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!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ah, spring! oh wait, nevermind....

Just a quick post to highlight the capricious nature of springtime weather in Almaty:

This photo was taken two days ago, with the sun shining and tulips blooming -- sure signs of spring, right?

Ok, this one was taken today, after an unexpected morning snow shower - the temperature was easily below freezing all day (brr, guess I'll be getting the winter coat back out...). Argh, this happened last time I was here - just when you think winter's been over for a month, it comes back and bites ya. And wouldn't you know it, the heating in my apartment building was shut off two weeks ago!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Meeting with a master

Yesterday was kind of an adventure - I went to see a "master" maker of kyl-kobyz, Tolegen-agha*, who was referred to me by an instructor at the Conservatory as "the best." Many of the most accomplished kobyz performers in Kazakshtan use his instruments, including my teacher Raushan and my friend Akerke.

However, finding this guy was a bit of a challenge - he lives in a little collection of houses located in the mountains right outside Almaty. The place is called "Sheber Aul" (Village of Masters), because when it was founded it used to be home to many different artists and craftspeople. Now it's kind of fallen into disarray, although some people still continue their work. I took a bus to a distant micro-region of Almaty, and then was instructed to catch another bus to Sheber Aul. But after waiting and looking around for this bus for about half an hour and asking several people who had never heard of Sheber Aul, I was about to give up. I called Tolegen-agha and told him that maybe I could try again the next day, but he said "No, no, I'll pick you up!" He drove down the mountain, met me at the bus stop, and we headed to Sheber Aul.

We sat and talked in his apartment for over an hour - his mother was there too, pouring tea for us and occasionally adding comments to Tolegen's answers to my questions. Unfortunately, he didn't want me to record him talking, and he wouldn't allow any pictures taken of him - so I just took a few photos of his work. He didn't have any finished instruments on hand, but he showed me five kobyz-in-progress that he had finished carving, made of either pine (lighter color) or elm (darker, and apparently the best wood for this purpose). They have to dry for several months, during which time, he said, some of them develop cracks -- these would end up as "souvenirs," he said, but couldn't be professional instruments due to the flaw in the wood. Of course, the souvenirs bring in significantly less income than the professional instruments. Out of the five he showed me, only two of them were in good enough shape to become "professional" -- imagine putting in all that work, only to find after out much later that all your effort will only bring in a fraction of what you were hoping for! (Come to think of it, actually, I guess the same could be said for grad school. Hmm....)

Tolegen-agha is very into the spiritual aspects of kobyz making. He said that soon after he starting trying to make instruments, he had a dream in which his ancestors showed him how to do it properly, and he complained about modern man's separation from nature. In his opinion, the kobyz the the most "ecological" of Kazakh instruments because it's the only one that's still made out of all natural materials - a hollowed-out block of wood, horse hair, leather, and sometimes metal pieces for decoration. He also complained about lack of government support for artists such as himself, which is really too bad because even though everyone seems to agree that he's extremely talented, he only sells an average of five instruments per year (they are apparently at the top of the price range for kyl-kobyz due to their high quality), which doesn't amount to much more than a living wage.

After our long chat, Tolegen-agha kindly drove me to the bus stop at Sheber Aul (the bus I wasn't able to find earlier was fortunately waiting at the entrance to the village). On the bus ride down the mountain, I saw lots of cherry trees in full bloom and a beautiful mist over the hilltops where the snow still hasn't melted. Hard to believe that a place like this sits just a fifteen minute drive outside the smoggy, car-choked streets of central Almaty...!

* agha - means "uncle" or "older brother" but is used among Kazakh-speakers to show respect

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Time flies....

Wow, two weeks flies by fast when you're trying to get your fieldwork done in record time...!

A lot has been going on, so I'll try to just sum up a few of them here:

1. I went with a friend to the State Republican Uyghur Theater of Musical Comedy (love the names of these places, don't you?) to see a show in celebration of Nauryz. The show started with a song by a Kazakh folk singer, which I thought could be interpreted either as a sign of "international friendship" or as symbolic of Kazakh cultural predominance ("okay, do your show, but only after we do our song."). The show was great - I love Uyghur music - although it was tough to take photos in the dark theater (sorry if this one's blurry). There was a man sitting right behind us who was really excited that a couple of non-Uyghurs (and foreigners, no less!) were attending the show - he provided a running commentary and pointed out the director of the Theater to me. He also recruited us to give a sound-bite for several local Uyghur community news programs and newspapers! So after the show, my friend and I basically got passed around to all these journalists who asked us to "say something." What do you say??? I just made some blithe statement about how it's important for Uyghur traditions to continue and how important the theater was in this regard, blah blah blah....I never saw myself on the news, but when I went back to talk to the theater director the next week, he definitely remembered me. Score!

