Briefing from Bishkek

Attila's Children Survived the Soviets, but Kyrgyz Music Faces an Uncertain Free Market Future

NOTE: The following article appeared in the November 1999 issue of `Folk Roots Magazine' (No.197) under the title `Komuz Krisis,' and appears with permission

Nurak Abdirakhmanov   It's not every day you meet someone who sings you an elegy for Attila the Hun. The rare singer is Nurak Abdirakhmanov, a gentle bear of a man who is the son of a komuzchu (master komuz player), father of ten children and founding member of Kambarkan, the officially sanctioned `folklore-ethnographic ensemble' of Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation in the heart of formerly Soviet Central Asia, independent since 1991 and as yet little known in the West. In a quiet, deliberate speaking voice that sharply contrasts wiith his stops-out singing, Nurak explains that the Kyrgyz believe their ancestors laid waste to the Eastern Roman Empire in the 5th century. "Kyrgyz think Attila was the father of Central Asia's Turkic people," he explains. Such Kyrgyz traditions as contests to honor the finest akyn (composer-poet-performer) are traced to Attila's time: "Huns had a tradition of telling stories by way of speeches accompanied by komuz," he says. "After Attila called his guests together, there would be a competition for the best akyn. Attila presented the winner his finest cloak and horse."

  After the "Scourge of God" succumbed to far too good a time at his own wedding feast, Kyrgyz legend says his grief-stricken second-in-command, Tuluk, led the Huns back to the Central Asian region now inhabited by their Kyrgyz descendants. A giant, Tuluk was too heavy for a horse to carry and instead rode a bull named Shüüdüngüt. En route, he allegedly composed the lament Nurak assertively wails for me, "Shüüdüngüttün jürüshü" (Shüüdüngüts Road)." Sample lyrics: "When I see the Balkan Mountains, I always remember our Kyrgyz mountains....When I see how widespread Huns now are....I start to cry; I think of Attila. How can my Shüüdüngüt find his way back? I think I will die without you, my close friend and father of our nation." This startling performance of a song which sounds as if it really could have been composed on the back of a bull by a giant Hun is sung informally at a flat in Bishkek, Kyrgyztanís capital (its 700,000 inhabitants also make it the Kyrgyz Republicís most populous city). Nurak is casually dressed in a green fatigue outfit familiar to hunters and fishermen in the American South. But onstage at the Philharmonia, the national music hall depicted on the one som note, he is resplendent in a richly-embroidered cloak. He sings a fragment of the Kyrgyz national epic, 'Manas,' a cappella in a barrel-chested baritone with wide dramatic gestures, then plays on komuz "Ak Tamak, Kok Tamak," an instrumental showpiece as much visual as aural. (It depicts two noisy birds chattering competing boasts about their respective homelands.) Nurak furiously thrashes the three-stringed komuz, then pulls off notes forcefully with his left hand while his right flutters in the air well away of the soundboard, a trick Nurak observes with wide-eyed disbelief. It's a display befitting a Kyrgyz Uncle Dave Macon, and this flair for downhome showmanship isn't the only parallel between the performance of a master komuz player and one of its American cousin, the banjo.

  `In the beginning,í at least, both were fretless (komuz is still), strung with gut (sheep intestine in Kyrgyzstan, now replaced by nylon), and played with similar techniques--in American folk parlance, 'hammer-ons' and 'pull-offs' for left hand emphasis and right hand combinations of percussive picking and 'frailing'. During one duo performance of "Ak Tamak..." at the State Opera House, it turns into a challenge of one komuzchu to another, a kind of "Dueling Komuzes."

