Posts Tagged Yurts

Day 40 – This journey is only the beginning


We set ourselves the impossible task of reflecting on the last six weeks in the space of a few hours. As we have been doing all along, what follows are the immediate impressions of all members of the team. We will continue to add to this site over the coming months.

GARY – Project Producer

I am now sitting on a clay wall at a Kazak equivalent of a service station on highway A351. The ammenities consist of six well equipped yurts in which some of the team are happily drinking chai. As I gaze across the hot, dusty plains I have a little time to reflect on this complex and wonderful journey. As the Project Producer and as a composer and musician, Central Asia has held a deep, undefined fascination for me. When I devised this journey last year I had certain key objectives. One was the relationship with the internet audience and another the use of new digital technologies in harsh and remote environments. I had chosen Central Asia because my travels here in the past had been so special. The people are warm and welcoming and the music here was always a revelation. I had been particulary inspired by the natural landscape and ancient cities which are still to be fully discovered.

It has been thirty eight days of remorseless activity. We have endeavoured to bring you daily, an episode describing each 24 hours, in text, pictures and sound. (Video for the internet would have added too great a pressure this time round – some of the high quality broadcast video we produced daily may end up on the site retrospectively).

The journey has been a rollercoaster ride – technically and creatively. There have been low points, of subteraenean proportions. Particularly when the communications failed early on yet the music carried on and we could not get it to you. There have been many high points though. When musicians, unknown to us and the rest of the world have astounded us with their emotion and virtuosity. See Raushan and Aygul the two virtuoso of Day 4.

The four person team have ploughed on regardless. In unforgiving heat, across great distance, through disabling illness and against failing technology we have ceaselessly transmitted. Another part of the R&D aspect of this project was to break down traditional production roles. This project was not about specialist team members but about four people making something happen. All members of the team have written, all have produced and directed the artists, all have helped with the organisation, all have given way beyond what was expected.

The great music and the sense that every night we must send the story has driven us onward. There has been little falling out and only a few heated arguments. Often these resulted from the problems associated with team writing. Having all contributed to Jan’s story the occasional misplaced personal opinion produced ‘interesting’ discussions. On the rare occassion when the team split for the writing a special perspective resulted. See Day 20 Shaykh Kushkarov.

There are many things I would change as producer of the project. I think for example the physical journey has not been fully represented. I now write this for example, passing through a police checkpoint on the outshirts of the Almaty region in Kazakstan. It is about 42 in the shade, there is a strong easterly wind and there are dust clouds billowing off the dry mountain slopes. We have brought you wonderful musicians sometimes to the detriment of saying where we are – and we have been to some special places. We have travelled a total distance of 5660km (3516 miles.) Taking off the single 700km internal flight gives some impression of the amount of road travel we have done. Fifty percent of the roads were not fit to travel on and this has taken it’s toll. For example, after a fourteen hour drive on potholed tracks to sit down and produce our episode was nigh on impossible. This has been one of the remarkable parts of this journey.

Equally remarkable has been the meetings with people. Most have been musicians but I always saw them as people. To me the special moments have been the unspoken ones. The look they give you when they know you are doing something special with them. As the Kazak Museum director said on Day 4 ‘Let the music and musical instruments be the bridge between the peoples of the World…You are the ambassadors and I wish you success”. Beyond the video and audio recording it has been the description of the immediacy of the internet that has captured everyone’s imagination here. People young and old have seen the importance of this world’s network. It’s not about ‘web pages’ and fancy gimmicks, it’s about global sharing – the musicians of Central Asia wanted so much to share their music. Shoberdy Bakshy of Day 16, would not stop playing – he wanted to sing about us all day. Afterwards he offered me to be his student before force-feeding me vodka and grapes.

At this point it would be easy to wander ‘nomadically’ into philosphical pomposity. We have tried in this project to keep that to a minimum. The people we have all come into contact with are real and they create and exist regardless of the West and it’s technology. But we are on the precipice of a period when broadcasters will facilitate instantaneous, interactive sharing of culture and ideas – to finally break down the barriers of politics and nationhood. ‘The Musical Nomad’ has proven this genre has relevance to many other societies. It has also proven, if only in one key example that interactivity in this medium is very special (See Mail 16).

As the global network becomes more transparent, faster and reliable may this project be seen historically as one of the first to venture into this rich seam.

