Wednesday, April 23, 2008

All in the Name of International Friendship...

Last week a girl who works in the international section of the Conservatory asked if I'd like to be included in a program that will be shown on the "Kazakhstan" network for the May 1st holiday -- International Friendship Day. Back in the day, May 1st was a day to celebrate workers' rights, and following the post-Soviet convention, the day was retained as a holiday but for a totally different reason. Nowadays, the holiday is supposed to celebrate the brotherhood of all the 120 some-odd national groups who live in Kazakhstan. It of course comes with a fair share of inflated overtures to harmony between peoples and how great Kazakhstan is for having such peaceful inter-ethnic relations.

Anyway, I said I'd do it -- even though I get freaked out when I have to perform, I didn't want to miss the opportunity (not just to be on TV, but also to see what goes into making a program like this). So this morning I showed up at the Assembly of Nations building, where each of the various diaspora groups of Kazakhstan share offices. These offices are supposed to organize cultural activities and events in support of the national groups they represent, although their actual effectiveness is questionable. So why was I invited? Apparently, they wanted a foreign "guest" who played a Kazakh instrument to (I guess) extend the concept of fraternal relations between peoples - not only across "nations" (read ethnic groups), but also across nation-states. I've gotten kind of used to this kind of tokenism by now, in fact it's kind of fun to see how my presence somehow affects what these programs are trying to accomplish.

I got there around 10:30am, and found the lady with whom I had briefly spoken the previous day about the where's and when's. She looked at me and asked "where's your dress?" I replied that I didn't have one - and anyway, she hadn't told me to bring one! Well, she said I couldn't wear what I had on (my best pair of pants and a nice sweater, mind you!). I was afraid I might be sent home. Fortunately, though, she happened to have another outfit that another performer was supposed to wear - she decided that I could wear this until the other performer needed it. Then shoes became an issue - the suit was white and my shoes were black - but there was nothing to be done at that point, so she consulted with the cameraman and got him to promise that he wouldn't include my feet in the shot. My make-up was apparently a third issue, which she and another girl later corrected (i.e., eyeliner. lots of eyeliner.). I tried to excuse my oversight by saying that Americans are just much more casual in general - but honestly, this was the third time I'd been on Kazakh TV and my clothes and make-up had never been an issue before!

Anyway. Long story short, I was at the taping ALL DAY. There were about ten different groups they had to tape (twice), as well as all the introductions by the program host. Everyone was asked to sit at one of five tables set up around the big circular room as the other participants did their performances. Around noon, they set these tables with food and drink - but for a long time we couldn't figure out if we were supposed to eat lunch or just leave the food there for decoration! I just sat and stared at it until other people
started picking at it about half an hour later.

While the program certainly didn't include all of the national groups of Kazakhstan, there were Ukrainian, Tatar, Chechen, Greek, and of course Kazakh representatives there. Each group sang or played a song. And finally, after watching them for five hours it was my turn!
I sat in front of the camera and the host asked if I would say a greeting in Kazakh. She told me exactly what to say, and I repeated it into the camera. Check. Then I played one piece - the folk kyui "Munlik-Zarlik." Luckily they did two takes because I really messed up the first one! Oh by the way, the hat was also loaned to me by the girl in the gold dress in this photo. The other girl (in white) is the host of the show.

This last photo was of the other performer for whom the white dress was actually intended (on the right)...she was a vocalist who sang a song in flowery celebration of Kazakhstan. All the "peoples" were supposed to hold hands and sway side-to-side behind her. It's hard to say whether people really enjoy this kind of cheesy stuff, but there sure is a whole lot of it - but being that this is the former Soviet Union, it's just kind of expected.

So, that was my adventure in Kazakhstani broadcasting for today! I hope to get a copy of the program soon, if anyone's interested. Of course, if you happen to be in Almaty on May 1st, it will be shown on the Kazakhstan channel at 10:30am!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ah, spring! oh wait, nevermind....

Just a quick post to highlight the capricious nature of springtime weather in Almaty:

This photo was taken two days ago, with the sun shining and tulips blooming -- sure signs of spring, right?

Ok, this one was taken today, after an unexpected morning snow shower - the temperature was easily below freezing all day (brr, guess I'll be getting the winter coat back out...). Argh, this happened last time I was here - just when you think winter's been over for a month, it comes back and bites ya. And wouldn't you know it, the heating in my apartment building was shut off two weeks ago!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Meeting with a master

Yesterday was kind of an adventure - I went to see a "master" maker of kyl-kobyz, Tolegen-agha*, who was referred to me by an instructor at the Conservatory as "the best." Many of the most accomplished kobyz performers in Kazakshtan use his instruments, including my teacher Raushan and my friend Akerke.

However, finding this guy was a bit of a challenge - he lives in a little collection of houses located in the mountains right outside Almaty. The place is called "Sheber Aul" (Village of Masters), because when it was founded it used to be home to many different artists and craftspeople. Now it's kind of fallen into disarray, although some people still continue their work. I took a bus to a distant micro-region of Almaty, and then was instructed to catch another bus to Sheber Aul. But after waiting and looking around for this bus for about half an hour and asking several people who had never heard of Sheber Aul, I was about to give up. I called Tolegen-agha and told him that maybe I could try again the next day, but he said "No, no, I'll pick you up!" He drove down the mountain, met me at the bus stop, and we headed to Sheber Aul.