  These parallels fascinate Turatbek AkyanovTuratbek Akyanov, a young instrument maker who is apparently already aware of them. Along with instruments, Turat, as he's called, does fine wood carving (small statues, wall plaques). In contrast to Nurak's austerely plain traditional komuz, Turat's have intricately carved traditional Kyrgyz patterns on the back and a tiny quarter moon-shaped soundhole ("a fantasy," he explains). Without redesigning the komuz, the soft-spoken Turat is subtly stamping it with an individual esthetic vision. Turat now makes instruments for the Philharmonia but first studied with Nurak, a maker as well as player of komuz. "Komuz has a lot of secrets," says Nurak, 52. "Masters make komuz all their lives. Perhaps, at age 60, one can say, `Yes, I can make a good komuz.í" By that measure, Turat has quite a while to go before achieving mastery, but he is already an innovator. Along with instruments carved from the traditional apricot wood, Turat is making komuz from archa ("like Christmas tree," I'm told), a wood invested with mystical properties by the Kyrgyz. Archa branches are sometimes burned in houses and the smoke is deemed medicinal. Turat tells me the Kyrgyz have discovered a 3,000-year-old mummy wrapped in archa branches and that it is thus perfectly preserved. Such tales underscore the strain of pre-Islamic mysticism in the komuz tradition: "Komuzchu take their talent from God," says Nurak. Legends of spiritual visitors in dreams, a shamanic tradition, underline this. One tells of a blind and mute child sleeping near a river. In his dream, an old man appears playing komuz. He tells the sleeper, "You will see, speak, and play komuz." The child awakens, his vision restored, and speaks. When he attains manhood, he becomes a komuzchu and Manaschi (one who recites the Manas epic).

  Komuz may be the Kyrgyz national instrument, but Nurak recalls it falling on hard times during the Soviet era. "It was a terrible time," says Nurak. "The masters had no opportunity to perform. They lived and died unknown. There was a movement to Soviet-ize the folk arts; the ancient instruments were declared rudimentary. They tried to make the komuz like the balalaika, putting frets on the instrument." Today, he says, komuz is taught in music colleges, but much of whatís taught is stilled imbued with Soviet-era 'improvements' on Kyrgyz tradition.

  Though the Soviet experience took a heavy toll of Kyrgyz culture, Salamat Sadikova worries that her people now suffer a Western-induced attention deficit to their native musical heritage. Salamat is the lead female vocalist with the Kambarkan Folk Ensemble and probably the best-known female Kyrgyz traditional vocalist. Born in 1956 in the village of Batken in a remote forested region of southern Kyrgyzstan, Salamat's earliest memories include hearing her mother reading the Manas epic by candlelight. Drenched in Kyrgyz folklore as a child, she nonetheless couldnít then imagine her current role: "The region has a strong Muslim tradition," she explains, "and it was considered a disgrace for a woman to be a singer." But Salamat discovered her extraordinary voice after the loss of her mother when she was eleven. Shifted from village to village by relatives, Salamat found solace in singing: "Music was like father and mother to me," she says. "It was the thing that gave me the power to survive and the will to become an artist."

  But it wasn't easy. She wanted, despite the stigma, to be a professional singer but was ever fearful of the rural Kyrgyz tradition of a girl being kidnapped and 'married'. After failing to keep up with the tuition at a music college in Osh, she returned to Batken, eventually becoming head of the local Department of Culture. Her family's dim view of a woman working in the arts was such that she told them she was employed at the library. But she began performing, and, in time, achieved national prominence.

  No rustic folk singer, Salamat is a full-voiced diva who deftly applies a range of vocal dynamics and a graceful stage flamboyance to make her emotional points. (Fans of fadista Amalia Rodrigues or rembetisstas like Marika Papagika may hear in her a kindred spirit.) In the Kambarkan Ensemble, she is a more sophisticated feminine foil to Nurak's unbridled Tian Shan hillbilly. Salamat has appeared at the Paris Opera House solo with her komuz, toured Japan and, in 1997, appeared at American folk music festivals with the Kambarkan Ensemble. Her pride in international acclaim is dampened by the sense that her music is increasingly an orphan at home.

Salamat Sadikova
'99 wallet calender photo-
Salamat Sadikova

   "After independence," she says, "our government realized our music is a source of pride to be shown abroad. Audiences in Japan and America are most receptive. Before going to America, I thought the people there were cruel and thought only of money. I was pleasantly shocked: American audiences genuinely enjoyed our music. I am saddened that we are warmly accepted abroad, but donít receive that kind of reception here. People are forgetting the cultural legacy of Kyrgyz arts. Our young generation doesn't want to accept this legacy. They just want to listen to Western pop music. Now itís the end of socialism and itís wild capitalism in our country. Young singers perform only pop music: they make money, but our culture suffers." Perhaps, she admits, some of the blame lies in the way in which Kyrgyz folk music was presented in the past: "At universities and institutes," she says, "students were forced to come to folk music concerts. Today, not a lot of people in Kyrgyzstan want to hear good folk music."

