Kyrgyz traditional music is mostly played on a three-stringed, guitar-like instrument called a komuz. The instrument, usually made of apricot or juniper wood, is strummed rhythmically and is either played alone or used as accompaniment to singing or the narration of an akyn.
Akyns had a repertoire of lyrics which they adapted as the occasion required; they were hired for weddings, anniversaries and other festivities to bestow a blessing with their witty elegant verse. A special group of akyns were Manaschi, the narrators of the Manas epic.
An instrument that is often used in conjunction with the komuz is the temir komuz, a mouth harp that produces an evocative metallic drone. The temir komuz ('iron komuz') - or ooz komuz ('mouth' komuz') - is usually played by women.
Another typical Kyrgyz instrument is the kyl kyyak, a two-string fiddle made from apricot wood. The bow is made from horsehair and the strings are not pressed to the fingerboard but touched delicately to produce a muted tone. Both the komuz and the kyl kyyak are pictured on the reverse of the Kyrgyzstan lsom banknote.
Various flutes and drums are also occasionally used in traditional music, especially in larger ensembles. The sybyzgy is a side-blown flute and the surnai is a reed instrument closely related to the shenai of the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, which is a little like a rudimentary clarinet. The kerney is a brass instrument, occasionally made out of goat's horns, that is a distant relative of the trumpet. Percussion instruments tend to be associated with the shamanistic practices of bakshis rather than story telling akyns. The dobulba is a frame drum played with the hands, while the asa-tayak is a baton-shaped piece of wood that has bells attached to it.
Kyrgyz traditional music can be divided into two basic categories: kyy, which is purely instrumental music and yr, vocal music. The playing of instrumental music sometimes features Jimi Hendrix-style trickery that includes playing the instrument over the shoulder or between the knees. Komuz players in particular often demonstrate a degree of dexterity and instrumental virtuosity that is at odds with the rudimentary nature of the instrument itself. Rarely having a sound-hole, the komuz is perhaps a little too quiet to do itself justice in most circumstances unless amplification is used.
The vocal tradition, yr, which covers poetry and story-telling as well as singing, is performed by singer-composers (akyns) who have the skill of being able to compose fairly spontaneously on any given topic, rather like calypso singers of the Caribbean region. Most akyns have a solid repertoire of well-known songs (as well as a supply of stories, folk tales and extracts from the Manas epic) but are able to extemporise as circumstances dictate.
The songs, poems and stories performed by itinerant bards (akyns) are central to Kyrgyz culture. The Kyrgyz word, yr, encompasses all these styles. Yr carried an ethical, philosophical and moral message, giving guidance, hope and courage in the lace of constant war, upheaval and inlet tribal strife. Some akyns became famous, such as Toktogul, Togolok Moldo and Bokonbaeva, whose names grace Bishkek streets today.
Vocal performances in the Kyrgyz folk tradition are often characterised by the ability of the performer to hold a note for impressively long intervals. As elsewhere, unrequited love is a common theme; one much-loved standard is Alymkan, a ballad of the traditional repertoire that speaks of love for a village beauty who was married off to a village chief in the singer's absence.
Early travellers to the region were astonished at the eloquence of the Kyrgyz, their capacity to improvise songs and the fluency of the language. The 19th-century Russian anthropologist, Radlov, wrote 'one cannot but admire how the Kyrgyz people master their language... He expresses his thoughts exactly and understandably, making his speech somewhat graceful... That is why folk poetry of the Kyrgyz has reached such a high level'. Even today language is highly respected and great value placed on being articulate and circumspect in one's use of language.