MUSIC IN KYRGYZSTAN
Kyrgyz music is rich and serves as a symbol of the country's heritage. There are vocal and instrumental styles. The vocal styles are closely tied to Kyrgyz literature and the singing and chanting of epic poems such as the Manas. Traditional folk music is popular as is Western classical music, initially introduced to Kyrgyzstan by the Russians. The pop music listened to in Kyrgyzstan originates locally and from Russia, Europe, the U.S. and Bollywood. [Source: kyrgyz.net.my, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website]
Kyrgyz folk singing and music lessons are frequently offered in schools. There are several Kyrgyz children's performance groups, which feature traditional songs and dance as well as performances using Kyrgyz instruments. There also are adult folk, classical, and operatic musicians and groups who perform in the capital regularly. Popular television shows feature Kyrgyz pop and folk singers and musicians. [Source: everyculture.com]
Everyone from children to the elderly gather together to listen to master instrumentalist's play and akyn chant and sing narrative poems. Holidays and festivals feature music competitions and performances. Iinstrumental ensembles have traditionally been an essential element of military campaigns. Images conjured up Kyrgyz music include wide picturesque landscapes, galloping horsemen, epic heros, and mountains, jailoos (pastures) and lakes. [Source: advantour.com]
The unofficial national anthem, "Ala-Too," names the various features of Kyrgyzstan's landscape. The mountains are described as a body wearing snow and sky, and Lake Issyk-Kul is the eye. Issyk-Kul, in the northeastern part of the country, is called the "Pearl of Kyrgyzstan," and its beauty is a source of great pride.
Kyrgyz Musical Instruments
Kyrgyzstan's musical-instruments are categorized into four major groups: stringed instruments; wind instruments; percussive instruments; and self-sounding instruments. The best-known instruments are the komuz (a three-stringed lute), oz-komuz (mouth harp), the chopo choor (clay wind instrument), and the kuiak (a four-stringed instrument played with a bow). Traditionally, the musical instruments of the nomadic Kyrgyz were simple affairs — made from materials which were readily available and easy to transport. The two instruments most commonly associated with the Kyrgyz are the komuz and temir komuz. [Source: kyrgyz.net.my, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website]
1) The main Kyrgyz stringed instruments, whose sound originates from the tensions of the strings, are the kyl-kyyak (violin-like instrument) and komuz (See Below). There are variations amongst these two instruments are the way they are played. 2) There are several traditional wind instruments, whose sound originates from air being blown out of a tube. The most famous are the sybyzgy (a sideblown flute) and the choor (an end-blown, longitudinal flute of varying lengths, with 3-5 holes made with reed or wood). 3) The most popular percussive instruments are the Dool ( small metal or wooden drum) and the karsyldak (a wooden spoon that provides a clicking rhythm of various pitches. 4) Self-Sounding instruments are generally idiophones (musical instrument that creates sound primarily by the instrument as a whole vibrating—without the use of strings or membranes). These including the djylaajyn (an idiophone comprised of small double or single tambourine-like sound makers) and a-Musa (an idiophone with hanging pendants that make their own sounds).
The Komuz is arguably the most popular numerous national musical instrument in Kyrgyzstan. There is rich repertoire of music played with it. The komuz is a three-string instrument made from a single piece of wood and plucked like a lute or guitar. When it is played the three strings are pressed by the left hand to the fingerboard while the right hand plucks the strings in a variety of ways to draw out the sounds. [Source: advantour.com]
Today, the body of the komuz is usually made from a single, solid piece of wood, but at one time hollow bodies — which made the sound more resonating and deeper — were favored. Today, apricot or juniper are the timbers usually used to make it. The komuz is a very old instrument. In 1962, near the village of Shamsy in the Chui valley, archaeologists found a a komuz along with the famous “Golden Mask”, which was dated to the A.D. 4th or 5th centuries.
The komuz is a very versatile instrument is played by men, women, boys and girls as a solo instrument, as part of a larger group, or as part of a larger folkgroup ensemble featuring other traditional instruments. It is not unusual to see young children in the streets of Bishkek carrying a komuz to or from lessons at one of the city's specialist "music schools".
