Sing the Songs of the Land You’re In

My friend Val recently wrote an article about the music scene in Kazakhstan and how it relates to broader themes of language, colonialism, and pop culture in the country. It’s been difficult to boost Kazakh’s social capital against Russian; even 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian remains Kazakhstan’s primary professional, intellectual, and governmental language. The dominance of Russian language extends into pop culture, and Val says that it’s rare for Kazakh pop singers to make music in Kazakh – with this exception of this guy, Galumzhan Moldanazar, who Val says is “not just making good pop music,” but is also “helping move the Kazakh language away from presumptions about its cultural inferiority.”

This phenomenon, in which one two languages are characterized by “low” and “high” usage is called diglossia. While I have seen some manifestations of diglossia in Kyrgyzstan (in some areas more than others, and mostly in education), I haven’t seen the same total dominance of Russian language in Kyrgyz pop culture. Of course, Russian (and American) pop music is widely listened to in Kyrgyzstan, but its music industry is also booming.

There’s a Kyrgyz saying: Кимдин жерин жердесең, ошонун ырын ырдайсың, Kimdin jerin jerdeseng, oshonun yryn yrdaisyng. The literal translation is clunky, so I prefer this more poetic rendering: “Sing the songs of the land you’re in.”

Having lived outside the U.S. before, I was used to being out of touch with American Top 40 lists, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, it’s part of my job to be familiar with the local culture. “Sing the songs of the land you’re in,” right? At first, Kyrgyz pop seemed cheesy to me, but I’ve come to love the music that plays on marshrutkas and on TV, and I cheer with everyone at weddings when my favorite songs blast on the loudspeakers.

And so, what will (maybe) become a (semi-)regular feature on the blog: Kyrgyz pop music videos and brief explanations of the songs, artists, and any prominent cultural symbols.

First up: Mirbek Atabekov’s Molmolum.

Mөлмөл (molmol) is the Kyrgyz word for maple tree, and when written as мөлмөлүм (molmolum), it means “my maple tree.” My host mom in Jalal-Abad told me that this can be a pet name (эркелетип айткан сөз, erkeletip aitkan soz, a word that spoils someone) between lovers. But the reference to a tree follow complements the song’s ample nature imagery, with mentions of a red flower and drying grass in a field.

Atabekov adapted this song from one originally composed in the early 1900s by Barpy Alykulov. Alykulov, who was born and grew up not far from Jalal-Abad City, was an akyn, meaning he improved poem-chant-songs about love, Kyrgyzstan, patriotism, family, and war. The text of the original song is much longer than the lyrics of Atabekov’s version; a lot of the references to farm animals and poverty are removed, I think to keep the song lighter and more focused on ~love.~

By remixing one of the best known Kyrgyz songs and incorporating traditional images into the music video, Mirbek Atabekov exemplifies the respected status Kyrgyz language and cultural symbols enjoy in pop culture. The YouTube video is scattered with comments in both Kyrgyz and Russian thanking Atabekov (and the beautiful girl featured in the clip) for his hard work to make sure Kyrgyz people of today know about the history of Kyrgyz musical traditions. And I’ll thank him too, not only for the history lesson, but also for the fabulous tunes.

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