Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rewind...!: Some background info

So, I realized after talking to a reader that I haven't exactly introduced Kazakhstan or my project properly -- and I forgot to do any blurbs for my photos! Actually, I thought the photos would be just decoration, but if they are provoking interest in learning more, then I'm happy to oblige with some background info.
OK, so Kazakhstan is the 9th largest coutnry in the world, situated between the Middle East, China, Russia, and the other four "Stans" of Central Asia (but let's not be too casual -- the Stanleys, please). Its culture is a pretty accurate reflection of its geographical location, mixing a lot of different influences in its food, music, spirituality, and everyday life. Since Central Asia made up the longest stretch of the Silk Road (a 7,000 mile long overland trading route connecting cities from Italy to China), the whole region is distinguished by a history of many cultures interacting and exchanging ideas. (Click here to see more about the Silk Road.)

I should point out that the Kazakhs are a distinct ethnic group, not to be confused with the other ethnic groups who live or lived in the same areas. The Kazakhs were pastoral nomads -- they herded their sheep and horses and camels, and moved around frequently so they lived in portable houses made of felt, called yurts (see one being built here). Because they were somewhat weak from a military standpoint, though, they had to ask for help from Russia in the late 1700's and that started the gradual colonization of Kazakh territory by the Russian Empire.

When the Soviet Union took over in 1917, Kazakhstan (literally "land of the Kazakhs") was drawn on a map and named by Soviet authorities. Over the next 70 or so years, the Kazakhs were forced to give up their traditional way of life, and instead live on collective farms. Many of them fled, and many of those who stayed behind died of starvation. Then, lots of other ethnic groups started settling in Kazakhstan -- often they were either farmers working on the new Soviet cotton plantations, or they were forcibly deported to Kazakhstan by Stalin. Long story short, by the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakhs were a minority in their own supposed "homeland."

Since then, the Kazakhs have been going about reconstructing their national identity. "National identity" means to them what "ethnic identity" means to the average American -- your cultural traditions, family lineage, etc. To the Kazakhs, this is extremely important because a lot of other ethnic groups live in Kazakhstan now, including Russians, Koreans, Germans, Ukranians, etc. And in this part of the world, your citizenship (e.g. "Kazakhstani") has nothing to do with your national identity. If you were born in Kazakhstan, but your heritage is ethnically Russian, then you are considered Russian. Your "national identity" is even printed in your passport, it's that important.

So, in order to reclaim "their" country from a legacy of colonization and repression, the Kazakhstani government (which is mostly ethnic Kazakh) has been promoting Kazakh culture pretty aggressively. The Kazakhs feel that they are entitled to a privleged position in government, culture, media, etc. because it is, after all, Kazakhstan. But where does this leave non-Kazakhs? Needless to say, it is not a simple situation.

Now -- where does MUSIC fit into all of this? That is my field, after all -- not political science... Basically, I am trying to see how this struggle over ethnic/national identities is literally playing itself out through music. I'm interested in finding out not only how people construct their national identities musically, but also how music is a sort of battleground for people fighting to express themselves and their national identities in a country where the Kazakh identity is supposed to come first. Pretty cool, right? :)

So there you have it -- my dissertation topic.
I'll go ahead and describe those photos for ya now, too:

01/17 - Western and Kazakh instruments hanging together in a workshop at the National Conservatory in Almaty. The Kazakh instruments are called "dombra" -- it's a two-stringed plucked lute that is one of the Kazakh "national instruments."

01/06 - A housing development in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains. This is where the wealthy residents of Almaty live -- above the smog and the noise of the city, in houses that are huge and fabulous by local (and even American) standards. Most Almaty residents live in apartments, which are growing more and more expensive all the time.

01/05 - A billboard in Almaty that shows a Kazakh musical instrument and reads, "Honor the heritage of your people." I love this billboard because it is so blatant in its Kazakh nationalism, plus it draws on a Kazakh musical symbol to make its point. But its also problematic: honor the heritage of whose people? Just Kazakhs?

1 comment:

Marie said...

Thank you so very much for explaining the pictures. I haven't visited in over a week, but I'm here and so thrilled to know way more about your life there and all that the country of Kazahkstan has to offer. Thank you so much!