We sat and talked in his apartment for over an hour - his mother was there too, pouring tea for us and occasionally adding comments to Tolegen's answers to my questions. Unfortunately, he didn't want me to record him talking, and he wouldn't allow any pictures taken of him - so I just took a few photos of his work. He didn't have any finished instruments on hand, but he showed me five kobyz-in-progress that he had finished carving, made of either pine (lighter color) or elm (darker, and apparently the best wood for this purpose). They have to dry for several months, during which time, he said, some of them develop cracks -- these would end up as "souvenirs," he said, but couldn't be professional instruments due to the flaw in the wood. Of course, the souvenirs bring in significantly less income than the professional instruments. Out of the five he showed me, only two of them were in good enough shape to become "professional" -- imagine putting in all that work, only to find after out much later that all your effort will only bring in a fraction of what you were hoping for! (Come to think of it, actually, I guess the same could be said for grad school. Hmm....)

Tolegen-agha is very into the spiritual aspects of kobyz making. He said that soon after he starting trying to make instruments, he had a dream in which his ancestors showed him how to do it properly, and he complained about modern man's separation from nature. In his opinion, the kobyz the the most "ecological" of Kazakh instruments because it's the only one that's still made out of all natural materials - a hollowed-out block of wood, horse hair, leather, and sometimes metal pieces for decoration. He also complained about lack of government support for artists such as himself, which is really too bad because even though everyone seems to agree that he's extremely talented, he only sells an average of five instruments per year (they are apparently at the top of the price range for kyl-kobyz due to their high quality), which doesn't amount to much more than a living wage.

After our long chat, Tolegen-agha kindly drove me to the bus stop at Sheber Aul (the bus I wasn't able to find earlier was fortunately waiting at the entrance to the village). On the bus ride down the mountain, I saw lots of cherry trees in full bloom and a beautiful mist over the hilltops where the snow still hasn't melted. Hard to believe that a place like this sits just a fifteen minute drive outside the smoggy, car-choked streets of central Almaty...!

* agha - means "uncle" or "older brother" but is used among Kazakh-speakers to show respect

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Time flies....

Wow, two weeks flies by fast when you're trying to get your fieldwork done in record time...!

A lot has been going on, so I'll try to just sum up a few of them here:

1. I went with a friend to the State Republican Uyghur Theater of Musical Comedy (love the names of these places, don't you?) to see a show in celebration of Nauryz. The show started with a song by a Kazakh folk singer, which I thought could be interpreted either as a sign of "international friendship" or as symbolic of Kazakh cultural predominance ("okay, do your show, but only after we do our song."). The show was great - I love Uyghur music - although it was tough to take photos in the dark theater (sorry if this one's blurry). There was a man sitting right behind us who was really excited that a couple of non-Uyghurs (and foreigners, no less!) were attending the show - he provided a running commentary and pointed out the director of the Theater to me. He also recruited us to give a sound-bite for several local Uyghur community news programs and newspapers! So after the show, my friend and I basically got passed around to all these journalists who asked us to "say something." What do you say??? I just made some blithe statement about how it's important for Uyghur traditions to continue and how important the theater was in this regard, blah blah blah....I never saw myself on the news, but when I went back to talk to the theater director the next week, he definitely remembered me. Score!

2. I've started giving English lessons to a very prominent figure in the music industry here - the owner of one of Kazakhstan's biggest music labels and distributors. Another score! Well, maybe not yet, but I'm hoping that it will yield some good contacts further down the road. For now, I'm learning a lot about business and anti-piracy efforts in Kazakhstan (and getting paid for it!).

3. I've been doing an average of two interviews per week for the past three weeks -- so far I've spoken to three kobyz players, one pop star, one musicologist, and one student ensemble that's doing some really interesting new music. I should be happy with this, but the pressure is seriously on at this point to talk to ask many people as possible in a fairly short amount of time!
Another musicologist that I spoke to asked me to translate a couple of articles for her, and I'm still struggling over whether or not I should do this - on one hand, it's good to give back and I would like to establish a good rapport with her; but on the other hand, it's A LOT of work that I really don't have time for (plus, she should really find a PAID professional to do this kind of thing).

4. The Olympic torch came through town on April 2 - Almaty was the first stop on the torch tour after being lit in Athens, Greece. The city officials basically went apeshit in trying to spruce things up for the arrival of the torch -- and the throngs of Chinese journalists. A lot of things suddenly appeared, like lane and crosswalk lines on the main roads (but only those roads that were part of the torch route!), country and city flags on the lamp posts, old bus stops mysteriously being dismantled and replaced with snazzy new ones... I couldn't resist checking it out, so I hung out at a main intersection where lots of other people were waiting, and got to see the torch passed from one runner (actually walker) to another. It was so fun that I walked to another point on the torch route and got to see it passed again. :) People got really excited when the torch passed by - even though a large portion of the crowd were students at the state universities who were REQUIRED to be there! Anyway, there was a nice ceremony and concert in the Old Square where the "ethno-pop" band Ulytau performed (they're one of the groups I'd really like to talk to for my research).

5. Lots of concerts this week, mainly due to the 3rd annual "Nauryz 21" festival of new music at the Conservatory. Last night a chamber orchestra from Uzbekistan performed the original soundtrack to Charlie Chaplin's film "City Lights." The film was shown on a big screen behind the orchestra - it was great! Everyone, not only the foreigners, really enjoyed it. (Chaplin's pretty well-known here because many of the older generation watched his films during Soviet times.)

6. One small last thing: My refrigerator's been breaking down about three times per day/night for the past week, and I finally asked my landlady to replace it - they're supposed to be delivering the new one today, hurray!