2. I've started giving English lessons to a very prominent figure in the music industry here - the owner of one of Kazakhstan's biggest music labels and distributors. Another score! Well, maybe not yet, but I'm hoping that it will yield some good contacts further down the road. For now, I'm learning a lot about business and anti-piracy efforts in Kazakhstan (and getting paid for it!).

3. I've been doing an average of two interviews per week for the past three weeks -- so far I've spoken to three kobyz players, one pop star, one musicologist, and one student ensemble that's doing some really interesting new music. I should be happy with this, but the pressure is seriously on at this point to talk to ask many people as possible in a fairly short amount of time!
Another musicologist that I spoke to asked me to translate a couple of articles for her, and I'm still struggling over whether or not I should do this - on one hand, it's good to give back and I would like to establish a good rapport with her; but on the other hand, it's A LOT of work that I really don't have time for (plus, she should really find a PAID professional to do this kind of thing).

4. The Olympic torch came through town on April 2 - Almaty was the first stop on the torch tour after being lit in Athens, Greece. The city officials basically went apeshit in trying to spruce things up for the arrival of the torch -- and the throngs of Chinese journalists. A lot of things suddenly appeared, like lane and crosswalk lines on the main roads (but only those roads that were part of the torch route!), country and city flags on the lamp posts, old bus stops mysteriously being dismantled and replaced with snazzy new ones... I couldn't resist checking it out, so I hung out at a main intersection where lots of other people were waiting, and got to see the torch passed from one runner (actually walker) to another. It was so fun that I walked to another point on the torch route and got to see it passed again. :) People got really excited when the torch passed by - even though a large portion of the crowd were students at the state universities who were REQUIRED to be there! Anyway, there was a nice ceremony and concert in the Old Square where the "ethno-pop" band Ulytau performed (they're one of the groups I'd really like to talk to for my research).

5. Lots of concerts this week, mainly due to the 3rd annual "Nauryz 21" festival of new music at the Conservatory. Last night a chamber orchestra from Uzbekistan performed the original soundtrack to Charlie Chaplin's film "City Lights." The film was shown on a big screen behind the orchestra - it was great! Everyone, not only the foreigners, really enjoyed it. (Chaplin's pretty well-known here because many of the older generation watched his films during Soviet times.)

6. One small last thing: My refrigerator's been breaking down about three times per day/night for the past week, and I finally asked my landlady to replace it - they're supposed to be delivering the new one today, hurray!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nauryz Kutti Bolsin! (Happy Nauryz!)

Today was the celebration of Nauryz, locally referred to as "Kazakh New Year" but actually having roots in the Persian/Zoroastrian celebration of spring. Usually this holiday entails a big public event in Almaty, and today they had a day-long concert in the "Old Square" where the parliament building used to be. At noon they did an interesting show all about the various animals in the Asian zodiac (see my post about Asian New Year) - they explained the significance of each animal, then someone (an actual or aspiring pop star) sang a song in their honor.

I wandered around for a while taking in the semi-organized chaos. Lots of people were selling food, toys, and Muslim artifacts (prayer beads, Korans, etc.). Others were selling the traditional holiday soup Nauryz-kozhe -- supposedly it should contain seven ingredients (this refers back to the Persian Noruz tradition of placing seven items on a table, each representative of new life). Unfortunately, though, it tastes pretty nasty. And even worse is the fact that many of these vendors re-use the bowls and spoons used for serving the kozhe without washing them (or only quickly rinsing them in questionable water).

A couple American friends and I walked around the Old Square checking out the scene, watching a little bit of the main stage show, then went around to the back of the square, where there were several traditional Kazakh felt houses (yurts, in Kazakh "kiez ui") where apparently the mayor of Almaty was hosting a day-long feast for the day's performers and other notable guests. Almost by accident, I saw Akerke's friend Sabir, who works in the mayor's office in the department of culture - he was working as a sort of guard/logistical support guy for the day. He told me that Akerke was there, because she had played for the mayor earlier, and invited me into one of the yurts!
I ended up spending about an hour just talking with the people there, including several British journalists who were covering the day's events. I gave one of them a crash-course in Kazakh music history (hopefully she will credit me!!) and sat in on some of the photo opps. Woo hoo! Oh, and of course was served a huge bowl of Naruyz-kozhe... I tried to be polite and eat a few bites, but was conveniently distracted by the various conversations going on.

So, with Nauryz now over and done with I guess it's officially spring here in Almaty - the weather's growing steadily warmer and I'm starting to pine for the cool mountain air...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Museum or museum-ization?