The Temir komuz — like the komuz — is a musical symbol of the Kyrgyz . It is small and is similar to a western “Jew’s harp” and similar instruments found in Yakutia and Tuva, Britain, Norway, American, France and Australia. Although in Kyrgyzstan men sometimes play the instrument it is more common to see it played by women. Tradition has it that if a temir komuz is played near the cradle of a newborn infant, the baby will grow up clever, gifted and eloquent. [Source: advantour.com]
The origins of the Temir komuz are not known but it is thought to have a very ancient lineage. The first European mention of the instrument is a Dutch customs document, which clearly identified it as a "Jews harp", the oldest recorded name for the instrument. A 14th century miniature enamel at New College, Oxford — featuring a series depicting angels playing a variety of musical instruments)— has an angel playing a Jew’s harp. A Chinese drawing with a Jew’s-harp-like instrument has been dated from the 4th century B.C. It has been suggested that the metal Jew’s harp evolved from wooden or bamboo instruments developed in Asia, (perhaps Indonesia) similar to the Kyrgyz Jygach ooz komuz. These instruments perhaps made their way to Europe either along the Silk Road.
The Temir komuz is made of iron . Its name means “iron komuz”. It is a subtle musical instrument that comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and methods of playing. Most commonly, it is shaped in the form of a broken, stretched circle with two prongs. Attached to the center is a steel plate. The shape and size of the instrument govern the fundamental note that the meta; reed produces. The sound is made by placing the prongs between the lips and striking the steel plate – and adjusting the shape of the hollow of the mouth. The mouth acts as a "sound box". The shape of the mouth and placement of the tongue changes the timbre of the notes. To produce a lower note the tongue is placed at the bottom of the mouth. To produce a higher note it is placed at the top of the mouth.
Kyrgyz Musical Groups
Kamnarkan is a 10-piece musical troupe that often performs in Bishkek. The members play th the komuz, kyl kyayk (vertical violin), flutes, drums, mouth harps, long horns and Andean style pipes. They play Kyrgyz and Kazakh style nomadic music and bard-like storytelling and are accompanied dancers.
Folk, classical, and operatic musicians and groups perform in the capital regularly. Popular television shows feature Kyrgyz pop and folk singers and musicians.
Kyrgyz folk singers perform a variety of songs (known as "Yue-lóng ge-" in Chinese, and "ïr" in Kyrgyz), including those reserved just for a man or a woman, satirical ones, or to welcome a guest. Similar renditions can also be found among other nomadic peoples of Central Asia such as the Kazakh, Altai, Tuvan and Khakas. More than 800 songs have reportedly been collected in the Pamir region of China alone. A conference was held the in Xinjiang’s Akto County, in western China bordering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in the 2010s about keeping these traditions alive.
Dance in Kyrgyzstan
Robert Uraguildiyev wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Dance: “Records of Kyrgyz folk dance have not survived, although some information on te character of dance lore is found in the epic Manas...and in the testimony if explorers who described the musical culture of the Kyrgyz. The art of folk musicians, known as komuz players, the mimicry, gestures and imitative movements of the folk jesters ( al-kuuduldars), and some original folk games and rites also contain some dance elements.” [Source: International Encyclopedia of Dance, editor Jeane Cohen, Oxford University Press, New York]
“During the Soviet era, an interest in reclaiming traditional dances emerged. In the 1930s amateur groups proliferated, and numerous contests and festivals of folk art were held to demonstrate the achievements of talents dancers, Many folk games, such as selkinchek (“swings”) became sources of inspiration for the creation of new dances.”
Under the Soviets, a Western dance and ballet dance theater and school were established in Bishkek. Traditional dances that are popular with audiences include the group dance djash kerbez, the maidens’ round dance jomok biyl the warlike riders’ dance adaman and the women’s dances kviz elecheki and kyzdaryn kyyaly. A ballet was written and about a young maiden and a young man who fell in love and rebelled against clan traditions and feudal customs.
The Kyrgyz have a long tradition of informal recitation of folklore and improvised narrative singing performed by bards, accompanied by a three-stringed, apricot-wood instrument called the komuz. The Kazakhs have a similar tradition except they use a two-string instrument.
The term “akyn” refers to a performer that improvises verses – rather similar to a “minstrel” in old Europe. The akyns began as the oral carriers of history, myth and philosophy for Central Asia's pre-literate nomads.
An akyn, or bakshy, is the musical title given to the bards who mastered the art of improvised narrative singing. In the old days akyn acted as shaman and healers and passed on history, myths and clan stories and genealogies. They were famous for philosophizing and reeling off verses hours at a time about subjects ranging from the wonders of the universe to the pleasures of drinking koumiss. They were skilled at using old stories and legends to make thinly veiled editorials about current leaders and figures.
In the Soviet era, traditional music and satirical narrative singing was suppressed and Kyrgyz akyn were forced to improvise verses that honored the Communist party and the bard tradition was adapted for propaganda purposes. Akyns often sang about Lenin, the revolution and the achievements of the party.
