people in the West often associate with Islam. Even Paul tottering around with his DV camera and tripod, hat on head didn’t attract any curiosity. Perhaps there have not yet been enough intrusive or inquisitive Westerners here to make a nuisance of themselves. During prayers I spent some time by the tomb itself and afterwards was joined by many people from the mosque. The gardens and tomb have a timelessness about them to be enjoyed by all.

11jnmeat.gifLunch is at the local ‘greasy spoon’, a lorry stop. I sample lamb stew and potatoes and admire the ancient bread oven almost biblical in simplicity. As the miles drag on I try and imagine the scene before the 20th century scarred the landscape. Ill thought out irrigation schemes and rusty power lines are sad monuments to leave our children.

We arrive in Bukhara at sunset. The golden glow permeates everything especially the overwhelming sandy colours of the buildings. We are staying in a local B&B with a fabulous, ornately painted wooden verandah overlooking a central courtyard, a wonderful location for musicians – perhaps we will invite some here. The B&B is next to a central square and pool called Labi-hauz which has, according to Gary who was here before, lost all its ‘old Bukharan’ charm. The renovations taking place for the 2500th year anniversary in a few weeks has turned it into a clean yet bland square complete with plastic white tables, chairs and ghetto blaster music. I feel quite sad that my vision of a Holy City is initially shattered by so much modern influence – the Coke and Kodak syndrome is starting to take a hold. After dinner we stroll in the dark city. The domes of the mosques, tall madrassahs and dominating minarets cloaked in black seem to exhude centuries of wisdom. Perfect silhouettes against the starry, moonlit sky, the night hides some failings.

11bksky.gifA canal runs down Bukharas main street, carrying with it both life and death – much needed water which in the past has carried many diseases. We turn a corner and see an entrance through a large wooden gate. This leads into a barely lit courtyard and on a board above a chaikana table hangs a dazzling array of Central Asian instruments – tanburs, tars, satos and doiras (frame drums). I am in the market for a frame drum and these look particularly well made and playable. The maker of the instruments takes me to his workshop hidden behind some trees. A small room is filled with half finished instruments. Drying animal skins and the smell of freshly cut timber give the impression that here is a professional craftsman. Newspaper cuttings show him and some musical diginitaries smiling to camera. Paul meanwhile is attempting to see if any of the local players have heard of a vocal technique for articulating the rhythms or ‘usul’ of frame drums, similar to that used in India. Sadly they all look bemused, another preconception shattered. After a short session playing with the locals, I am interested in purchasing one of the drums. I am told it costs $150, this is definitely too high as I know $75 is a good price and tell them I will return in a few days. It is too late for a long drawn out haggle session, anyway who’s gonna carry all this stuff! As we wind our way back, the wind whistles around the small ‘venetian-like’ streets, curtains are sucked out of windows and bats play in the tungsten streams of light. This is going to be interesting.

11duira.gifOn my return to the B&B there seems to have been some confusion, there is no room at the inn. Tonight I sleep outside.

“When you sleep in a house your thoughts are as high as the ceiling, when you sleep outside they are as high as the stars” (Bedouin proverb)

Tomorrow join me as we meet Ari, a player of the Kashgar Rebab. We are told he is the last of his kind.

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Day 6 – On the aircraft it’s bedlam and as people push and fight for the seats

Travel Day – Almaty, Kazakstan to Tashkent, Uzbekistan] 06sunset.gifThe time in Almaty has been a fantastic beginning to the Musical Nomad. Despite satellite problems, a dodgy diet and oppressive heat the music has sustained us all. It’s 4.15 in the morning and we have been back on the road for over four hours. We are at the airport and some decidedly dodgy dealing is going on.

Some official has just run off with our air tickets and everybody is pushing for kickbacks to get the Musical Nomad equipment on the tiny jet assigned to take us to Tashkent. At 5.30 am we stand on the steps of the aircraft, finally poised to board, one of the aircrew demands “50 dollars or you don’t get on.” We reluctantly succumb.

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On the aircraft it’s bedlam and as people push and fight for the seats. The in-flight catering consists of a bottle of water and some paper cups.

I land safely in Tashkent, the best is yet to come. The ground crew refuse to unload the plane and I find myself part of a human chain. The Musical Nomad crew become ‘Tashkent Ground Services Limited’ and we offload not just our stuff, but everybody else’s! Gary, our multimedia whizz, is also a registered giant and thinks nothing of hauling four cases at a time. Paul said ‘You see life in the new BBC.’

06jantsh.gifIt’s all part of the adventure. Tomorrow that includes meeting Uzbekistan’s foremost singer, Munadjat Yulchieva, I’m full of anticipation – I may play the flute with her, I’m trying to learn about the Shash Maqam (six modes). Log on tomorrow and hear how I get on.

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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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