Sunday, June 29, 2008

That's all for now!

Well, I'm writing this from my new digs in LA -- that's right, the research is over (for the moment), and now I need to focus on getting some furniture for my bedroom and thinking about how I'm gonna write my dissertation! I was very fortunate to receive a dissertation write-up grant from UCLA, so that should help to speed my progress along. Also, in the spring I'll be teaching an undergraduate seminar at UCLA called "Sounds of the 'Stans" -- about music and national identity in Central Asia. Good for the resume, good for the wallet. :)

Anyway, at the point when I left Almaty (June 20), Kazakhstan was starting to gear up for a pretty large event - the 10th anniversary of the nation's capital officially moving from Almaty to Astana. I was told that at the end of July they'll be putting on tons of concerts in Astana, which of course I will very conveniently miss (argh). For a couple weeks before I left, the hype machine was already gearing up -- lots of TV commercials and billboards promoting the upcoming holiday, including a very simple one that features Nazarbayev writing a greeting to Astana; there are two versions of this ad, of course, one in Kazakh (Ak tilekpen, Astana!) and the other in Russian (S lyubovyu, Astana!).

Another interesting bit that I should just mention is the last evening I spent in Almaty with Akerke and her parents. Akerke was kind enough to drive me to the airport at 1 in the morning, so she picked up me and my luggage around 10pm and took me to her house, where we just hung out for a while and had a late dinner with her mom and dad (besparmok, of course! by which i mean the Kazakh "national" dish of large, flat noodles and boiled meat). It was so incredibly pleasant - we sat outside on their tapchan (raised outdoor platform used for summer eating and sleeping) and enjoyed the cool summer night air. I couldn't think of a better way to say goodbye to Kazakhstan (for now!).
Of course, that was before Akerke's dad left, at which point she and her mother started talking about their relatives and the relative's kids, and then of course came around to asking me - no, more like interrogating me - about my plans to have kids. They pressed upon me how absolutely crucial it was that I have a child before I turn 30. "You don't even need to be married," said Akerke, "you can just find a lover! That's okay too!" Whaaa??? Mind you, this is a typically conservative Kazakh family talking here -- which I guess simply attests to the incredible importance for Kazakh women to bear children by a certain age. O lord, maybe I got out of Kazakhstan just in time...I don't think I could handle much more of this marriage/kids pressure!

Anyway, on that note I think I'll close the blog (for now!) with a few more images of Almaty from the past five months. Enjoy! Thanks again to everyone who followed along with my travels and occasional late-night digressions, and a big thank you to everyone who left their comments! Be well, Sau Bol, Poka! :)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I thought I'd devote a post to a fairly huge, although very mysterious, figure who looms large in my research on the kyl-kobyz. His name is Korkyt-Ata ("Grandfather Korkyt") - he is said to have lived in the 8th or 9th century, and is supposedly buried near the Syr-Darya river near Kizil-Orda in southern Kazakhstan. This legendary figure is credited with being the the first shaman (baqsi) and the creator of the kyl-kobyz. His story is really fascinating, and it's retold to me by almost every kobyzist I talk to. When he appears in paintings or pictures, he is always an old, bearded man wearing a hat and playing the kobyz (that's him on the right).
I should mention, though, that Korkyt-Ata is not only a figure of Kazakh legend. He exists in many Turkic cultures, including Azeri and Turkmen -- making him into a pan-Turkic phenomenon, like a common ancestor.

Korkyt's name basically means "frightening one," because when he was born for some reason he didn't look like a human baby and all the onlookers ran away. Luckily, his mother showed them that he was perfectly normal and Korkyt grew up without incident. However, as a young man he saw a dream in which he learned that he would die at age 40. He decided that he would try to escape death by traversing the four corners of the world on his camel Zhelmaya, searching for the secret of eternal life. But wherever he went, he saw people digging graves; when he asked them who the graves were for, they always answered, "For Korkyt." Eventually, he gave up his search; understanding that his death was inevitable, the sacrificed his beloved camel and made an instrument by placing its skin and hair on a carved-out piece of wood - the first kyl-kobyz - and began to express his sorrow through music. He is said to have composed many pieces (kyui) that are still performed today, apparently passed down through the centuries by generations of Kazakh baqsi's.