Today I headed to the National Museum of Musical Instruments to see what the staff there might be able to tell me about the kyl-kobyz. I'd been to this museum a number of times, but never with any real goal in mind. The place is always empty and the guy who usually does the guided tours (the director of the museum) is kind of obnoxious and always trying to sell you his CDs. So I went in expecting the worst, but was pleasantly surprised to find a nice, young lady working in his place - who turned out to be the director's niece. When I told her that I was interested in the kobyz, she told me that she actually plays kobyz and is herself a graduate of the National Conservatory.

She showed me around the entire museum (which is actually quite small, and housed inside an historic building from the 1800s) and gave me the neat, scripted explanation of each instrument and its function. I noticed that when I asked specific questions, she just kind of vaguely responded and then continued with her well-rehearsed speech.

After the guided tour, she asked if I'd like a demonstration of the kobyz. I of course said yes, so she took me to her office and played a series of pieces on two different instruments: the kyl-kobyz, and the modernized prima-kobyz (which was created during Soviet times for use in folk orchestras).

A note on museums: there are studies in ethnomusicology that look at the "museum-ization" of culture. Basically it means that when elements from a musical culture are placed in museums, it separates them from actual living tradition - thereby sealing them into a kind of permanent past and rendering them more as symbolic icons than something actually relevant to the culture. I think that this museum is a perfect example of this phenomenon - but that's not all: I also suspect that a number of instruments in this museum are based either partially or totally on dubious historical and/or archaeological sources -- in other words, made up. But, of course, no one can really say for sure, since there are no written records of Kazakh culture that go further back than the 1800s.
So, I guess if the folks at the Museum of Musical Instruments say that these are ancient Kazakh instruments, who am I really to argue?

Oh, a funny ending to the kobyz demo -- when she was done playing, the director's niece took out a bag and asked if I'd be interested in buying one of her uncle's CDs. He's got quite a racket operating out of that little museum...!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

We made the top ten!

Ah, but unfortunately not for anything good... The Mercer Health and Sanitation Report recently released its list of the dirtiest cities on the planet -- they looked at 215 of the most populous cities, and rated them according to water supplies, air pollution, garbage management, etc. And guess what -- surprise, surprise, Almaty is NUMBER NINE. We are officially the 9th dirtiest city in the entire world.

This fact was made all-too-clear to me today when my friend and I tried to jog at a local stadium -- the air was so smoky and the haziness almost completely obscured the view of mountains and the Almaty TV tower. It's not usually so bad, but there's no denying that the air here is horrible. In a way it's like LA, I guess, but at least twenty times worse...

So I guess this means that above-average respiratory health isn't in my distant future. O well! All in the name of research and the pursuit of truth through music, right....?

For a nice explanatory slideshow of the world's top 25 dirty cities, just click here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Concert poster politics?

Here's the deal when it comes to advertising cultural events in Almaty: if it's Kazakh music or theater, the posters for it will most likely be in the Kazakh language (the official "state language"). If it's ANY other kind of music or theater - European, Russian, Korean, German, etc. - the poster is always in Russian (the official "language of inter-ethnic communication").

In this photo, there are five posters (excluding the bottom left-hand corner) advertising events that are all related to the same "Plenum of the Composers' Union of Kazakhstan" -- but the one in the top right-hand corner is in Kazakh because the program is being performed by the Kurgmangazy Kazakh Folk Orchestra (see my earlier post about this).

You are probably asking me why this is true. Well, I'm kinda of asking myself the same thing -- my impression is that 1) the advertisers figure that only Kazakhs (and only those Kazakhs who speak Kazakh, which is not all of them) would be interested in such an event, OR 2) the advertisers, performers, and/or composers involved are intentionally excluding non-Kazakhs (or non-Kazakh speakers) from the event. Maybe option #2 isn't realistic, since why would they exclude a large part of the paying public? Perhaps government subsidies are somehow involved, maybe also intended to show (official) preference for Kazakhs and Kazakh-speakers?

ALSO, why wouldn't a non-Kazakh speaker be interested in Kazakh music or theater? Music doesn't require translation, and they have translation devices at the theaters - so what's stopping them from marketing to the (sizeable) non-Kazakh speaking portion of the Almaty population?

