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 begot this (semi-)regular feature on the blog: Kyrgyz pop music videos and brief explanations of the songs, artists, and any prominent cultural symbols.
Up this time: Asel Kasmakunova’s “Kara Jorgo.”
You’ve lost cell service in your marshrutka heading through the mountains? You’re buying groceries at a big market in Bishkek? You’re buying groceries at the bazaar in Jalal-Abad? You’re rushing to teach a class but get dragged into an impromptu (but oddly choreographed) concert? Chances are, Asel Kasmakunova’s Kara Jorgo is playing. It’s unbelievably catchy, even if you don’t understand the Kyrgyz — the lyrics call for guys and girls to get up and dance, because “if there were no Kara Jorgo, this party wouldn’t be fun.”
Asel Kasmakunova’s version of the song is mad famous in Kyrgyzstan, and its rise in popularity has corresponded with a revival of the traditional Kara Jorgo dance. Kara Jorgo, Kyrgyz for “black stallion,” reflects Kyrgyz nomadic culture — the moves recall whipping a stallion and a hunter looking for prey. Kyrgyz ethnographers say the dance was born somewhere between the 11th and 12th centuries, and that the dance gained importance after 1916 when thousands of Kyrgyz families fled to China. Check out this clip of a Kyrgyz man dancing Kara Jorgo in 1924, the earliest known footage of the dance:
Kyrgyzstan is so proud of Kara Jorgo that it submitted the dance to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. There’s a bit of controversy, though, about whether the song and dance are entirely Kyrgyz. Neighboring Kazakhstan also makes a claim on Kara Jorgo (though in Kazakh, it’s Kara Jarga), while Kyrgyz and Kazakh communities living in western China say the dance is really theirs.
Why does anyone have to fight over whose Kara Jorgo is the real Kara Jorgo, though? To translate Kubanychbek Esenbaev’s Kyrgyz comments to Azattyk News, “Our [Kyrgyz] Kara Jorgo has a mountain character to it, the Kazakh peoples’ has the character of the steppe.” And indeed, when you watch the video above of Chinese Kazakhs dancing Kara Jarga, you’ll notice that their movements are more swoopy (a very technical dancing term) and fluid than the sharp arms of Asel Kasmakunova and her dancing partner. Each nationality has its own twist on the Kara Jorgo, and even Kyrgyz communities living in different countries have adapted the dance over time. (I will say, the Kazakhs have a wider range of specialty Kara Jorga videos on Youtube: “Construction Workers Dance Kara Jarga,” a parody of Gangnam Style, and one sung half in Kazakh and half in Italian – watch all of them or you’re missing out on life.)
Cultural commentators believe that the resurgence is just the beginning of a trend in Kyrgyzstan, and that the prominence of Kara Jorgo has created good conditions for other folk dances to grow in popularity: the warrior dance and the lion dance, to name a few. Until thousands of people gather on Ala-Too square to dance the warrior dance, though, I’ll keep on dancing Black Stallion.
Did I go slightly crazy listening to Kara Jorgo on loop for several hours while writing this post? Not even close, because it’s just a Friday in Kyrgyzstan. I love this song so much, not only because I had the chance to dance Kara Jorgo on stage last year at the Bishkek Philarmonia with my training village crew, but because there’s just something about the moment when Asel yells out “Eeeeeeeeeeei” that makes me want to spin around and laugh until I cry.