As long as Korkyt was playing the kobyz, Death could not touch him. But the sad end of the tale is that after many days of playing, Korkyt fell asleep; Death came to him in the form of a snake, and with one deadly bite, finally claimed Korkyt. However, Korkyt had already fulfilled his life's quest - he achieved immortality through music.

It's such an interesting story, and it endows the kobyz with so many kinds of significance. The battle between life and death, and its role in Kazakh shamanic rituals, are constantly mentioned with reference to the kobyz in the scholarly literature here.
This is part of why I really like the kobyz - there's this mysterious, spiritual element to it that most other Kazakh instruments don't really have.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Just a little more about Astana, which is currently celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Kazakhstan's capital moving there from Almaty. Astana is basically the city being built from the ground up - the brainchild of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and growing at a jaw-dropping pace. At least, the buildings are appearing quickly -- so far, the people have not been so quick to follow. As a result, many of the unbelievably huge apartment buildings in the city (at least those on the far side of the Ishim river) stand virtually empty. I could liken it to being in Disney World after hours - all these fantastical buildings and interesting stuff to see...but with a weird, ghost-town kind of feeling to it.

Astana is also distinguished by some of the craziest architectural designs you'll likely see in Central Asia (possibly in the world). This monument here is called the Baiturek, symbolizing the "tree of life" that occasionally appears in Kazakh folklore. People can ride an elevator up to the golden globe at top of the tower. Inside you can see a miniature model of Astana (including future building projects) and a raised platform area where a large bronze rendering of Nazarbayev's handprint stands on a podium. You're supposed to put your hand in it and make a wish -- I'm not kidding about this! If you're getting a slight whiff of personality cult at this point, keep reading- it gets WAY better.

This is the gorgeous National Mosque, near the Baiturek and funded largely with Saudi Arabian money. There's a madrassa (Islamic school) attached to it, the only one I've ever seen although I know there are lots more in various places in Kazakhstan.

The last place I want to highlight has no pictures attached, because I wasn't allowed to take any! The former residence of President Nazarbayev has been turned into a sort of presidential museum where you can learn all about his early life, rise through the ranks of the Kazakhstan Communist Party, and notable accomplishments since his becoming president in 1991 (of course there a quite a few, according to the museum). Various rooms were devoted to his medals and honors from many different nations (for what? dunno.), honorary degress from various universities, and TONS of gifts from diplomatic visits as well as quite a few "from the people of Kazakhstan." But by far my favorite part was hearing about Nazarbayev's musical contributions: not only did he (supposedly) provide edited lyrics to the country's new national anthem (changed in 2005), but he also (supposedly) wrote lyrics for a popular song recently recorded by the Kazakh boy-band Muz-Art, "Ush Konir (Three Winds)." An entire display case was devoted to the anthem; meanwhile the music video for "Ush Konir" was played over and over on a beautiful, flat-screen HDTV hung on one of the museum's walls.

Ok, so getting back to the personality cult thing -- well, probably the less said the better (I don't really know who reads this blog) but I think that this last example speaks pretty loudly for itself.
Another Turkmenbashi in the making, perhaps? Hmm.

Incident in Astana

This past week, I took a short trip to the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, to see the Kurmangazy Competition of Folk Instruments. The competition is known to be the most prestigious in the country, and young performers from all over the country come to compete - however, most of the kids I saw seemed to come from Almaty and Astana. Honestly, I'd be surprised if anyone could afford to come from any further away. I took a 20-hour train ride Tuesday night (see photos left and below), and Wednesday morning checked into a hotel where, coincidentally, my friend Akerke and several other kids from the Almaty Conservatory were staying. What luck! So I got to talk (briefly) with a lot of the kids participating in the competition in the various categories: dombra, sherter (3-string dombra), kyl-kobyz, prima-kobyz (modernized version of kyl-kobyz), and accordion (referred to during the competition by its Kazakh nomenclature, sirnai).