Ah, the never-ending cultural politics of formerly Soviet Central Asia...gotta love it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

One for the ladies

Happy International Women's Day! For the past few days people have been running around like crazy trying to buy gifts, flowers, and cakes for their favorite ladies - mothers, grandmothers, girlfriends, wives, etc. - for the 8th of March. The Soviets introduced this holiday to Kazakhstan, but it's actually celebrated in most countries (not the U.S. for some reason!). Kind of like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day combined, but it's also associated with the start of spring. And since today was appropriately spring-like weather, I took a long walk through the city to look at all the flowers for sale and mingle with the people out just enjoying the holiday. And that's basically all there is to it - just take the day off, get some flowers, go and visit your friends, maybe go out and see a concert. Not bad!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Ethnographicking (finally!)

This week was actually fairly busy, so hurray! I did my first interview on Monday with a kobyzist named Sayan Akmolda (his last name means "blessed mullah," and by the way notice that he has dropped the Russianized "ov" ending!). The kobyz instructor at the Conservatory recommended that I talk to Sayan, both because he is known for a very "traditional" style of performing, and also because of his involvement with a significant anthology of traditional music that just came out this past year. For a couple of years he also had a TV program on the Kazakhstan national network called "100 Kyui of the Kazakhs" (kyui is the Kazakh traditional genre of instrumental music) where he invited famous musicians to discuss and perform traditional music.

I met with Sayan at the Zhubanov Music School, where he now teaches kobyz to children (up to high-school age). Actually, he was late for our meeting, so while I waited in his office, I got a chance to talk to a couple of his students, two girls around twelve years old who chatted with me about music and their families.

The interview with Sayan only lasted about half an hour, but was very interesting nonetheless. He seems to have a lot of opinions about traditional music, and he insists on teaching his students without written notes so that they can learn to play the compositions "according to their own ways." This relates back to the traditional style of kyui performance where students learned by oral tradition and always put their own spin on the music - so that no two performers ever played a piece exactly the same.

The only thing I was sad about was that he never offered to play for me! So I have yet to hear this "very traditional" sound that he's apparently known for... O well, guess that means a second interview!

Akerke's 21st birthday was Thursday night, so she invited me and a few other close friends to a restaurant for dinner. Here, the birthday boy or girl always pays for the guests, so it's fun to get invited to these events! Dinner included horsemeat (a delicacy that only appears at special occasions) and lots of toasts to the birthday girl. After stuffing ourselves silly, we were then obliged to dance off the calories - the restaurant had a DJ playing on the lower level - and then head back to the table for more food. At least this party didn't involve consuming mass quantities of alcohol, so I wasn't in too bad shape by the time people headed home at 2am. By the way, the girl in red (on the right) is a professional dancer, so the rest of us got utterly "served" in the booty-shaking department.

I also went to a few more concerts this week - the one I saw today was really great. Akerke called around 2pm to tell me about a 4 o'clock concert at the Conservatory to celebrate Women's Day (more about that tomorrow!). Lots of student groups would be performing, so I rounded up my now-regular concert companions Anna and Jody and we headed to the Conservatory's lovely Great Concert Hall. They performed some classical stuff, some folk stuff. One young guy played the hell out of his accordion and got a huge ovation from the audience. The set by the Folk Music Department kids was great - many of them wore their own Kazakh national costumes (you have to order them specially and the often cost upwards of $500) and several small ensembles performed. One group did a really interesting (and I thought very innovative) piece that seemed semi-improvised and incorporated a lot of shamanic sounds and imagery. Definitely much better than the stale old Soviet stuff you often see at other venues!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Gettin' some culture

I've been to a whole bunch of cultural events this week - some good, some bad. Let's start with the bad: A group of us (Americans and Kazakhs) went to see the opera "Abai" by Akhmet Zhubanov, again at the lovely Abai Theater.
Since both the opera and the theater are named for Abai, you've probably caught on that he's somehow significant so I'll explain a little about who he is. Abai Kunanbaev was a 19th century Kazakh poet and writer who was educated in the Russian colonial schools. He's revered as a literary figure and as a reformer, since one of his big things during his life was to try to get Kazakhs to think and live more rationally (instead of letting their lives be controlled by religious superstition and very unequal power relations). My only misgiving about Abai is that I think he was just helping to propagate the Russian colonial view of the Kazakhs as culturally "backward." But he's also a really important cultural symbol for the Kazakhs - there's a gigantic statue of him at one end of a major thoroughfare that's also named for him. ANYway... this Kazakh national opera" was written about him during Soviet times and it's basically just a silly plot held together with not-so-great songs that are supposedly based on Kazakh folk tunes. Yet another example of the Sovietization of Kazakh music - hence, I am not a fan.

