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....