I watched two days worth of competition, which turned out to be a lot smaller than I initially expected. The judges were professor at various music schools such as the Almaty Conservatory and the Astana Musical Academy. I only watched the kobyz competitors, since all the categories ran at the same time. Each participant played three pieces each day - some required, others that they could choose themselves.
After the first day, the judges very kindly invited me to have tea with them, since I had taken the trouble to come all the way there just to watch the competition. I tried to get in a few questions during the conversation, but in the end I had to agree with the head judge to talk to her later in Almaty.

By the end of the final day of competition, I had a pretty good idea of who I thought should get first place (of course Akerke, and one other guy). But a few hours later, everything got turned upside down, in a classic KZ-style corruption scandal. Apparently the Ministry of Culture - not the competition judges! - had the final say on who would receive which placement; and one of the kyl-kobyz competitors had famous and influential parents who pulled some strings to get their son second place.

Needless to say, Akerke was extremely upset about the results and we talked for a long time about how unfairly things had turned out. On top of the fact that she felt she'd played better than anyone, she couldn't understand why no one from her corner had tried to pull any strings on her behalf! She also felt that personal resentments from certain of the judges had influenced the results. So in the end this competition, which ostensibly exists to promote a high level of performance of Kazakh instruments, in reality it turned out to be just another empty gesture on the part of the Ministry of Culture - full of lofty words and seemingly honorable intentions, but really just another exercise in personal politics and political influence. What gives???

So, a bit of a disappointment - but as with all things disappointing, I'm trying to see this as a really vivid example of an important element of my research so far -- the continuing inter-relation of music and politics, and the continuing problem of corruption in even matters of musical performance and cultural promotion. Plus, Astana is still as zany as ever -- I think that deserves its own post, though!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The steppes are rockin'...!

This week I encountered two of the leading bands in Kazakhstan's current "world music" trend: Roksonaki and Urker. I'd been looking forward to meeting the members of Roksonaki ever since I heard about their U.S. tour this year, arranged by an American anthropologist (who is also now they record producer - yikes, maybe i should be asking her for a job!). You can read about it on their tour blog here.
Roksonaki was started in 1990 by Ruslan Kara [right], who tried to mesh together Kazakh traditional music with the sounds of American/European art rock music he had grown up listening to. He now writes most of the band's songs, plays guitar, and sings; the other two band members, Galymzhan Sekeyev [center] and Erlan Sabitov [left], play the Kazakh instruments kyl-kobyz and zhetigen, respectively. Their songs are all in Kazakh language and draw on a variety of themes, including a fairly strong leaning toward shamanistic sounds and texts. (Check out some of their recent work on their MySpace page here.) In fact, they told me about how several times during their U.S. tour, they performed a song that shamans apparently used to sing in order to bring rain - and that shortly after Roksonaki's performance of this song, either rain or snow soon followed (spooky).
I met with the band and their manager (and Ruslan's wife) Dina Amirova on a Friday afternoon. We sat outside the Academy of Sciences in central Almaty next to my favorite fountain (the zodiac one, remember?) and talked for almost an hour about the band. I really liked having input from both the band members and from Dina, who is also a musicologist and describes Roksonaki's music in a more analytical light. The band had also worn specially made shirts from their American tour for an impromptu photo shoot (by Dina) that they were planning to send to a radio station back in the U.S. where they had given an interview. By the way, just a bit of Kazakh cultural trivia: the symbol on Galymzhan's black t-shirt is a shangyrak - the centerpiece that is placed at the top of the traditional Kazakh yurt (ui) and signifies Kazakh familial ties and lineage. You see this symbol a lot in these parts - on fences and state buildings, in advertising, even on the Kyrgyz flag (since they were nomads too and very closely related to the Kazakhs).
On another interesting note - as we were saying goodbye, a few drops of rain started falling, and turned into a huge downpour that didn't stop until late that night! Apparently the rain gods are still listening to these guys...