The next outing was more enjoyable - a local performance of "Romeo and Juliet," translated entirely into Kazakh. The theater offers headsets so you can listen to a Russian translation along with the play, but I didn't think it would be necessary for such a familiar play. My Kazakh-speaking American friends laugh about this, because the theater staff will sometimes offer the headsets pretty aggressively to anyone who doesn't look Kazakh. When one such person asked me, I just replied "No, thanks" in Kazakh - she immediately relented and added "Good for you!" (meaning that I was a non-Kazakh speaking Kazakh, which is apparently very praise-worthy; I'll talk more about that in a future post). Anyway, the play was very well done - from the the 16th century European costumes to the set and lighting to the acting. Here's a photo of the final curtain call - hope you can see what I'm talking about!

Tonight, I went to a guitar music concert put on by the "Guitarists Association of Almaty." It was a program of various classical guitar works, plus a set by various "bards" who presented songs in the style of the Russian "author song." Essentially, author song is a genre of ballads that are sung with guitar accompaniment. The genre really took off during the early 60's (during the "Thaw" of Kruschev's era) when people used to write their songs, record them on tapes, and then circulate the tapes secretly among their friends - a lot of these songs were either overtly or
covertly dissident, hence the need for secrecy.
Anyway, the songs on this program weren't political at all, just sweet little love ballads. A highlight of the concert was this one performer who did an awesome theme-and-variations version of a well-known Kazakh love song called "Kozeminin Karasi" (My Eyes' Seeing). And can you guess who might have written this song.....?

ABAI, of course!! Ha ha....

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

weekend update

Ok, I admit that I am getting a bit behind in my bloggin' - certainly if I'm doing a weekend update on Thursday, that should tell you something right away... Things on the research front have slowed, which is of course a bit worrisome, considering that I only have four more months in Kazakhstan! Of course, it's not as if I haven't been doing stuff. It's just that the nature of ethnography is so unpredictable in terms of pace and the kinds of things one is able to discover in a certain amount of time. Ack, no wonder I've been having trouble sleeping again...

Anyway, last weekend was fun from a social standpoint. Two other American gals and I went to see a double header of one-act ballets, "Othello" and "Carmen." As I was explaining the plots of both plays to one of my companions, it occurred to me that both of these stories end with a jealous man killing the woman he supposedly loves. Apparently good, old-fashioned misogyny (and homicide) makes for highly entertaining theater.... Ok, gender politics aside, it was a good show - both ballets used choreography by "contemporary Latin American ballet masters," although since there were no programs for the show I couldn't tell you much else about these mysterious individuals. I will also point out that shows such as this one point to the continuously strong current of Western "high culture" in Almaty, which has been the case for almost 150 years now (Almaty actually began as a Russian fort named Vernyi, and the town was re-named after the Soviet Union took over in 1917). The photo here is of my friends Jody and Anna (left to right) and me inside the Abai Theater of Opera and Ballet. It's a really pretty hall, and tickets are really cheap. To see this ballet, for example, cost 400 tenge - only about 3 dollars!

Saturday night, I went to another American's place for a dinner of manti, a Central Asian style of dumpling that usually contains meat, pumpkin, and onions. But since our host is vegetarian, so were the manti. Two awesome Kazakh girls from the American Councils office came to help cook - they made steamed and fried varieties (pictured here in the middle of the table), which were both delicious!

I also started tutoring Raushan's two kids (9 and 13) in English. They study it in school, but I'm trying to help them actually speak instead of just getting through their lessons.
This is what I'm also trying to do with a group of students at the Conservatory. We actually had our first group meeting yesterday - about 20 students showed up. The details are going to have to work themselves out over the next few weeks, since there are very different ability levels in this group. But I'm pretty confident that this will be an interesting experience - plus, it helps me because I am getting Conservatory affiliation in return for doing this service!

More soon, I promise!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

insomniatic minutae

Ugh...for some reason the past couple of nights I haven't been sleeping. It's 3:30am right now and I'm wide awake, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to squelch my usual academic blah-dee-blah and update all the little stuff I've been up to....this is sometimes more interesting than doing any actual work, which is probably why I sometimes have trouble actually working....

1. I bought a phatty-phat-phat faux leather bag at the bazaar yesterday, because everyone else has one here and for some reason I turn into a shameless conformist in Almaty (whereas in the States I'm kind of intentionally unfashionable). It cost about $20, and I'm proud to report that I talked the salesgirl down a couple bucks. Hey, it's not the amount that's important - it's the effort that counts!

2. My friend Anna and I went to a really good Korean restaurant a couple days ago. We had a good laugh over some of the English translations, which I know is kind of mean but c'mon - I think one of them was called a "HodgePodge of Food" and another dish involved something called "Pork Hork" and "Frizzled Rice." See, you're laughing too, i knew it.

3. I've discovered that it's a lot easier to just buy two or three yummy fried piroshki (fried pastries filled with veggies or meat) for lunch instead of having to cook or purchase more expensive items from the grocery store. And they cost like 35 cents each, so it's cost effective too -- although probably not figure-effective.

4. The weather was getting really nice and warm for the past couple of days, raising my hopes for an early spring. Today it rained all morning, and when I looked out the window around noon it was snowing! Argh. Back to the Almaty Sidewalk Ice-capades....

5. There's a nice new cafe in town called 4A, run by an American guy and his Kazakh wife. They have the *cutest* little 2-year-old girl (can't remember her name) who's there almost every day I go there. She always smiles at me and runs around, it makes me miss my little niece! The other day she had a little book in her hand and we looked at it together - she kept pointing at the pictures of balloons and saying "sharika, sharika!" Cute-ee.

6. Ace of Base played a show at the Palace of the Republic during my first week here. I forgot to mention that before, but I knew those of us who are nostalgic for the early 90's would appreciate it. Does this mean they're staging a comeback? Or just scraping the bottom of the barrel? Not sure.

7. I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan. I cannot tell you how trippy it is to read a satire of the post-Soviet world while sitting in the post-Soviet world. It makes the points of his satire simultaneously that much more funny and that much more depressing.

8. I ride the buses every day. I used to rely more on taxis when I lived here two years ago, both because I had more money on hand (or at least thought I did) and because I didn't live near as many bus lines as I do now. But buses are SO much cheaper (30 cents per ride) and it gives me a chance to just kinda mesh with the Almatintsi (aka people who live in Almaty). Today, however, we were all meshing just a bit too close for my total comfort -- it was rush hour, the weather was bad, and I guess everybody wanted to get home at the same time, on the same bus, as me. We were squished in so tight that I couldn't even reach my hand into my pocket to get money for the fare, and they kept squeezing more people in. I must not be claustrophobic because it wasn't that big a deal, but if I were this would have been an absolute nightmare.

9. I've been buying bags and bags of these tasty little mandarin oranges that cost like $4 for a kilo. They're so pretty, with the leaves still attached. Mind you, I'm used to seeing mandarins in a can (usually Geisha brand), so I'm enjoying the fact that I can peel and eat the little seedless goodies fresh (and minus the slurpy syrup found in the canned variety).

10. My crappy dial-up internet only costs 10 tenge (5 cents) per HOUR between 3 and 8am. It costs $1.50/hr. during normal waking hours. So I am taking my sweet time in writing this. :)

OK, back to the battle to knock myself unconscious....

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Revenge of the folk orchestra

OK, so maybe it's not as dramatic as all that, but folk orchestras are a pretty interesting phenomenon throughout the post-Soviet world - from Bulgaria (Donna Buchanan has written a lot about this) to Kazakhstan (don't hold your breath on anything about it from me, 'cause I personally do not like these groups on principle).

The history of these ensembles is that during the Soviet Union, the officials in charge of cultural policy decided it would be a good idea to create large ensembles of folk instruments in each of the Soviet republics. This accomplished several things: 1) it introduced the Western symphonic orchestra model to many areas where it was previously unknown; 2) it encouraged the Westernization/modernization of many folk instruments so that they looked and sounded more like European classical instruments, and served similar musical functions; 3) these orchestras played re-worked arrangements of folk tunes that often were originally intended for solo or small group performance, but could now be blasted by a big, fat orchestra worthy of the mass-spectacle oriented Soviet public.

All of these above-mentioned reasons point to a common origin: Soviet authorities wanted to turn all peoples in the USSR into slightly folklorized versions of Western Europe, thereby to prove that they were just as culturally accomplished as Europe. Too bad they couldn't have made this point simply on the merits of the original traditional music of these people!

And now, 17 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we still have folk orchestras in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and several other former Soviet territories. The one pictured here is the Kurmangazy State Academic Orchestra of Folk Instruments, the oldest and probably most well-known of the various folk ensembles in Kazakhstan. They do a lot of touring, including two concerts in the U.S. in 2005 (they were both on the east coast so I couldn't see them). You can read about it here on the Kazakh Embassy website. I just saw them a couple of nights ago because my kobyz teacher did a brief guest solo performance during their program. I will note, however, that the concert hall was far from full, and that a large portion of the audience were young military recruits who clearly were not there of their own volition and started talking loudly toward the end of the concert out of sheer boredom. Actually, I didn't even see the end of the concert because my friend and I left early - seriously, I can only take this stuff for so long. :)

Anyway, I see these groups as a sort of testament to the bombastic cultural engineering of the Soviet Union - although a lot of good composers did some nice arrangements of traditional music for these ensembles, I always feel like it's somehow tainted by a dark legacy of artifice and manipulation. Or maybe I'm just over-dramatizing again.....

