Play Me a Song, Mr. Komuz Man

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.)

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Orozali Tolipov, a Batken-based komuz-maker. Taken from Turmush.kg, Dec 2014

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.”

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Taken from limon.kg, via Kyrgyz Fotoarkhiv

Sing the Songs of the Land You’re in 4: Kyrgyz Language Day Edition

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.

I love this feature and the chance to share Kyrgyz-language music, and it’s even more special this time because on September 23, Kyrgyzstan celebrated Kyrgyz Language Day. The day honors the national language of Kyrgyzstan; Russian is technically the country’s “official” language, which is useful as a lingua franca here given the impressive ethnic and linguistic diversity, but many Kyrgyzstanis are passionate about preserving the language and its cultural heritage. My friend and fellow PCV Mark wrote a pretty comprehensive history of Kyrgyz, its language family, and its role in politics and society in Kyrgyzstan — check it out here.

Since Kyrgyzstan became independent 25 years ago, there have been all kinds of efforts to promote the language. Some, like Kyrgyz Language Day are organized by the government and have the stamp of state approval. This song, the “Anthem of the National Language,” written by Seiit Altymyshov in 2006 for a national competition, sings the praises of the motherland and Kyrgyz people’s mother tongue. “Kyrgyz language is my heart, the flag that father Manas carried. Kyrgyz language is my homeland, Kyrgyzstan is my country!”

Though the music is certainly majestic and the strength of the songwriter’s patriotism is clear, the lyrics aren’t very subtle and songs like this might not be the most effective way to inspire young people to rally behind Kyrgyz language. That’s where pop culture comes in.

Begish and Bayastan, two Kyrgyz rappers, collaborated on this song, called “Mother Tongue.”

As the video shows a Kyrgyz secondary school classroom and kids smiling as they study the language, the chorus assures the listener that Kyrgyz can be everyone‘s language, a message reinforced by non-ethnic Kyrgyz people lipsynching in the video:

This is my song, my mom’s too

The listeners’ and yours

It’s the song of the woman who taught our Kyrgyz classes

These words are my motherland’s

These words are my mother’s

They’re this life’s and yours

Those of the woman who taught you Kyrgyz,

These rich words are the Kyrgyz people’s

I get why songs like this are popular, given how many people are concerned about the degree to which Kyrgyz is spoken in the country. I often hear locals complain (more so in Cholpon-Ata than I ever heard in Jalal-Abad) that children can’t speak Kyrgyz, that people don’t care about the language.

Bektour Iskender, founder of independent media outlet Kloop and Kyrgyzstan’s first TED fellow, wrote an article asking how Kyrgyz could be made more popular. Iskender is careful to avoid taking the position that all people should know the government language; instead, he suggests that it’s better for people to decide themselves that they want to learn Kyrgyz for the sake of learning it. He suggests that the level of Kyrgyz language education should be improved, a point I agree with – Peace Corps volunteers focus a lot on foreign language methodology training for English teachers, but barely do any work with Russian or Kyrgyz language teachers, who could also stand to benefit from incorporating communicative methodologies into the classroom to better deal with mixed-level classrooms (cough native-speakers mixed with non-native ones, all expected to perform at the same level). Iskender continues to say that Kyrgyz language education should be more closely linked to English, a point I didn’t entirely understand and still don’t necessarily agree with, but his final point gets at the contrast in tone and content of “Anthem of the National Language” and “Mother Tongue.” He says that the development of Kyrgyz should come from below, not above, and that a pro-Kyrgyz language movement will be successful only if it comes from within the Kyrgyz-speaking community.

On Wednesday the 28th of September, a few days after the official Kyrgyz Language Day, my school put on a spektakl’ in honor of Kyrgyz language. Students of all ages performed in a play about Manas and his son Semetei, I recited some Manas and sang the National Anthem in Kyrgyz, teachers sang traditional songs, and there was a big dance. After the concert, the director (an ethnic Russian woman who doesn’t speak much Kyrgyz) praised the concert organizers and participants for 15 minutes straight – her enthusiasm for the concert and the students’ reaction to it was genuine, and I think she’s right that this sort of event is important to showing kids the richness of their own culture and language. I’m not sure what to make of the irony that a Russian-only-speaking administrator at a school where classes taught in Kyrgyz are shutting down because of low enrollment praised Kyrgyz Language Day celebrations in the language of a former colonial power (and I’m not sure I ever will know what to make of it), but for the moment, I was proud of being one of ~5 million people on earth to know Kyrgyz.

Kyrgyz may not my mother tongue, but while I’m living here, it’s certainly my language.