I pull into the outskirts of Almaty. The traffic increases and the noise and pollution take hold. This is day 38 and a flight back to London beckons. It is impossible to identify change in oneself. I hope I, like all the music we have seen, am constantly changing. When the events of the past 6 weeks settle and I have quality time to reflect perhaps then I will notice change. This has been fast and furious – images and sounds surface occasionally.

As a composer I know my music will be influenced not neccessarily by the style but by the methods of the musicians we have met. As a human being I have been touched so many times by generosity and innocence I now feeled compelled to aspire to these qualities. The van pulls up outside a grey Russian hotel – another episode to produce. I think I will miss it all.

Jan – Musician

It seems an impossible task to try to sum up our journey using words, so much has happened that cannot be conveyed verbally. The three countries of Central Asia that we have visited are remarkable for their diversity of people and ways of life. We have barely been able to get a flavour of the place, and yet in some ways we have had some profound experiences. It has been a recurring feature of our meetings with people that we have been accepted, welcomed and drawn into houses and families. Trust, tolerance and hospitality, particularly towards visitors is so pronounced that you cannot fail to be moved by it.

07muna04.gifWays of life are constantly changing all over the world. As they do so the music and culture that is associated with them changes too. It may be preserved in an artificial form, or it may die out completely. We have seen evidence of both these trends in Central Asia. We have also seen abundant evidence of vibrant, living traditions transforming and adapting to new environments. Munadjat Yulchieva (Day 7) is a good example. A nationally renowned figure she has managed to stay faithful to her musical tradition whilst raising the profile of maqam music.

07abdru.gifThere is a marked distinction between the cultural life of the cities and the rural areas. Even in the pre-Soviet times cities were centres of culture where musicians gathered, the same is true now. Uzbekistan with it’s great cities has preserved the court music tradition even though the courts are long gone. Some musicians retain the link with the original tradition, but there is little space for them now. Abdurahim for example one of the countries most highly esteemed musicians no longer makes a living through music and has become a businessman. Many are leaving the country for America and Israel. Even though there is something of a revival in national music (as a symbol of nationhood) this will not sustain the tradition. Musicians however are endlessly creative, and change comes about through a process of adaptation. The less fashionable Kashgar rubab has been superseded by the Tar from Azerbaijan. Perhaps a new tradition will arise out of the same feelings that inspired the shash maqam.

In the rural areas the picture seems somewhat different. Musicians play a more integral role. In Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan which were largely nomadic musicians still sustain an aural tradition which is part of everyday life and life events. Many great musicians are farmers or labourers who are partially self sufficient. Money means little to them and many seemed perplexed by our fees for recordings. The western distinctions of professional and amateur do not apply here. Music is too important to be exploited for money. As the rural ways of life continue so the music has survived alongside it. The hospitality often being inseparable from the music. Malika Askarova (Day 25) is a good example of this. She does not consider herself to be a musician and yet she is able to affect a listener in an extraordinary way. She did not understand why our contracts and fees were necessary. There was a sense that music is a gift which should be given freely, Malika was not the only musician who gave us this impression.

It has been through the attitudes of people that Central Asia has made it’s mark upon me. Whatever the external appearances or current economic situations of the countries, there is still a feeling of a great ‘civilisation’. I mean this in the sense of an internal process of development. A cultured people and not just people with a culture. Many of the musical genres still retain a philosophical and reflective content. These themes reflect a view of life and an attitude towards people that are quite different from those I am used to. The physical and the metaphysical are constantly intertwined in art as in life. The art forms often have a delicacy and subtlety which is deceptive. “The art that conceals art” – always hinting at a greater mystery beyond.

Central Asia is a wonderful and fascinating place. I hope that our reflections serve to wet the appetite of other travelers. Our journey was not a survey of the area, more like an account of some almost random events. Like any supposedly random events they have their own logic and they tell their own story. We will meet again…

PAUL – Audio and Video

Invited to be the video and radio producer for this adventure I was both thrilled and anxious. What an opportunity. New lightweight digital cameras, together with digital sound recorders and world-class stereo microphones are powerful tools. This equipment offered a window on a little known culture. But what to record ?

I rose before dawn to capture the stunning architecture of Bukhara and Samarkand. The colourful markets and bazars, the vast steppe and the towering mountains, all providing the cultural context for the music.

