There’s graffiti on the walk between my house on the main road that says “We are Hip-Hop Nation.” I dismissed the dag as just silly English buzz words, not much different than the “I love you” graffiti that’s all over this country.
Watching TV with my host mom after dinner, though, I realized the phrase “Hip-Hop Nation” might actually be more appropriate for Kyrgyzstan than my initial judgment. We watched as a room of men and women, all dressed in traditional clothing, sat in a semi-circle while taking turns strumming a tune on the komuz and singing. My host mom explained that their songs are all improvised, like “Amerikanskiye repery,” American rappers.
These singers are actually акындар, akyns. An akyn is someone who masters the art of musical improvisation, an oral tradition that’s been around in Central Asia for more than a millennium. These improvisational poets often work in pairs in a sort of “good cop, bad cop” set-up to express public opinion and expose social vices. On the show I watched with my host mom, the room of akyns made jokes about a gold mining company’s controversial projects, drinking tea, daughters-in-law, and local elections.
It’s a miracle that these akyns were performing on public TV, let alone anywhere in Kyrgyzstan. Decades of Soviet policies and a certain degree of “cool factor” left the akyns’ artform in danger. Ethnomusicologist Elmira Kochumkulova contends that the Soviets took advantage of akyns’ popularity for propaganda purposes; even though akyns’ performances should have been improvised, the Soviets told the poets what they should say ahead of time to spread Soviet ideology and culture to remote, mountainous villages. Alagushev Balai, an akyn who has co-written a book on the tradition, described how “Akyns sang about Lenin and the revolution and the achievements of the party.”
The popularity of akyns dropped until at one point, there were only four akyns left in Kyrgyzstan. There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in traditional Kyrgyz folk arts, which has given new life to the community of akyns. A foundation for akyns opened several years ago, and the art of improvised poetry is taught in a special school for young akyns. Tuuganba Abdiyev, an akyn who now teaches at this school, commented, “We were forgotten artists, but our young people have rediscovered it and the music is moving in new directions again.”
It will be interesting to see whether the rise in popularity of akyns has any effect on other music in Kyrgyzstan. Rap is growing more popular in Kyrgyzstan, but the scene in Bishkek is predominantly Russian-speaking. A few rappers (like KA, whose video is embedded above) are dropping rhymes in the national language, and it will be interesting to see how these two forms of expression could continue to inform and influence each other.
Who’d have thought some random English-language graffiti in a Kyrgyz village could make such a statement about history, expression, and art?