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Historical nostalgia?

So, I'm supposed to be writing this article about how certain Kazakh pop music videos use lots of imagery from traditional nomadic Kazakh life -- yurts, horses, warriors, musical instruments, traditional food/drink, etc. I'm working on this theory that popular music can play an important role in helping to formulate modern notions of Kazakh national identity. Some of these songs are overtly patriotic, some less so. But their reference to the nomadic past of the Kazakhs seems to create very strong, positive reactions from many Kazakh viewers (you can see it in their comments on the YouTube clips). It seems like a strong current of historical nostalgia is running through these videos, perhaps in an effort to remind Kazakhs of a time when their cultural traditions were stronger and their nomadic way of life still intact. I think it also serves to reinforce the idea that Kazakhs a very long history of living in the territory that is now Kazakhstan (a "fact" that is sometimes embellished in Kazakh versions of their history), thus reinforcing Kazakh claims to "ownership" of the country.

I don't have translations on hand right now, but hopefully soon! For now just take in the audio and visuals and see what you think:

"Otan Ana" (Motherland) by Batyrkhan Shukenov

"Konir" (Dark Brown) by Urker

"Adai" (traditional kyui named for a Kazakh warrior tribe) by Asylbek Engsepov

Raushan in action

I know there's been a pretty sad absence of music on my blog thus far -- mainly due to my unfortunate dependence on dial-up and internet cafe's for my blogification needs. But luckily there's YouTube to the rescue!
This clip is a performance by my kobyz teacher, Raushan. It comes from the CD I've mentioned before, which has a DVD component too. You can see that Raushan is wearing Kazakh national dress, complete with feathered hat (owl feathers are supposed to have protective qualities). Also, for some reason she always plays with her eyes closed -- I attribute it to the fact that she always emphasizes the spiritual aspects of the kobyz. You can really see how she approaches her playing as a form of meditation, which actually is very close to the original purpose of the instrument. It also reminds me of how she tells me in our lessons that even very simple pieces should be played with very deep feeling.

Monday, February 11, 2008

There's no business like "toi-business"

Akerke and her friend Sabir came to my place for lunch yesterday, and since Sabir works for the Department of Cultural Affairs here in Almaty (and is himself a painter), we had quite an interesting lunch conversation. One of the topics that came up was how musicians make money around here -- it's not like in the States, where you can get signed onto a big phat label and they just throw money at you, promote you, etc. Here, the artist bears most (if not all) of the costs involved in recording an album, recording a music video, broadcasting the video (Akerke told me that this can run about $200 a pop -- that's per broadcast of the clip), and putting on concerts. The only way many musicians can even afford to do these basic things is to find a "sponsor" - often a welathy friend or relative, and in some cases corporations. For that reason, a lot of the locally-made clips you see on Almaty's music TV programs are just young rich kids with minimal talent but lots of Mom and Dad's cash to splurge on making themselves into pop stars. Needless to say, this is not exactly a stimulating environment for the *real* musicians to work in.

As a result of these tough conditions, many musicians make the large part of their performance-related income by getting hired to play at restaurants, private parties, and weddings. In Kazakh, a wedding is called a "toi" - this can also mean any sort of celebration or party. So instead of show business, Sabir told me, they have "toi-business." :) I'm really interested in looking more into this scene, if you can call it a scene since it's so spread out and individually-based. I know that Akerke has done many of these types of gigs, some of them extremely lucrative if the party-giver is particularly well off. I'm hoping that I'll be able to tag along if and when she does future performances...

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Kobyz lessons

I had my first kobyz lesson of the year yesterday, with the professional performer and teacher Raushan Orazbaeva. We met at the Conservatory a couple of years ago when we both showed up to a concert that had been unexpectedly canceled -- she had planned to perform, I had only planned to watch. When I told her my story (I had brought another American with me), she brought us to an empty classroom and gave us an impromtu concert. She did a nice CD in Italy a few years ago (see photo), which I've been using a lot for class presentations and whatnot.

So with that back story, I was really happy that Raushan was willing to take me on as a student. We played a bunch of kyui during the lesson, some that I thought were too hard for me but we slogged through them anyway. So now I have quite a bit of practicing to do...! When the issue of payment came up, she said I could pay her by giving English lessons to her and her children -- hey, works for me.

