Sunday, June 29, 2008

That's all for now!

Well, I'm writing this from my new digs in LA -- that's right, the research is over (for the moment), and now I need to focus on getting some furniture for my bedroom and thinking about how I'm gonna write my dissertation! I was very fortunate to receive a dissertation write-up grant from UCLA, so that should help to speed my progress along. Also, in the spring I'll be teaching an undergraduate seminar at UCLA called "Sounds of the 'Stans" -- about music and national identity in Central Asia. Good for the resume, good for the wallet. :)

Anyway, at the point when I left Almaty (June 20), Kazakhstan was starting to gear up for a pretty large event - the 10th anniversary of the nation's capital officially moving from Almaty to Astana. I was told that at the end of July they'll be putting on tons of concerts in Astana, which of course I will very conveniently miss (argh). For a couple weeks before I left, the hype machine was already gearing up -- lots of TV commercials and billboards promoting the upcoming holiday, including a very simple one that features Nazarbayev writing a greeting to Astana; there are two versions of this ad, of course, one in Kazakh (Ak tilekpen, Astana!) and the other in Russian (S lyubovyu, Astana!).

Another interesting bit that I should just mention is the last evening I spent in Almaty with Akerke and her parents. Akerke was kind enough to drive me to the airport at 1 in the morning, so she picked up me and my luggage around 10pm and took me to her house, where we just hung out for a while and had a late dinner with her mom and dad (besparmok, of course! by which i mean the Kazakh "national" dish of large, flat noodles and boiled meat). It was so incredibly pleasant - we sat outside on their tapchan (raised outdoor platform used for summer eating and sleeping) and enjoyed the cool summer night air. I couldn't think of a better way to say goodbye to Kazakhstan (for now!).
Of course, that was before Akerke's dad left, at which point she and her mother started talking about their relatives and the relative's kids, and then of course came around to asking me - no, more like interrogating me - about my plans to have kids. They pressed upon me how absolutely crucial it was that I have a child before I turn 30. "You don't even need to be married," said Akerke, "you can just find a lover! That's okay too!" Whaaa??? Mind you, this is a typically conservative Kazakh family talking here -- which I guess simply attests to the incredible importance for Kazakh women to bear children by a certain age. O lord, maybe I got out of Kazakhstan just in time...I don't think I could handle much more of this marriage/kids pressure!

Anyway, on that note I think I'll close the blog (for now!) with a few more images of Almaty from the past five months. Enjoy! Thanks again to everyone who followed along with my travels and occasional late-night digressions, and a big thank you to everyone who left their comments! Be well, Sau Bol, Poka! :)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I thought I'd devote a post to a fairly huge, although very mysterious, figure who looms large in my research on the kyl-kobyz. His name is Korkyt-Ata ("Grandfather Korkyt") - he is said to have lived in the 8th or 9th century, and is supposedly buried near the Syr-Darya river near Kizil-Orda in southern Kazakhstan. This legendary figure is credited with being the the first shaman (baqsi) and the creator of the kyl-kobyz. His story is really fascinating, and it's retold to me by almost every kobyzist I talk to. When he appears in paintings or pictures, he is always an old, bearded man wearing a hat and playing the kobyz (that's him on the right).
I should mention, though, that Korkyt-Ata is not only a figure of Kazakh legend. He exists in many Turkic cultures, including Azeri and Turkmen -- making him into a pan-Turkic phenomenon, like a common ancestor.

Korkyt's name basically means "frightening one," because when he was born for some reason he didn't look like a human baby and all the onlookers ran away. Luckily, his mother showed them that he was perfectly normal and Korkyt grew up without incident. However, as a young man he saw a dream in which he learned that he would die at age 40. He decided that he would try to escape death by traversing the four corners of the world on his camel Zhelmaya, searching for the secret of eternal life. But wherever he went, he saw people digging graves; when he asked them who the graves were for, they always answered, "For Korkyt." Eventually, he gave up his search; understanding that his death was inevitable, the sacrificed his beloved camel and made an instrument by placing its skin and hair on a carved-out piece of wood - the first kyl-kobyz - and began to express his sorrow through music. He is said to have composed many pieces (kyui) that are still performed today, apparently passed down through the centuries by generations of Kazakh baqsi's.

As long as Korkyt was playing the kobyz, Death could not touch him. But the sad end of the tale is that after many days of playing, Korkyt fell asleep; Death came to him in the form of a snake, and with one deadly bite, finally claimed Korkyt. However, Korkyt had already fulfilled his life's quest - he achieved immortality through music.

