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!