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...!