It's such an interesting story, and it endows the kobyz with so many kinds of significance. The battle between life and death, and its role in Kazakh shamanic rituals, are constantly mentioned with reference to the kobyz in the scholarly literature here.
This is part of why I really like the kobyz - there's this mysterious, spiritual element to it that most other Kazakh instruments don't really have.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Just a little more about Astana, which is currently celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Kazakhstan's capital moving there from Almaty. Astana is basically the city being built from the ground up - the brainchild of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and growing at a jaw-dropping pace. At least, the buildings are appearing quickly -- so far, the people have not been so quick to follow. As a result, many of the unbelievably huge apartment buildings in the city (at least those on the far side of the Ishim river) stand virtually empty. I could liken it to being in Disney World after hours - all these fantastical buildings and interesting stuff to see...but with a weird, ghost-town kind of feeling to it.

Astana is also distinguished by some of the craziest architectural designs you'll likely see in Central Asia (possibly in the world). This monument here is called the Baiturek, symbolizing the "tree of life" that occasionally appears in Kazakh folklore. People can ride an elevator up to the golden globe at top of the tower. Inside you can see a miniature model of Astana (including future building projects) and a raised platform area where a large bronze rendering of Nazarbayev's handprint stands on a podium. You're supposed to put your hand in it and make a wish -- I'm not kidding about this! If you're getting a slight whiff of personality cult at this point, keep reading- it gets WAY better.

This is the gorgeous National Mosque, near the Baiturek and funded largely with Saudi Arabian money. There's a madrassa (Islamic school) attached to it, the only one I've ever seen although I know there are lots more in various places in Kazakhstan.

The last place I want to highlight has no pictures attached, because I wasn't allowed to take any! The former residence of President Nazarbayev has been turned into a sort of presidential museum where you can learn all about his early life, rise through the ranks of the Kazakhstan Communist Party, and notable accomplishments since his becoming president in 1991 (of course there a quite a few, according to the museum). Various rooms were devoted to his medals and honors from many different nations (for what? dunno.), honorary degress from various universities, and TONS of gifts from diplomatic visits as well as quite a few "from the people of Kazakhstan." But by far my favorite part was hearing about Nazarbayev's musical contributions: not only did he (supposedly) provide edited lyrics to the country's new national anthem (changed in 2005), but he also (supposedly) wrote lyrics for a popular song recently recorded by the Kazakh boy-band Muz-Art, "Ush Konir (Three Winds)." An entire display case was devoted to the anthem; meanwhile the music video for "Ush Konir" was played over and over on a beautiful, flat-screen HDTV hung on one of the museum's walls.

Ok, so getting back to the personality cult thing -- well, probably the less said the better (I don't really know who reads this blog) but I think that this last example speaks pretty loudly for itself.
Another Turkmenbashi in the making, perhaps? Hmm.

Incident in Astana

This past week, I took a short trip to the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, to see the Kurmangazy Competition of Folk Instruments. The competition is known to be the most prestigious in the country, and young performers from all over the country come to compete - however, most of the kids I saw seemed to come from Almaty and Astana. Honestly, I'd be surprised if anyone could afford to come from any further away. I took a 20-hour train ride Tuesday night (see photos left and below), and Wednesday morning checked into a hotel where, coincidentally, my friend Akerke and several other kids from the Almaty Conservatory were staying. What luck! So I got to talk (briefly) with a lot of the kids participating in the competition in the various categories: dombra, sherter (3-string dombra), kyl-kobyz, prima-kobyz (modernized version of kyl-kobyz), and accordion (referred to during the competition by its Kazakh nomenclature, sirnai).

I watched two days worth of competition, which turned out to be a lot smaller than I initially expected. The judges were professor at various music schools such as the Almaty Conservatory and the Astana Musical Academy. I only watched the kobyz competitors, since all the categories ran at the same time. Each participant played three pieces each day - some required, others that they could choose themselves.
After the first day, the judges very kindly invited me to have tea with them, since I had taken the trouble to come all the way there just to watch the competition. I tried to get in a few questions during the conversation, but in the end I had to agree with the head judge to talk to her later in Almaty.

By the end of the final day of competition, I had a pretty good idea of who I thought should get first place (of course Akerke, and one other guy). But a few hours later, everything got turned upside down, in a classic KZ-style corruption scandal. Apparently the Ministry of Culture - not the competition judges! - had the final say on who would receive which placement; and one of the kyl-kobyz competitors had famous and influential parents who pulled some strings to get their son second place.

Needless to say, Akerke was extremely upset about the results and we talked for a long time about how unfairly things had turned out. On top of the fact that she felt she'd played better than anyone, she couldn't understand why no one from her corner had tried to pull any strings on her behalf! She also felt that personal resentments from certain of the judges had influenced the results. So in the end this competition, which ostensibly exists to promote a high level of performance of Kazakh instruments, in reality it turned out to be just another empty gesture on the part of the Ministry of Culture - full of lofty words and seemingly honorable intentions, but really just another exercise in personal politics and political influence. What gives???

So, a bit of a disappointment - but as with all things disappointing, I'm trying to see this as a really vivid example of an important element of my research so far -- the continuing inter-relation of music and politics, and the continuing problem of corruption in even matters of musical performance and cultural promotion. Plus, Astana is still as zany as ever -- I think that deserves its own post, though!