With my work situation a bit precarious at the moment, I am spending a lot of time building up my хоббилер, hobbies. Yoga’s fun, and I’ve been reading a lot, but with my time in Kyrgyzstan finite, it’s important to me to develop skills here that I won’t be able to work on as easily back home. That’s where the komuz comes in.
The komuz is one of Kyrgyzstan’s national symbols, a wooden instrument with three strings and no frets. (Be careful though… the temir komuz/iron komuz, another traditional instrument is not, in fact, just an iron komuz, but is a totally different shape/sound/structure and is played with the mouth.) The strings, called kyl in Kyrgyz, are traditionally made from sheep guts; today’s komuzes use fishing line, which I appreciate. The body is made from a single piece of wood, usually from an apricot or walnut tree.
There are all kinds of beautiful legends about how the komuz was brought to Kyrgyzstan, all passed down through the oral tradition from generation to generation. The most popular origin tale of the komuz revolves around a hunter named Kambar:
Kambar would wander through the forests, hunting and enjoying the beauty of Kyrgyz nature; one day, while walking home from his hunt, he heard a strange melody ringing out through the trees. He looked and looked, but couldn’t find the source. Determined to figure out what that beautiful sound was, he climbed a tree, and only when he got to the very top did he see strings hanging across the branches. When he looked closer, he saw they weren’t strings, but actually intestines. The only reasonable explanation Kambar could come up with for how the intestines had been strung there was that a monkey had been playing in the treetops, lost its balance, and impaled itself on a branch. The intestines, which were all tangled in the branches, eventually dried so they made noise when the wind blew through them. Inspired by the noise, Kambar went on to make his own instrument in a similar fashion and taught his children and grandchildren how to make their own komuzes.
(I’ve never seen a monkey in Kyrgyzstan, but who knows what type of wildlife hung out in Kyrgyz forests thousands of years ago.)
The komuz has come a long way since then, evolving from a scrappy folk instrument played within a yurt to a national symbol proudly echoing through concert halls and massive stadiums. I had an intense whole-body reaction to the thousand-komuz orchestra that performed in the opening ceremony of the World Nomad Games:
But my heart also warms at the sound of a single komuz player when it comes on the radio in long-distance taxis:
After three weeks of lessons and forcing myself to practice for 30 minutes a day, I sound nothing like that; it kills me a little to play badly, but getting a string of notes right or finally being able to tune the thing on my own makes me so happy.
There’s something so nostalgic about the sound of the komuz, and I can’t help but feel like I’m experiencing “A Moment” when stopping for a heard of horses on a dirt road that hugs the world’s second biggest alpine lake. Chingiz Aitmatov, Kyrgyzstan’s most famous author, also recognized the beauty of the komuz and its power over one’s sense of time and place:
“Over the radio came a tune I knew, played on the komuz. It was a Kirghiz song which always made me think of a lonely horseman riding through the twilit steppe. He has a long journey before him, the steppe is vast, he can think at leisure and softly sing a song, sing on what is in his heart. A man has many things to think over when he is alone, when the only sound in the stillness about him is the rhythmic sound of his horse’s hoofs. The strings of the komuz rang gently, like water rippling over smooth, clean stones. The komuz sang of the sun setting behind the hills, of the cool blueness sweeping stealthily over the ground, and of the wormwood and yellow feather grass stirring and swaying, shedding their pollen on the sun-baked road. The steppe would listen to the rider and sing with him.”