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....

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