Raushan also had some interesting info and insights to share with me. She recently won a major music competition in Almaty, for which the mayor awarded her with a new apartment! Considering the skyrocketing real estate costs in the city, this is a big deal. Regarding the music, she made sure to emphasize the meditative and spiritual aspects of the kobyz and its music. She reminded me that you can't play kyui exactly as they are written down -- since they were never written down until more recently, with the introduction of European musical notation to Kazakhstan in the 19th century. She told me that playing should be like meditation, and talked about how when she plays, she feels connected to her ancestors, who tell her how to interpret the music as she's playing.
On a separate note, this weekend I'm doing some entertaining at home and cooking "American food" for a few local friends and acquaintances. In this case, "American food" is tacos (i had to get the necessary supplies at an expensive chi-chi store for foreigners) and hamburgers. One Kazakh friend who came yesterday brought an apple pie that she had made from scratch. :)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Afternoon at the Conservatory

Yesterday I met up with Akerke and some other students at the National Conservatory, where they were busy rehearsing some arrangements of Kazakh traditional instrumental pieces called kyui. The word kyui means "frame of mind" or "mood" and they either tell a story or set up an atmosphere that is suggested by the title of the piece. There's usually a background story that goes along with every kyui and explains something about why and how it was composed.

So, this student ensemble was made up of five instruments (from right to left): dombra (long-necked lute), kobyz, saz sirnai (ocarina, or clay whistle), accordion, and prima-kobyz (a modernized version of kobyz that looks and sounds much like a violin). This type of ensemble, and its mixing of traditional instruments and modernized (or non-Kazakh) instruments, is pretty typical. It's kind of a legacy of Soviet times, when large folk orchestras combined Kazakh and non-Kazakh instruments and performed arrangements of traditional pieces. Nowadays, you also find ensembles made up entirely of traditional Kazakh instruments, referred to as "ethnographic" ensembles. I should point out, though, that ensembles are sort of antithetical to Kazakh kyui in the first place, since they were originally intended for SOLO performance!

The student group must have gone through about 6 or 7 pieces, playing most of them from memory. Akerke told me that in order to get into the Conservatory, you have to have memorized a large number of these kyui already, so these kids definitely know their stuff. When they corrected each other or discussed different ways of approaching the music, they used the typical Almaty mish-mash of Kazakh and Russian languages - it's really interesting to see how young Kazakhs negotiate the language issue by just using both!

I brought my kobyz along and of course had to show what I could do, which wasn't much since I haven't been practicing! I played one kyui that I always break out for demonstrations, called "Erden." It was written by Ykhlas in the early 20th century and it basically expresses the sorrow of the protagonist, Erden, over the death of his son. A sad but gorgeous piece!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Happy new year!

Didn't get around to your New Year's resolutions in time this year? Well, here's your second chance!!
Tonight is New Year's Eve by the Asian calendar. Although not widely celebrated in Kazakhstan, it's recognized by Kazakhs because they follow the Asian calendar culturally, if not in everyday life. There's a beautiful fountain (my favorite in Almaty) that contains statues representing all twelve of the Asian zodiac signs -- actually, the Kazakh version is a bit different, instead of a dragon there's a snail (!!). Here's a nighttime photo of said fountain -- sorry if it's a little blurry!
Anyway, 2008 is the year of the rat. Even though rats have a negative association with most westerners, rats are actually supposed to be symbols of prosperity. So here's to the rats and all the goodies that they will most definitely bring this year. :)

Someone was shooting fireworks earlier, which I enjoyed unobstructed from my living room window. Of course, it might not have had anything to do with the New Year -- people shoot fireworks at the drop of a hat around here....

Good news on the contacts front-- my good friend Akerke is back in town after a stint in China and Germany. This girl is amazing, always touring around and giving concerts everywhere. And only 21 years old! She was my kobyz teacher during my last stay in Almaty, and she and I are good friends -- aside from her frequent chiding me for not being married at the spinsterly old age of 28!
I got in touch with another kobyz expert as well, Raushan. She did a really nice CD/DVD a few years ago that I've used for several class presentations on Kazakh music. I may start taking lessons with her, if I'm up to her standards (and if Akerke doesn't mind)!

Also had a nice evening chat with my landlady -- she and her two kids live next door, and she's super sweet and very interesting too. I had to pay her for my first month of rent, which was kind of an ordeal because I brought Traveller's Cheques with me and there was the inevitable infuriating bureaucracy in trying to cash them -- I spent about an hour at the bank today while the tellers tried to figure out what the correct procedure was. Amazing, here I was standing in a beautiful new bank lobby (evidence of the general face-lift Almaty is currently undergoing) that reeks of modern sophistication, but the bank's operations are still wallowing in the 20th century -- my transaction was actually completed via a handwritten note from one teller to the other because they didn't have an internet connection. Oh well...

Ok, happy new year everyone!