  Her sentiments are echoed by the director of the Kambarkan Ensemble, Esengul Djumabaev. "This is a hard time for cultural workers," he says. (How hard? I'm told the average salary for Kambarkan members is 400-500 som a month, little more than $10.) "We are thankful for help from the government--the President has given us use of his plane for performances abroad-- but it should be systematic. Now we can't think only about music, we must survive. Musicians and artists are the most sensitive members of society, and many lack the defenses to survive. Many cultural workers have become drunks, or they go to China to buy cheap goods to sell here, trying to survive."


  Survival for the Kambarkan Ensemble may depend on its ability to attract audiences abroad. Despite a 'command performance' for President Akaev in June, Kambarkan now rarely performs in Bishkek. The two performances I see during my nine days there are essentially auditions for visiting groups of businessmen, potential tour sponsors from China and England. Local interest is negligible, and the Ensemble's government sponsors are themselves often strapped for cash: Earlier this year, the Department of Culture had its phone service cut because it couldn't pay its bill. Kambarkan's future may rely on its ability to become a successful export product from a landlocked nation with few such resources.

  On a warm June evening the cavernous Philharmonia, Kambarkan's home base, is a study in contrasts. On the fourth floor a small group of British businessmen take in Kambarkan's show: Nurak's solo turns, a flashy komuz ensemble piece with choreographed instrumental acrobatics, Salamat's sublime vocals, some orchestrated folk music, lithe dancers to an Uzbeck piece, a faux shaman, and more. One level below, there's a good local turnout for a female Kyrgyz pop singer accompanied by synthesizer and disco lights. On the ground floor, panty-flashing Russian girls in Carmen Miranda garb go Latin in a floor show at a Chinese restaurant, the Peking. Bewildering to a Westerner used to single-show venues, the Philharmonia's melange offers an easy metaphor for a culture both multi-leveled and diverse. While native folk culture currently occupies the top floor, how long can it afford the penthouse rent while playing to vacant halls? (Interest may have peaked amidst patriotic fervor in the early Nineties: "Shortly after Independence," my interpreter recalls, "I saw a lot of cassettes of Kyrgyz folk music in the shops. Today I don't see them.") The problem, perhaps, isn't so much cold disinterest as local over-familiarity with the performers and repertoire of Kambarkan, an official presence in Bishkek for nearly a dozen years now. Could a little competition be in order?

  At the State Opera House, a monument to Soviet-era gilt grandeur, hundreds of Kyrgyz flock to the premiere performance of "Saimaluu-Tashtar (Patterns on Stones)," a ballet inspired by ancient stone carvings discovered in the Osh region. The costumes and music nod noticeably to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and the audience expresses its enthusiasm with multiple bouquets and baskets of flowers at the ballet's conclusion. The programís second half is billed as Kyrgyz traditional music performed by what is an apparently newly-formed Ethnographic Music Theatre. The opening piece is a virtuosic ensemble performance by six temir komuz (literally 'iron instrument,' these are metal Jew's harps). The aforementioned "Dueling Komuz" follows, as does an ensemble performance by sundry native wind instruments (choor) and cello. As this 11-piece ensemble's program progresses, its material is increasingly less folkloric, more apparently orchestrated, and eventually Kyrgyz only by dint of instrumentation. The audience, however, doesn't object: the elfin daftness of the Beatles' "Yesterday" played by a group of choor earns by far the biggest round of applause.