The following Saturday, I headed to a huuuuuge new mall - the biggest in Almaty, and appropriately named MEGA (in capital letters) - to attend the presentation of Urker's new album, Tolghau (Melody). I've mentioned this band on the blog before, and I have known the lead singer, Aidos Sagat [right], since my last fieldwork stint in Almaty. Unlike Roksonaki, who prefer not to classify themselves, Urker describes its combination of traditional and modern music as "ethno-pop." Aidos writes most of the band's songs, and Nurlan Alban [center] writes the lyrics - so these two bands are actually doing very original stuff, which is remarkable in a city that is teeming with cover bands (albeit often very talented ones)! Aidos and Nurlan also share vocals, and Rustam Musin [left] plays lead guitar.
As part of the presentation, Urker gave an hour-long concert of new and old songs. A pretty large crowd gathered to hear them play (as will often happen in a busy mall, i guess) and people were singing and bouncing along with the older songs that they clearly recognized. As for me, their live performance was way better than anything I'd heard on their albums - they were rocking some of the songs pretty hard (unusual for them) and they clearly fed off of the energy of the crowd.
If you're interested, Urker has a pretty nice website (with an English version available), so check it!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Multiculturalism in the "Land of 100 Nations"

Continuing the "international friendship" theme just a little longer, there's been a lot of multiculturalism going on around here lately. First off, after the TV spot I was asked to do a repeat performance at an "International Unity Day" related dinner event - a few of the people who participated in the TV taping were there, but a lot of other people and traditions were represented as well: Chechen and Azeri dancing; Russian, Tajik, and Uzbek pop singers; and a Turkmen folk singer. It was fun, and hey - free food! But when I played the kobyz this time, I was a little annoyed because nobody really paid attention (I think too much liquor had been consumed by that time).

A few days later was the actual holiday (May 1st) - they had a big concert outside the Palace of the Republic, where again lots of different "national" groups performed their "national" music and dance, wearing their "national" dress. And yes, all of this "national" spirit is a cultural holdover from Soviet times... Incidentally, this often becomes a frsutrating issue when people ask me to represent the U.S. by wearing American "national" dress (suggestions, anyone?).

An even wider variety of costumes and music was presented here - everything from Greek to Dungan to Korean to Jewish.... of course many of these performances weren't "traditional" according to the strict definition of the word. But the priority for these types of events isn't authenticity, but representation. One could argue, though, that this representation is kind of superfluous if these cultural groups only appear once a year...!

The third event that highlighted KZ-style multiculturalism was a dance concert sponsored by the Indian consulate (as well as two different tea companies). Not only Indian classical dance, but Kazakh "national" dance as well as Korean and Chinese martial arts were featured on the program. Each group performed separately at first, but in contrast to the separateness of the other concerts, towards the end the Kazakh dancers and Indian barata natyam dancers shared the stage and danced together. Then the last number of the dance program brought all the different performing groups together in a big, choreographed group finale.

The music for the finale was provided by a very famous Kazakh pop-traditional musician, Edil Husseinov, who does this interesting, neo-shamanistic act (costume, throat singing, traditional Kazakh instruments, etc.). I will admit that I rolled my eyes a couple of times due to the slight "It's a Small World After All" cheese-factor of the finale; but I could also appreciate the statement being made about honoring diversity and bringing lots of different kinds of people and traditions together. And I should point out, the house was PACKED for this concert, which is rarely true for other types of events (including Kazakh traditional and Western classical music).

So, what to make of all these displays of multiculturalism? To be honest, for me they sometimes inspire flashbacks to college campus "Diversity Days" where people would dress up, put on a concert, try some different kinds of food, and then go back to real life the next day. That's basically how it works here, too, but I guess it could be a lot worse - at least there are such things here, where people can see and appreciate the diversity that is here in Kazakhstan. It's just too bad it only comes around once a year...!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

All in the Name of International Friendship...

Last week a girl who works in the international section of the Conservatory asked if I'd like to be included in a program that will be shown on the "Kazakhstan" network for the May 1st holiday -- International Friendship Day. Back in the day, May 1st was a day to celebrate workers' rights, and following the post-Soviet convention, the day was retained as a holiday but for a totally different reason. Nowadays, the holiday is supposed to celebrate the brotherhood of all the 120 some-odd national groups who live in Kazakhstan. It of course comes with a fair share of inflated overtures to harmony between peoples and how great Kazakhstan is for having such peaceful inter-ethnic relations.

Anyway, I said I'd do it -- even though I get freaked out when I have to perform, I didn't want to miss the opportunity (not just to be on TV, but also to see what goes into making a program like this). So this morning I showed up at the Assembly of Nations building, where each of the various diaspora groups of Kazakhstan share offices. These offices are supposed to organize cultural activities and events in support of the national groups they represent, although their actual effectiveness is questionable. So why was I invited? Apparently, they wanted a foreign "guest" who played a Kazakh instrument to (I guess) extend the concept of fraternal relations between peoples - not only across "nations" (read ethnic groups), but also across nation-states. I've gotten kind of used to this kind of tokenism by now, in fact it's kind of fun to see how my presence somehow affects what these programs are trying to accomplish.

I got there around 10:30am, and found the lady with whom I had briefly spoken the previous day about the where's and when's. She looked at me and asked "where's your dress?" I replied that I didn't have one - and anyway, she hadn't told me to bring one! Well, she said I couldn't wear what I had on (my best pair of pants and a nice sweater, mind you!). I was afraid I might be sent home. Fortunately, though, she happened to have another outfit that another performer was supposed to wear - she decided that I could wear this until the other performer needed it. Then shoes became an issue - the suit was white and my shoes were black - but there was nothing to be done at that point, so she consulted with the cameraman and got him to promise that he wouldn't include my feet in the shot. My make-up was apparently a third issue, which she and another girl later corrected (i.e., eyeliner. lots of eyeliner.). I tried to excuse my oversight by saying that Americans are just much more casual in general - but honestly, this was the third time I'd been on Kazakh TV and my clothes and make-up had never been an issue before!

Anyway. Long story short, I was at the taping ALL DAY. There were about ten different groups they had to tape (twice), as well as all the introductions by the program host. Everyone was asked to sit at one of five tables set up around the big circular room as the other participants did their performances. Around noon, they set these tables with food and drink - but for a long time we couldn't figure out if we were supposed to eat lunch or just leave the food there for decoration! I just sat and stared at it until other people
started picking at it about half an hour later.

While the program certainly didn't include all of the national groups of Kazakhstan, there were Ukrainian, Tatar, Chechen, Greek, and of course Kazakh representatives there. Each group sang or played a song. And finally, after watching them for five hours it was my turn!
I sat in front of the camera and the host asked if I would say a greeting in Kazakh. She told me exactly what to say, and I repeated it into the camera. Check. Then I played one piece - the folk kyui "Munlik-Zarlik." Luckily they did two takes because I really messed up the first one! Oh by the way, the hat was also loaned to me by the girl in the gold dress in this photo. The other girl (in white) is the host of the show.

This last photo was of the other performer for whom the white dress was actually intended (on the right)...she was a vocalist who sang a song in flowery celebration of Kazakhstan. All the "peoples" were supposed to hold hands and sway side-to-side behind her. It's hard to say whether people really enjoy this kind of cheesy stuff, but there sure is a whole lot of it - but being that this is the former Soviet Union, it's just kind of expected.

So, that was my adventure in Kazakhstani broadcasting for today! I hope to get a copy of the program soon, if anyone's interested. Of course, if you happen to be in Almaty on May 1st, it will be shown on the Kazakhstan channel at 10:30am!