One Kazakh akyn wrote:
We treasure our honor and our hoards,
We’ll cut our foes to pieces with swords...
That at the victory Stalin should touch
His had in contentment to his moustache
The aken form was neglected after the collapse of the Soviet Union but have been making a come back in recent years. Now the aken string together verses about Putin and noodles.
Aitysh is a traditional music-poetry contest between two performers, who sit near each other and compete by exchanging verses, each cursing and mocking of the other, and trying to be clever, poetic, musical, rythmic and topical, not unlike the rap competitions that Eminem engaged in the film 8 Mile. One Akyn told the Washington Post, “It’s all about improvising on whatever topic comes up. Who has the sharpest verses with the most musicality and rhythm and wisdom and wit.”
Some akyn participate in the impromptu antiphonal singing (alternate singing by two choirs or singers) activities. Generally, these akyn are specialists who don’t engage in other singing activities, or sing long folk songs. Akyn antiphonal singing comes in two forms: 1) spontaneous and 2) organized. The spontaneous form is measured in part on the ability of the akyn to make friends with their songs. To improve their skill, akyns often make long and arduous journeys to call on prestigious Akyn to learn techniques. The organized form of Akyn antiphonal singings is performed at funeral ceremonies, weddings and festivals. At such times the Akyns represent their clan or tribe. Their success or failure not only affects their own reputation, it is closely linked with the honor of their clan and tribe. The audience often cheers loudly and shouts encouragement to Akyn of their tribe or clan. ~
Competition Akyn antiphonal singing is a measure of skill and wisdom. During festival events Akyns play their own Dombra, cross-examine each other and sing antiphonally. They try to overtake outdo their rivals, not give up ground, and do their best to show off their talents, hide their shortcomings in their impromptu songs, displaying the command of language, singing talents, manner and even moral character. The singing does not come to an end until one party feel ashamed of his inferiority retires on his own accord. Akyn contests are held every year on the summer pastures of the steppe. The participants include famous Akyn, representatives from a number of clans and tribes, old seasoned singers and young upstarts. ~
Akyns Recognized by UNESCO
In 2008, akyn was included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: The predominant form of cultural expression among the Kyrgyz nomads is the narration of epics. The art of the Akyns, the Kyrgyz epic tellers, combines singing, improvisation and musical composition. The epics are performed at religious and private festivities, seasonal ceremonies and national holidays and have survived over the centuries by oral transmission. [Source: UNESCO ]
“The value of the Kyrgyz epics lies largely in their dramatic plots and philosophical underpinnings. They represent an oral encyclopaedia of Kyrgyz social values, cultural knowledge and history. The pre-eminent Kyrgyz epic is the 1000-year-old Manas trilogy, which is noteworthy not only for its great length (sixteen times longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), but also for its rich content. Blending fact and legend, the Manas immortalizes important events in Kyrgyz’s history since the ninth century. The Kyrgyzs have also preserved over forty “smaller” epics. While the Manas is a solo narration, these shorter works are generally performed to the accompaniment of the komuz, the three-stringed Kyrgyz lute. Each epic possesses a distinctive theme, melody and narrative style. Akyns were once highly respected figures who toured from region to region and frequently participated in storytelling contests. They were appreciated for their proficiency in narration, expressive gestures, intonation and lively mimicry, so well suited to the epics’ emotionally charged content.
“During the 1920s, the first part of the Manas trilogy was recorded in written form based on the oral interpretation of the great epic singer, Sagynbay. The epics remain an essential component of Kyrgyz identity and continue to inspire contemporary writers, poets, and composers; even today, the traditional performances are still linked to sacred cultural spaces. Although there are fewer practitioners nowadays, master akyns continue to train young apprentices and are helped by recent revitalization initiatives supported by the Kyrgyz government.
According to UNESCO akyns were placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because:
1) The pre-eminent Kyrgyz epic, the Manas trilogy, is an oral encyclopaedia of Kyrgyz social values and history. Performed at seasonal ceremonies, national holidays and other social gatherings, the Manas epic continues to inspire contemporary Kyrgyz writers and composers. 2)The tradition of tutorship and the master-apprentice method of transmitting the art of the Akyns needs to be revitalized. Kyrgyz scholars of epic poetry and cultural workers need to be trained in state-of-the-art methods of digitization and archival management, including digital archives. The UNESCO project intends to renew and promote interest in the art of the Akyns in Kyrgyzstan and abroad and ultimately recover the prestige of being an Akyn.
UNESCO hopes: “Studios for young Akyns in various regions of Kyrgyzstan will be opened, and contests among those attending the studios will be organized. A concert tour consisting of both famous Akyns and the most talented youth from Akyn studios will also be staged in two regions. The compilation and publication of a representative, concise edition of the Manas, the pre-eminent Kyrgyz epic, and its translation into Russian will be undertaken.
Famous Akyn and the Revival of the Form
Famous akyn include the Kyrgyzs Togolok Moldo, Sayakbay Karalayev and Sagymbay Orozabakov, and the Kazakh Jamboul Jabayev. The later was born in 1846 and lived to be 99. He was known throughout the Soviet Union and was declared “the patriarch of folk poets.”
One of the greatest akyns of all time was Toktogul (See Below). He appears on the 100 som banknote and was a master at the art of Aytish. Some of his improvisations got him into trouble with the local “manaps” and they arranged for him to be exiled to Siberia. After the Bolshevik revolution he wrote a poem about Lenin which is sometimes credited as being the beginning of “democratic ideas” amongst the Kyrgyz. [Source: advantour.com]
It is said that at the time the Soviet Union collapsed there were only four akyns left in the country. The art form is, however, showing signs of a revival – with the creation of the Aitysh Foundation, the opening of a school for young akyns and an increasing awareness in the Manas Epic (following the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the epic in 1995 – it is even being taught in schools). Sung in the Kyrgyz or Kazak languages, it is almost impossible to catch the pithiness of the verses in translation. During the 2005 Parliamentary elections, akyns went on the campaign trail, taking their version of a stump speech from village to village.
Toktogul Satylganov (1864 -1933) was a talented poet, akyn (singer-improviser) and virtuoso komuz player. He was born in poor family living in Suusamyr district in what is now known as the Toktogul district of the Djalal-Abad region. He never learned to read or write. When he was 12 his parents sent Toktogul to serve a local bai (feudal leader) as a junior herdsman, which at that time was a bonding a child to slavery. Close relations with other destitute people played a decisive role in forming his character. [Source:fantasticasia.net ~~]
His early poetic talent was encouraged by his parents. His father Satylgan was known as talented poet in his community. His mother was a witty woman, who knew many tales, legends and traditions. When Toktogul turned 13 years old he started to compose songs and play the komuz. In early songs like "Because of the Poverty" the young Toktogul sang about the cruelty and inhumanity of his master Kazanbai and his own unfair and miserable existence.
In 1882 Toktogul faced a famous king's singer, Arzymat, in a poetry competition and won. In this contest Toktogul showed himself to be not only an outstanding singer but also a fearless critic of injustice and greed and a defender of the rights of poor peasants. Word of his success and outspokenness traveled all over Kyrgyzstan. Today, many streets, parks, schools and libraries in Kyrgyzstan are named after Toktogul Satylganov. Also a district, town, Bishkek concert hall and the biggest reservoir in the country are named after him.
Political Activity of Toktogul Satylganov
Toktogul authored many lyrical, satirical, and philosophical songs and poems that became classics of Kyrgyz literature. His freedom-praising songs infuriated the feudal establishment, manaps, mullahs and tsarist officials. In 1888, during a rebellion in Andijan, tsarists alleged falsely that Toktogul's participated in revolt and arrested him. A court sentenced him to death, a punishment later reduced — due to the "Tsars mercy"— to seven years in a Siberian labor camp. As was true with thousands of Russian revolutionary sent to Siberia, Toktogul’s experience in the labor camp intensified his socialistic idealists and broadened his political outlook and understanding of inequality caused by feudalism. While in the camp he composed a number of songs describing convicts' life and made a komuz of Siberian pine with an axe.
With help from his Russian friends, Toktogul overcame many difficulties and escaped from the camp, making his way back to present-day Kyrgyzstan in 1903. On his return he composed a number of songs describing happiness of a man welcomed back to his motherland: "Meeting the Native Land", "Greeting Desirable Nation", "Mama, Dear, Living? Healthy?". In many of his songs of that period Toktogul predicted the end of tsarism, praised people who fought for labor rights and encouraged the Kyrgyz people to bond with their "elder brothers" — the Russian working masses. Enraged tsarist regional rulers locked the poet in Namangan prison but was soon released after demonstrators called him to be released.
Toktogul was the first akyn (poet) to welcome the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 that created the Soviet Union. He was not only a herald of the new era but was also an active participant of revolution. During this period he wrote the poem "What Woman Gave a Birth to Such a Person like Lenin?", which is regarded as the beginning of Kyrgyz Soviet literature. During the Soviet era he wrote a number of songs about the Communistic party, the Soviets and the kolkhoz idea development. His works were translated into all the Soviet Union’s languages and were published abroad.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016