Music has played a dominant role in Kazakhs' lives for centuries. During the golden era of the Kazakh nation and its nomadic culture in the 16th Century, a person was literally accompanied from the cradle to the grave by music. Every life event had its own special customs, accompanied by songs and instrumental pieces (kyu). A young girl had absolutely no moral claim on marriage if she could not add a self-composed song to the dowry. A young man could only declare his love for a girl in the form of a song. Complex musical compositions were played during wedding parties. A person's death brought about a new song as well. And if an ageing man could not discover a gifted songwriter among his acquaintances, he would compose the mourning lament himself and leave it behind for the occasion.
Music played a hugely important role for the nomadic Kazakhs. With no written literary tradition, the work of poets, who would customarily accompany their renditions with music provided by a two-stringed guitar, the dombra, was an important means of the transmission of historical and cultural information.
Music and poetry are the very thought of the Kazakh nation. Through them religious and cosmic allegories could be expressed, and knowledge of nature, man and historic events could be passed on. In centuries past, music and song were vitally important because they compensated for the overall absence of a written language. This led to the formation of a remarkable unity between singers, called akyn, and the people who listened avidly to their music. By improvisation and in dialogue with his audience, the akyn created both a work of art and a testimony to his life and times. The audience decided in a democratic manner whether or not the piece of art was to survive: it was accepted or else sank into oblivion.
The most skilled singers or bards are called akyns. Undoubtedly the most famous and important form of Kazakh traditional art is the aitys, a duel between two dombra players who challenge each other in poetic lyrics. Akyns were improvising poets/musicians whose talent was best demonstrated at the aitys contest, like a kind of musical debate, in which akyns gave alternating performances, responding to each other through the medium of improvised verses, accompanied by the music of the dombra. This particular Kazakh form of art reached its apogee by the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, society had become engaged in many arguments, were expressed in a poetical and musical form of debate. You might catch one of these during Nauryz or other holidays such as 9 May (Victory Day) or 16 December (Independence Day), as well as on TV. The national bard Abay Kunanbaev (1845-1904) invented Kazakh written literature and still stands head and shoulders above all others in the literary pantheon.
The zhirau was a reciter of epic stories, and often held a key political position as a close adviser of the khan. The later zhirshy was also a performer of epic works, a task which required a prodigious memory in addition to sound musical skills: the text of the epic Batyr Koblandy ran to around 6,500 lines. An individual short piece of music is a kui, an instrumentalist a kuishy.
Representatives of different genres took turns during the aytis in rivalling one another zhyrau (poets and performers of epic verse), zbyrshy (storytellers of great epics), akyn, seri and saly (improvising poets) and kyuishi (composers and instrumental virtuosos) all competed. Music and speech always formed an inseparable unity in the process (the kyuishi presented their kyui with an explanation of their content prior to their performance). This form of aytis dwindled during the second half of the 20th Century and has only been rejuvenated in the last decade (winners now receive valuable prizes). It is also interesting to observe how the Kazakh art of musical improvisation links up with a similar form of art from the other side of the globe: jazz. Kazakh ethno-jazz is a burgeoning form that is well worth checking out if you are a jazz lover.
Music featured in all important life events of the Kazakhs: declarations of love were for example customarily made in song. The akyn was a key figure in ceremonies such as weddings, whose musical moments included the wedding song zhar-zhar, performed between the friends of the bride and groom.
Apart from the dombra, important traditional Kazakh instruments include the kobyz (a two-stringed primitive fiddle), whose sound is said to have brought Chinggis Khan to tears, played with a bow, whose origins are associated with the possibly legendary figure of Korkut Ata, and an instrument closely associated with shamanism, as its sounds were considered to offer protection against death and to be able to drive out evil spirits. Because of these associations, the kobyz was an instrument discouraged by the Soviet authorities, though it has now returned to prominence. The sybyzgy is a long flute (two reed or wood flutes strapped together like abbreviated pan pipes); the slian kobyz, known elsewhere as a Jew's harp, is a metallic reed instrument placed between the teeth, the mouth serving as a natural resonator. The zhetigen is an instrument with seven strings strung across sheeps' vertebrae. A particularly sad story attaches to its origins - it is said that an old man created each string of horse hair to mark the death during a particularly long and fierce winter of each of his seven children; by the end of the winter all were dead, and the zhetigen was complete. There is also a huge range of percussion instruments. The syrnai is an ocarina, or clay whistle. The luyuktas is like the props used by radio sound engineers to make the sound of horse's hooves, except that in the case of the tuyuktas this is done by banging two real horse's hooves together.
Visitors to Kazakhstan are often astounded by how many songs - with so many stanzas - their host knows, and is willing to perform at the drop of a hat. Many Kazakh men and women can accompany themselves on a musical instrument. This is usually a dombra. Listen to an experienced dombra player drawing lofty and passionate tones and rhythmic patterns from his instrument and the association with the vast steppe and the clip-clop of horses' hooves is obvious. In general, Kazakhstan's natural world is an extremely rich source of musical inspiration. One of the earliest and most important collectors and explorers of Kazakh popular music. Alexandr Viktoryevich Zatayevich, called the Kazakh steppe a "sea of music".