In a great effort of will I recorded a static video of most of our musicians – the shot that records for a digital eternity, how you play the dutar or the Kashgar rebab – somebody might want to know! Other shots show those characterful faces and gnarled hands.

There are no plans to show any of our 30 hours of video or to broadcast any of our 25 hours of stereo audio. That seems a terrible pity. Sadly there is little room in broadcasting these days for stories of people and their music

I hope one day this material will surface, perhaps on TV or radio, perhaps in new media? The DVD ROM looms on the horizon.

This has been the strangest contract of my 30 year career – writer, cameraman, sound recordist, AV producer & director and guitarist – I have given everything I know to try to do justice to all these roles.

Unexpected roles included unloading an aircraft and riding a nomad horse across the Kazak steppe.

It’s been an experience. I would like to share that experience. To tell a story.

I’ve thought a lot about the people we’ve met, some old, “the last of my kind” like Ari (day 12), some young like Aygul (day 37). A poem emerged. I’ve never understood how a poem grows, Ted Hughes told me poems are like animals with a life of their own – this one doesn’t bite.


Paul Balmer ©1997
Old men carry treasure,
The gift of centuries.
Young men burn, with voices unheard.
The tradition must live
In both their houses.
Rhythm is the fuel of the dance,
The heartbeat, the maternal flame.
Mothers sing and children learn,
Stories are forever.
The voice, the pen, the computer,
They all have their moment.
A melody bends to the needs of men,
Words are re-invented.
The chant continues
For birth and death.
We are all just vessels,
Tomorrow’s dust.

KATHRIN – Organiser and Photographer

It is very hard to summarise the journey now. The last 38 days have been an explosion of the senses. It has been an emotional journey and even though I have been very ill for the past week this has not deterred my enthusiasm. The people of Central Asia are passionate and have a tradition and culture that captivates me.

After two months of organising this most complex project I expected some ‘moments.’ The best times were when everything came together and the names of the musicians on the paper turned into real people, and real experiences. All those sleepless nights were then worth it. Meeting a such wide range of special people made the everyday organisation and bureaucracy a wonderful adventure.

There have been a few organisational mishaps. More to do with the region than anything else, and most were not serious. Things ran remarkably to plan considering the amount that could have gone wrong!

32master.gifNo one could have thought though that Jan, Paul and Gary would have to unload the whole of the plane at Tashkent Airport (See Day 6). That the expected ensemble at Baysun had left for Tashkent the day before we arrived (See day 16) – after a long days drive from Bukhara instead of staying in musicians homes we slept in a derelict ‘daja’. Transport unpredictably ranged from luxury mobile homes to rust-on-wheels, from 1950s high wheel base army vehicles to limo-like Volga’s.

The most important aspects of our musical journey have been to explore the countries and to meet the people of Central Asia. As the project’s chemical photographer I wanted to capture those fleeting moments when people connect with other people. The cultural context, past traditions and their instruments are other images I photographed. I believe as a team of very different personalities we’ve been able to achieve a great deal although it seems that there has never been enough time to explore further and in more depth.

33toleg.gifI was the only member of the team able to communicate directly with the musicians (through Russian & German). Having been previously introduced I could, as well as open doors for the team communicate on a much more personal level. After the usual formal three hours of recording and interviewing, the musicians were more relaxed and were happy to share more about themselves with me.

One example of this occurred in the ‘Town of Masters’ (Day 33) when I met Tolegen, a kobuz maker. We talked about music, ancient rituals, nature and compared the komuz with the cello, which is my instrument. He said he would make me a special kobuz. A day prior to our departure, he hitchhiked to Almaty to offer me a ‘Shamanistic’ kobuz he had made. He then promised to make me an instrument which he wanted me to play. I will return soon to see him again.

28komuz02.gifOther special memories included my encounters with Raushan (Day 4 and Day 32). She gave me a brief masterclass on the kobuz and offered me one of hers. My encounter with Barkut in Bishkek (Day 28) was also personal as he came to see us on our return from Issyk-Kul and gave me a temir komuz (Jew’s harp). He had made it on the day we met.

There were many other countless situations when I walked away with much more than I was allowed to give, the people of Central Asia have been so generous and interested to share with us, this will be unforgettable for me.

, , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

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

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments