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!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Dom sweet dom


Here are a couple snapshots of my new place -- very comfortable and in a good location. It's in a semi-old apartment building (dom) but a few things, namely the bathroom and kitchen, have been recently remodeled.
I've been keeping fairly busy this week, between moving into the new digs and meeting with old and new Almaty acquaintances. I'm also working on a bunch of school-related projects, one being the long-neglected first chapter of my dissertation. It's coming along...should be done with that in a week or so if I keep at it! Also, I'm trying to put together a proposal for a course on Central Asian music that I might be able to teach at UCLA next year. They have this nice program that lets advanced grad students teach their own course, which is great for an aspiring professor's resume! The tentative title of the course is "Sounds of the 'Stans." I assume the people in charge will find this funny and not obnoxious. Anyone out there have any suggestions for my reading list? :)

I also went to see one of my old Kazakh teachers today, Kunduz-apai. "Apai" is the Kazakh word for "older sister" or "auntie" but it is commonly used with any older woman as a sign of respect. My American friend Anna is studying Kazakh for four months with Kunduz-apai, and I was invited to attend their first class. So, I tried to resurrect my rusty knowledge of Kazakh, and within fifteen minutes I was chatting pretty freely although probably just at a five-year-old's level.
Ugh, languages. The bane of my existence in Kazakhstan. I feel like I get by pretty well in Russian - not always, but usually - but since I am studying so much about Kazakh music, I sometimes feel like I should be conducting more of my research in Kazakh. It's a tough situation because language (like most other things) is fairly highly politicized here - the language you choose to speak automatically says something about you, especially if you're Kazakh. A Kazakh who speaks Russian but doesn't know Kazakh is considered sort of a traitor to his/her ethnic identity. Conversely, a Russian who speaks both Russian and Kazakh is considered really great, except that this type of person is almost completely hypothetical (ie, Russians generally don't want to learn Kazakh and don't feel that they should). Very few people expect me - a white girl who can pass for Russian - to speak Kazakh anyway, since the general assumption is that only Kazakhs (Asian-looking) do this. Of course, they love it when I do speak Kazakh, but I often feel like its value to most Kazakhs is simply as a novelty.

So, this week I hope to get back in touch with a few people that I interviewed during my last stay in Almaty -- a couple of professional kobyz performers, one musicologist, and one local pop star. I'd like to start kobyz lessons sometime soon, too.
I also found out after arriving here that a couple of key people aren't in town - one has moved to London for two years! - which sucks, but what can you do? Just gotta keep going and not be too afraid to get in people's faces a bit....

Friday, February 1, 2008

What a difference two years makes

So, inflation in this city has gotten pretty crazy. I experienced it repeatedly yesterday -- my first day back -- from apartments, to a taxi ride, to a samsa (triangle-shaped meat/cheese pastry) from a street kiosk. Even this session at an internet cafe is costing me more than it did two years ago.
Are any of you all experiencing similar things in other countries? I know the dollar's getting weaker and all, but geez! My time here is almost certainly not going to fit into my original budget. Hm, i guess i'll have to curtail how often I frequent my favorite chi-chi coffee shop....

But in other, more engouraging news - I have an apartment! I went to see it last night, and basically just took it on sight. By the way, this is the same place that my American friend rented from her former host sister (I mentioned it in an earlier post). My new landlady basically just handed me the keys on the spot, so I'll be moving in later today. Hurray! I really can't believe how lucky I've been thus far.

Last random bit, on my way to the Promenade mall this morning to check email, I passed my the state circus and saw that they were selling rides on various animals -- ponies, horses (yawn)... and camels!!! They are furry, huge -- like seven feet tall? -- and with two humps that are perfect for fitting a human in between. I watched a little kid ride around on this hulking beast -- he was loving it. they let grown-up kids ride the camels too???