  During my nine days in Bishkek, guitars appear and Kyrgyz whose English is little better than my Russian serenade me with the entire Lennon-McCartney songbook. They also sing "Hotel California," "Santa Lucia," "Proud Mary," and the Platters' "Only You." In cafes and cabs, life's soundtrack is a numbing din of Russian disco/pop mitigated by the occasional Western prototype. At the Cafe Americana, mini-skirted Kyrgyz girls serve Russian dishes and hamburgers beneath a framed poster of Madonna getting frisky with a concrete wall; Shania Twain croons "You're Still the One" on the omnipresent radio.

  "You like Kyrgyz folk music?" a young Russkya asks me at a rock club called Tequilla. "Me I don't like. You know Manas? Pushkin better than Manas, I think." Manas, hero of the Kyrgyz national epic, straddles his charger on a massive bronze statue in front of the Philharmonia. He is the Kyrgyz national emblem, though his relevance to Kyrgyz life today may be akin to that of another now-ironic Bishkek icon, the gigantic Lenin statue striding and pointing heroically from the city's center. Except for export, Kyrgyz folklore may be relegated to the national attic alongside the busts of Lenin (the only one I see during my visit is in a yurta doing duty as a Kyrgyz ethnic cafe).

  But the obvious conclusion isn't the only one. My interpreter, 23 years old and a mite disappointed I can't tell her all about the life of Marilyn Manson, is surprisingly knowledgeable about Kyrgyz folklore and folk song. A comment by Nurak about the komuz, Manas, or the composer Toktogul Satylganov prompts her own recollection, observation, and emotional response, all apparently genuine and not simply for my benefit. I am doubtful I could find her Western counterpart. One of the local Beatlemaniacs tells me it's a pity I can't stay longer, as he could introduce me to singers of songs for ancient ancestors, a shamanic tradition. The Director of the Department of Culture, Ermek Abdukarimov, tantalizes me with news of a `golden fontí of Kyrgyz folk music stashed at the National Radio & Television center, an archive of 50 years of field recordings. Next time I visit, says Isradin Amanbaev, a fine composer employed at the Dept. of Culture, he will take me around the Osh region, where the folk music is reportedly quite different from what I hear in Bishkek. In truth, I had too little time in Kyrgyzstan and was too limited to its capital to draw any concrete conclusions about the health of the nationís traditional music. My impressions are perhaps as valid as those of a non-English-speaking Kyrgyz on American life after a weekend in Vegas.

Kambarkan ensemble

  An antidote to gloom regarding the imperiled state of Kyrgyz traditional music is offered by Baktibek Shatenov, an astonishing clear-voiced singer and multi-instrumentalist with Kambarkan. He is the third generation in his family to play komuz and the bowed kil kiyak. At age 37, Baktibek is the youngest and most optimistic of Kambarkanís featured soloists. He and his wife are both Ensemble members; their two children both play kiyak and komuz; their daughter recites Manas. He hopes one day to perform with them in a family group. According to Baktibek, Kyrgyz folk music isn't on its last legs. "Folk music," he explains, "is the distillate of a people's way of thinking, way of life. In the soul of each Kyrgyz, whether he lives in the town or village, even if he's Western living, barely speaks Kyrgyz, lives a love for Kyrgyz folk music. In the life of every Kyrgyz will come a moment when a person wants to come back to his roots. Until the death of a nation, folk music will live, because it's the expression of the life of the nation. How long the nation will live is how long its folk music will live."

Thanks to David Lewiston for sage pre-trip advice; Heartfelt thanks to Guljeke Asanova, my eyes and ears in Bishkek

Mark A. Humphrey, June 1999


Salamat Sadikova: The Voice of Kyrgyzstan FGE 004 (Recordings)
Shüüdüngüt's Road: Music of the Kyrgyz People of Central Asia FGE 005 (Recordings)

Kambarkan Folk Ensemble:
Songs of Kyrgyzstan King KICC 5209 (Japan)
Kambarkan Folk Ensemble: Instrumental Music of Kyrgyzstan King KICC 5210 (Japan)

Turkestan: Komuz Kirghize/Dombra Kazakh (Includes nine instrumentals by Nurak) Ocora C 560121 (France)
Musiques du Kirghizstan Buda 92631-2 (France)
Secret Museum of Mankind: Central Asia (Includes three vintage Kyrgyz recordings) Yazoo 7007 (USA)