Sing the Songs of the Land You’re In 3

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:

Over the years, the dance was nearly lost, but in the past few years, a growing interest in traditional Kyrgyz culture has revived the Kara Jorgo. (Weird, it’s not like any other Kyrgyz cultural staples have been enjoying a comeback in recent years…) Whereas a decade ago, you’d never see anyone strutting their shoulders around like a black stallion at a wedding, the dance is everywhere now. Wedding parties are full of men and women dancing kara jorgo, and kids learn to shake their shoulders before they can even walk. I had way too much fun looking up videos of Kyrgyz babies dancing Kara Jorgo:

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.

Sing the Songs of the Land You’re In 2

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: Azamat Ismailov’s “Kelin Kelgenskii.”

Келин (kelin) is the Kyrgyz word for daughter-in-law, but it also conveys the broad set of responsibilities a young married woman has for her husband and his parents. Kelins in super traditional families are entirely responsible for cleaning, cooking, watching children, and pouring tea during meals. An article posted on limon.kg (Kyrgyz Buzzfeed, more or less) titled “32 Qualities that Every Ideal Kelin Should Possessdrew a lot of criticism for perpetuating the expectation that a kelin should be a paragon of servitude and obedience. Quality #8 prescribes that an ideal kelin “understands the ‘hierarchy’ in her home and among her husband’s relatives.” This hierarchy puts a kelin at the bottom of the totem pole; in fact, a kelin isn’t supposed to call her relatives by name but rather by “title,” mother-in-law, husband’s uncle, etc. Some consider the kelin culture and the hierarchy it perpetuates to fuel the practice of bride-kidnapping and domestic abuse, given that a woman with no married sons gains a lot of status (and is freed from many household responsibilities) when she gets a kelin of her own.

It’s easy to read articles like this and feel outrage at the patriarchy and at strict gender norms in this country, but as an outsider it’s actually really hard to pass judgment on kelin culture. I’ve only lived here a year, which isn’t enough to understand the complexities of the tradition and how it’s lived in different parts of the country. My experience with kelin culture is largely limited to my work at a university here. Students who were active participants of my class on Tuesday came back on Thursday wearing a ring and a jooluk (a white headscarf young woman wear once they’ve married); unfortunately, their new responsibilities at home often meant they had less time for homework and coming to class. If the limon.kg article is to be believed, this is because the ideal kelin is busy making sure her home is always clean and orderly, carefully folding up toshoks, cooking tasty beshbarmak, and speaking quietly and politely to her husband’s family.

But, if as this Global Voices article points out, the limon.kg article is satirical… what then can we make of modern people’s take on kelin culture and the heavy expectations Central Asian cultures put on young women? We can add to the cultural debate Azamat Ismailov’s song Kelin Kelgenskii, which follows a young kelin from her wedding, to her household chores, to having a babyAt first glance, the video glorifies her dutifulness: the young kelin is immediately at the scene, ready with a freshly-pressed suit, when her husband gets splashed with water; she smiles as she spoon-feeds her husband salads; her husband posts a selfie with his wife vacuuming in the background to Instagram (I can only imagine the caption…).

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Husband in charge? | Credit: Kelin Kelgenskii music video

A more critical watch that considers the song’s author (Azamat Ismailov is a talented comedian and performer on “Tamashow,” a Kyrgyz-language improve show) reveals that the song pokes fun at the institution and the idea that the ideal kelin “respects the family hierarchy.” The question of whether the music video is satirical is decided at the end, when 3 years of marriage have passed and the family has expanded from 2 to 3. We find out that the kelin actually has a name, Arina, when her husband calls out from the kitchen. The viewer might expect him to ask when dinner will be ready, given the trope that an ideal wife is always attentive to her husband’s needs and wishes… Instead, her husband (who doesn’t get a name in the video) sheepishly asks whether Arina and the baby are coming to drink tea and eat dinner anytime soon. Arina reminds her husband to prepare the food well and dismisses him back to the kitchen. How’s that for gender roles and hierarchy?

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LOL yeah right | Credit: Kelin Kelgenskii music video

In all of the families that I’ve been fortunate to live with in Kyrgyzstan, I’ve seen that kelin culture is way more nuanced than just “women are oppressed by traditional gender roles in Kyrgyzstan.” My host brothers in Jalal-Abad were responsible for doing the dishes and cleaning the house, and my host mom and dad in Cholpon-Ata seem to share responsibility for their shop and hotel businesses equally — these stories would be ignored by someone who takes the hardline position that kelin culture harms women and limits their opportunities. This isn’t to say that it’s easy to be a young married woman in Kyrgyzstan… just that songs like Kelin Kelgenskii, silly and satirical as it is, keep the debate real.

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Two of my students from JAGU, proudly showing off their new jooluks after getting married the week before

 

Traditional Rapping in Kyrgyzstan

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.

 

we are hip hop nation

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?

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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