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.