The music is largely folk tunes, handed down like the area's oral literature through the generations; short on pounding excitement, it captures the rhythms of nomadic life on the steppe. A good place to catch traditional Kazakh concerts is Almaty's State Philharmonia. Keep an eye open for the Sazgen Sazy and Otrar Sazy folk orchestras, whose members wear colourful traditional garb to go with their music. Urker, Roksonaki and Ulytau are groups that provide an interesting crossover between indigenous sounds and imported rhythms like rock, pop and jazz.
The compositions of a range of Kazakh musicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries, among them Kurmangazy, Zhambyl Zhabaev and the songs of writer Abai Kunanbaev, remain widely known today. In the Soviet period, musical ensembles were created using traditional instruments but were modelled on Western orchestras. Some of the instruments were modernised too, such that the strings of the dombra are now typically made of nylon rather than the traditional gut. The creation in 1980 of the Otrar Sazy ensemble by Nurgisa Tlendiev was in part a reaction against what many Kazakhs viewed as the excessive Europeanisal ion of Kazakh music, by focusing on traditional techniques.
The arrival of the Russians brought Western classical music to Kazakhstan, and there have been many notable Kazakhstani classical musicians. Most of the best known internationally have however moved outside Kazakhstan. These include violinist Marat Bisengaliev (www.maratbisengaliev.com), who is based in the United Kingdom. He participated in the inaugural performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2006 of Tlep, a composition by the Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, based around the life of Kazakh kobyz player Tlep Aspantaiuly, an ancestor of businessman Sapar Iskakov, who commissioned the piece. The composition used traditional Kazakh instruments alongside more familiar ones. Also currently based in Britain are soprano Elena Kelessidi, born in Kazakhstan of ethnic Greek parentage, who made her debut at the Royal Opera House in 1996 as Violetta in La Traviata, and the Kazakhstan-born sisters of piano trio the Bekova Trio (www.bekovatrio.com).
Middle-of-the-road popular music of the kind known throughout the former Soviet Union as estrada attracted large audiences in Kazakhstan from the 1960s: noted Kazakh singers in this genre included Rosa Baglanova and Rosa Rimbaeva, the latter still belting out her numbers to middle-aged audiences across the country. As regards the contemporary popular music scene the most famous Kazakhstani band internationally is now based in Moscow, and is regarded by many as more a Russian band than a Kazakhstani one. A'Studio (www.astudio.ru) started out as the backing group for Rosa Rimbaeva in the early 1980s, before setting up in 1987 as Almata, then Almata Studio. They were talent spotted by Russian singer Alisa Pugacheva, and dropped the link to Almaty in their name. Now fronted by the young Georgian vocalist Katy Topuria, their dance music even saw them graze the UK charts in 2006, with the single 'SOS'.
Several bands offer interesting attempts to fuse Kazakh traditional music with rock or pop. Ulytau (www.ulytau.ru) describe themselves as 'Kazakh ethno rock', and combine dombra, violin and electric guitar in exuberant instrumental offerings - well worth checking out. Urker (www.urker.kz; their website features an English-language version) are a pop group established in 1993, fusing Kazakh styles and instruments with Western ones. Dombra player Asylbek Ensepov brings tin- instrument into new contexts, as with his rendition of the theme from Pulp Fiction.
Foreign tastes prevail in popular music too, with Western-style or Russian pop, electronica and rock being many people's preferred listening. However, Kazakh traditional music is equally popular as Kazakhs reconnect with their roots.
If at all possible you should try to experience the richness of the Kazakh musical sound at a concert, but if this is not possible make a visit to the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments in Almaty, which offers a modest overview and a chance to hear the instruments.
The moment we were seated four musicians came onto the stage, each dressed in high boots, and cloaks identically decorated in the Kazakh style of ogee shapes and curlicues. It was incongruous that, traditionally dressed, they should be playing electric instruments; while, in front of the stage, a shock-headed young man was fiddling with the knobs and switches controlling a large synthesiser-cum-amplifier. This was not a primitive community, for all that it was so very far from the sophistications of city life. An announcer entered behind the musicians, with a trailer microphone, and began addressing the audience with the same brash noise that touts make all over the Western world, when hailing customers off the streets. And then, one by one, the girls appeared.
They were, without exception, very beautiful. Two of them were breathtaking, raven-haired, with delicate features and complexions in which the blood ran warm beneath the honeyed skin. Little of this was visible, for each girl was dressed in a kaftan which exposed nothing below the throat or above the wrist. Each had a little embroidered cap on her head, and everyone's hair was tied in a long pigtail. One by one they appeared to float onstage, announced themselves and where they came from, then floated off again: all, that is, except the two loveliest, who also had a superior grasp of strategy. They added a sentence or two which might have been verse or possibly a party slogan; at any rate, it went down well each time and earned more applause than anyone else had received.
The musicians then began to play, and in turn each girl reappeared and danced for us. I had seen and heard something similar many times south of the Hindu Kush, especially in the country just below the North-West Frontier. This was plangent music that wavered as it rose and fell, and the movements it provoked were tinged with melancholy. The long-sleeved arms flowed, the fingers fluttered delicately, heads tilted demurely, eyes were downcast obediently. It was very oriental, sweetly chaste, and exceedingly well done for the most part.
"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse