Aga Khan Music Initiative
Tengir-Too is a new ensemble that plays old music. The group takes its name from the mountain range that towers over the high alpine passes linking Kyrgyzstan and China and that is better known by its Chinese name, Tien Shan: “Celestial Mountains.” Founded and directed by Nurlanbek Nyshanov, a gifted composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist, Tengir-Too (Too is pronounced like “toe”) provides a living laboratory for Nyshanov’s efforts to find a voice for Kyrgyz music in the contemporary cultural marketplace.
Kyrgyz music is rooted in the sensibility of nomads who inhabit a spectacular landscape of mountains, lakes, and pristine grasslands where the elemental energies of wind, water, and echo, the ubiquity of birds and animals, and the legendary feats of heroes have inspired a remarkable art and technology of sound-making. During the Soviet era, however, much of this music was lost or adapted to European musical ideals. Orchestras of reconstructed folk instruments replaced solo performers, and the introduction of music notation undermined orality, with its deep-rooted tradition of transmission from master to disciple. Soviet cultural policy decreed that among the diverse peoples of the USSR, art should be “national in form, socialist in content,” and local music was adapted to conform to Socialist themes. In Central Asia, religious and spiritual song lyrics were replaced by texts that glorified Soviet economic achievements and reflected official and popular optimism about the country’s future. Nostalgia for that optimism is reflected in the continuing popularity of songs from the 1930s, several of which are included on this recording (“Gül” [Flower], track 11; “Esimde” [I Remember], track 14; “Sagynam” [I Miss You], track 16. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, musicians throughout Central Asia began to find their way back to older traditions.
The best of them strove not simply to reproduce tradition, but to innovate within it. Nurlanbek Nyshanov exemplifies such traditionalist innovators. His life in music was shaped both by his childhood in Naryn, a mountainous region in northern Kyrgyzstan, and by his experience as a student in the music education system created in Central Asia during the Soviet era. A graduate of Kyrgyzstan’s State Institute of Arts (now the National Conservatory), Nyshanov draws on his compositional skills to craft for small ensembles striking arrangements of repertories typically performed by solo players and singers. Unlike Soviet-era folk orchestras and consorts, however, Tengir-Too performs on traditional Kyrgyz instruments and works within the boundaries of conventional Kyrgyz musical forms, textures, and genres. At the heart of these genres is the music known in Kyrgyz, a Turkic language, as küü (pronounced like the first two letters in “cute”). An analogous tradition in Kazakh music is called kui.
Küü refers generically to music composed for a particular instrument - komuz (three-stringed lute), kyl kiyak (twostringed bowl fiddle), temir komuz (metal jew’s harp), and others - as well as to individual pieces within this repertory. Until the Soviet era, when folklorists began to notate traditional music, küüs were transmitted orally from one generation of performers to the next. But unlike the anonymous creators of much oral-tradition music, composers of küüs dating back to the early 19th century are known by name and are widely venerated by Kyrgyz music-lovers. As the present recording makes clear, küüs are still being composed, arranged, and rearranged. Featured here are new küüs such as Nurak Abdrakhmanov’s “Attila Khan” (track 8) as well as old chestnuts that have become genres in their own right - for example, “Kambarkan” (track 17), which honors the legendary inventor of the komuz and has sprouted myriad variants identified with particular composer-performers.
Whatever their subject, küüs rely on instrumental means to represent or tell a story about it - “program music,” in Western terms. Performers of küüs often use gesture as a means of reinforcing the music’s narrative dimension, and in some cases they provide a verbal synopsis of a küü’s plot before performing it. Some küüs display a virtuosic performance technique, while others depict complex emotions or inner states through subtle expressive means. Indeed, the literal meaning of küü is “mood,” “state,” or “temperament.” Bakyt Chytyrbaev, one of the performers on this recording, has interpreted küü to refer more broadly to “an inner energy” or to “the inner state of any phenomenon, especially, a living organism.” Küü is also the root of the word for “tuning” (küülöö), suggesting the power of different musical tunings to affect the human soul and psyche.
In addition to instrumental music, Tengir-Too’s repertory includes another great Kyrgyz performance tradition: the lyrical songs of the akyn, or singersongwriter. Like the best singer-songwriters of our own time, akyns have traditionally been not only musicians but poets, entertainers, and philosophers. The ability to improvise lyrics was highly prized, and oral poetry contests (aitysh) were a central part of traditional Kyrgyz life. Rooted
in diatonic major and minor scales and performed in an extroverted bel canto style, the singing of the akyns is a tradition much appreciated by contemporary Kyrgyz music-lovers.
Nurlanbek Nyshanov and Ensemble Tengir Too
I want to uncover the whole timbral palette of Kyrgyz traditional instruments,” said Nurlanbek Nyshanov, founder and director of Ensemble Tengir-Too. “So many nuances, so many colors! The best way to hear and ‘see’ them is when they come together in an ensemble, where they can reveal themselves more completely.” Nyshanov’s ensemble is an unconventional one that fuses aspects of nomadic culture with European compositional techniques. His work displays a solid command of musical form while mixing genres and experimenting with the timbral colors of traditional Kyrgyz instruments, several of which he revived and reintroduced into musical practice. In “Ak Satkyn and Kulmyrza” (track 9), for example, Nyshanov transforms a wellknown folk epic, traditionally performed by a solo bard, into a piece for male and female vocal, two komuzes, two choors, a sybyzgy, and a kyl kiyak. The CD’s opening track, appropriately titled “Jangylyk”(Novelty), features a wooden jew’s harp and two metal jew’s harps playing threevoice polyphony rooted in the formal conventions of European counterpoint. In “Kyz oigotoor,” (A Melody That Wakes Up a Girl, track 18), Nyshanov supplements the traditional solo komuz with two choors, a chopo choor, a kyl kiyak, and a second komuz.
Tengir-Too’s role in the contemporary musical world of Kyrgyzstan must be understood in the context of the nation’s recent history. Nomadic cultures in Inner Asia share a propensity for solo performance, yet as the Kyrgyz came under the sphere of Russian cultural and political influence at the beginning of the 20th century, European musical forms and instruments took root. Later came orchestras and consorts of Kyrgyz folk instruments, their tuning systems retooled to reflect European intervals and scales. The repertory of these groups included European classics, transcriptions of folk music, and newly composed pieces for folk orchestra. Such collectives are still popular.
Nurlanbek Nyshanov and Tengir-Too broke away from these Eurocentric models - but their success was neither immediate nor easy. As Nyshanov explained, the obstacles were to a considerable degree in his own conservatory training. His breakthrough came when he understood that, rather than rely on the academic conventions of ensemble music, he had to let his music “speak” in its own language - the language he had learned as a child growing up in the mountains of Naryn, where the earliest musical sounds were those of his grandmother playing the jew’s harp. Nyshanov’s achievement has been to transmit the vibrant rhythms of nomadism and the serene atmosphere of the Kyrgyz mountains in a musical language that is as contemporary as it is ancient.
Composer: Nurlanbek Nyshanov (b. 1966)
Performers: Nurlanbek Nyshanov, Gulbara Baigashkaeva, Asylbek Nasirdinov, metal jew’s harp (temir komuz) and wooden jew’s harp (jygach ooz komuz)
“‘Jangylyk’ is an experimental piece for jew’s harp trio,” says Nurlanbek Nyshanov about his new composition. “The players try to extract all possible overtones from their instruments - overtones that aren’t typically used in jew’s harp music. Moreover, jew’s harps have traditionally been solo instruments, whereas we perform as a small consort. In composing ‘Jangylyk,’ I drew on my conservatory training in counterpoint: there are canons and melodic motifs in contrary motion. We learned the piece from musical notation and play it from a score, even though it has the feeling of an improvised jam session. The jew’s harp is truly a global instrument and provides a wonderful timbral resource for composers.”
Erke kyz (The Spoiled Girl)
Performers: Tengir-Too, komuz, kyl kiyak, choor, chopo choor, sybyzgy
Tengir-Too transforms this instrumental tune (küü), traditionally played as a solo on the komuz, into a seamless unison melody with continually shifting textures. The sonority produced by plucked and bowed string instruments with flutes calls to mind another great tradition of unison instrumental music: Irish dance tunes.
Küidüm chok (I Burn, I Smoulder like Charcoal)
Composer: Atai Ogombaev (1900-1949)
Text: Atai Ogombaev
Performer: Zainidin Imanaliev, vocal, komuz
In this autobiographical song, Atai Ogombaev, a famous Kyrgyz bard, recounts his youthful romance with the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. To prevent the girl from marrying a poor musician, her family secretly gave her in marriage to a boy from a distant settlement. Atai composed this song after a fruitless two-year search for his beloved. The performer, Zainidin Imanaliev, exemplifies the qualities of a traditional akyn, who is at once master instrumentalist, singer, poet, and entertainer.
I burn, I smoulder like charcoal
I think I’m burning, but there is no smoke.
On the upper part of my heart
There is no spot that is whole.
In the high mountain pass Kan-Jailoo
A cold breeze blows when snow falls.
My dark-eyed one in the wide collar,
I burn; if you know the price of my love,
Like a blossoming white poplar
You walk, showing off a white dress.
I have no choice; I cannot be with you
I wander around like a lost young camel.
Like a blossoming silvery poplar
You walk coquettishly in a silvery scarf.
Unable to find a way to be with you,
I am left suffering like a weeping young camel.
Episode from the MANAS:
Kökötöidün Ashy (Kökötöi’s Memorial Feast)
Performers: Rysbek Jumabaev, recitation; Tengir-Too, musical accompaniment
Manas is the central hero of the sprawling Kyrgyz epic that bears his name. In myriad versions of as many as 500,000 lines, the poem narrates Manas’s life story, recounting his legendary birth to aged parents and his early military feats, when he liberated the Kyrgyz from the yoke of their principal foe, the Kalmyks (Mongols). The poem continues with his marriage to the warlike Kanykei, describes how he united the Kyrgyz clans, and ends with his death after a great raid against the Chinese.
The origins of the Manas epic have been the subject of much speculation. In 1995, Kyrgyzstan celebrated “1000 Years of Manas,” although whether any parts of the epic are that old cannot be confirmed. What is certain, however, is that the Manas is rooted in a centuries-old oral tradition of folktales, legends, and myths, and that its episodes and subplots have been compiled and retold over an extended period of time by generations of performers, called manaschi.
The Manas is traditionally performed without musical accompaniment. Manaschis alternate between a rapid declamatory style for narrating factual information and a strongly rhythmic recitative for depicting dialogue and direct quotation. Dramatic gestures and facial expressions are integral to the performance: manaschis use all means at their disposal to hold the attention of an audience.
The present performance, in which musical accompaniment embellishes storytelling,
represents an innovation on tradition. It began when Nurlanbek Nyshanov saw manaschi
Rysbek Jumabaev on a Kyrgyz television station and invited him to collaborate in an
experimental performance, in which Ensemble Tengir-Too created atmospheric music
around Jumabaev’s recitation. The present piece, composed and arranged by Nyshanov, emerged from this collaboration.
Memorial celebrations for dead heroes, featuring horse races, games, and feasting, were important not only in Inner Asian nomadic culture but in Western antiquity - for example, the funeral feast for Patroklos, described in book 23 of the Iliad. At the memorial for Kökötöi, invited guests included not only the dead hero’s friends but his foes - here the Kalmyks and the Chinese. “Kökötöi’s Memorial Feast” originally belonged to a separate epic that over time became part of the Manas. The plot changed accordingly, with the towering figure of Manas overshadowing the original hero, Bokmurun (literally, “Snot-Nose”).
Since Kökötöi-khan, the father of the nation, died recently,
And his poor soul saw the place from which nobody returns,
His son Bokmurun
Has been carelessly eager to throw a memorial feast.
On Karkyra steppe
He settled by the banks of the Ürkünchü,
And by the banks of the Üch-Kapkak.
He did not invite Khan Manas from Talas;
He did not listen to Koshoi-khan’s advice.
Bokmurun gave young Aidar
Maniker, his father’s horse,
And sent him to the four corners of the world,
Carrying an invitation to Kökötöi’s memorial feast.
The campsite was beautifully decorated.
Guests came from Orchong, Kokand, Margelan.
From Kokand came Kozubek;
From Margelan, Malabek;
From the Six Cities came Alybek,
And twelve khans came along.
At the same time,
The Khan of Kakanchy
Elected a delegate, who was carrying his flag
And wearing a cotton waist sash and wide boots.
He was Kongurbai, Khan of Kechil,
Of proud looks indeed.
Neskara, Khan of Manju, came.
From the Kalmyks, Joloi-khan.
From the Solon tribe came Oiokyr.
And at the same time,
The steppe of Karkyra
Was filled with multitudes of Chinese and Kalmyks,
Who almost overwhelmed the Kyrgyz at the feast.
So Koshoi-khan said in despair:
“Truly, the Kyrgyz people will never live in peace
without Manas!“ bolboit dep.
Dispatched young Aidar hastily
Upon the deceased‘s horse, Maniker,
To the tamarisk-rich region of Talas,
To fetch the beloved Mana
Back at the feast Neskara raged
And said to Bokmurun, son of Kökötöi:
“Hey, you Burut!*
Do as I say, you Burut.
I will not beat around the bush.
I will not take your offering of meat.
I am from Bakburchun.
Kökötöi’s horse Maniker is
A humble yet exquisite thoroughbred;
An ethereal steed,
Worthy of warriors to ride.
It is an animal worthy of Beijing.
Oh, this cunning world,
I have a grudge against you! Sende öchüm bar, düinö
This very Maniker is able to carry me Ushul turgan Maniker
To the true khan of Beijing.” Beejindin kara kanyna meni alyp ketchü
As Neskara spoke, Dep oshentip turganda
The strength left Bokmurun’s hands, Kökötöidün Bokmurun bileginen sap ketip
And fear seized his heart. Jürögünön kap ketip
In the sky Allah’s sun hid behind the clouds; Asmandan allanyn künü bürköldü
And to Kökötöi’s son Kökötöidün Bokmurun balaga
Sixty worries came at once. Oshondo altymysh müshkül bir keldi.
Bokmurun was in such despair, Bokmurun mintip turganda
When Koshoi-khan the wise, Kasiettüü kan Koshoi
His soul gripped by desperation, Oshol kezde jan achuu
Honked like a gosling. Bala kazdai barkyldap
His gray beard was shining,
And this gifted warrrior
Let no one know,
Let no one notice,
That he had sent young Aidar,
Whom you already know,
To beloved Manas
In tamarisk-rich Talas.
At that very moment,
On the banks of Ürkünchü,
And on the banks of Üch-Kapkak,
The steppe of Karkyra
Was filled by a multitude of Chinese,
Who nearly overwhelmed the Kyrgyz
At the memorial feast.
And then, oh dear,
From out of nowhere
As the dawn cracked
And the glittering stars dimmed,
Manas arrived with an army of horsemen and followers.
He pushed forward
Like a race horse ready to run,
Like fog at dusk.
His advisor Bakai-khan was by his side;
His wife Kanykei was next to him;
Forty choros** surrounded him,
Among them Almambet, Chubak,
And the young Syrgak.
On the steppe of Karkyra,
Manas the Hero, as you have seen,
Arrived in high spirits.
And when he arrived,
The Kalmyks sulked,
And the Kyrgyz rejoiced.
Composer-performer: Nurlanbek Nyshanov, wooden jew’s harp (jygach ooz komuz)
This piece is an example of the dedicatory genre (arnoo) popular among Kyrgyz poetimprovisers (akyns), who composed poems in honor of patrons. In the spirit of the akyns, Nurlanbek Nyshanov dedicated his composition to the sound engineer and producer who recorded him.
Kara özgöi (Impudent One)
Composer: Niyazaaly Boroshev (1856-1942)
Performer: Ruslan Jumabaev, komuz
“Kara özgöi,” an obligatory part of any komuz player’s repertory, is well known throughout Kyrgyzstan, but the relation between its name and melodic character has never been clearly explained. The great composer and instrumentalist Karamoldo (1883-1960) said that he performed “Kara özgöi” to describe the realities of his time, which were often difficult and complex. Komuz player Ruslan Jumabaev (b. 1973), one of the leading instrumentalists of his generation, grew up in a musical family in Naryn, and began playing komuz at the age of six. He is a graduate of Bishkek Conservatory, and has a baccalaureate degree in law.
Kyiylyp turam (I’m Sad to Say Goodbye)
Composer: Kanymgül Dosmanbetova (1935-1978)
Text: Omor Sultanov (b. 1935)
Performers: Tengir-Too; Kenjegül Kubatova, vocal solo
A nostalgic song from the early 1960s, when many Kyrgyz moved from rural mountain regions to the city. The text as well as the high-decibel vocal style recall the alpine pastoral life left behind. “This style comes from the mountains,” Nurlanbek Nyshanov emphasizes, “and it’s thought to be very old. Singers sang at huge weddings - without microphones, of course - and the stronger the voice, the better.” Kenjegül Kubatova learned the song from the recordings of Mysqal Ömürkanova, a famous singer from Naryn, who died in the 1970s.
Driving a herd of horses at dawn,
I slowly rode my horse along the shallow gully.
The cool air of the jailoo [summer pasturage]
Met me with a tender and discreet hug.
The native aroma of flowers
And their beauty intoxicate me.
Cholok-Tör and Ashuu-Tör [names of pasturages],
I dearly longed for you.
Picking your iridescent flowers,
I fixed them on my collar.
If you sing, share with me
The song’s echo reflected from cliffs.
During our childhood in the mountains,
I played chikit [a Kyrgyz children’s game].
When we argued ten times a day,
We made up ten times.
We played catch,
Competing with foals.
Those days of mine
Grow more and more distant.
I’m sad to say goodbye
To my dear childhood.
Life tries to steal from me
My insatiable youth.
Composer: Nurak Abdrakhmanov (b. 1947)
Performer: Nurak Abdrakhmanov, komuz
“I dedicate this küü to the honor of the great Attila Khan,” says Nurak Abdrakhmanov. “The melody represents a spiritual connection to those times. The Turks are one people, and the Mongols and Huns were our ancestors.” Attila the Hun (d. 453), who earned the sobriquet “Scourge of God” for his contribution to the fall of the Roman Empire, is viewed more respectfully in the East. Nurak’s tribute expresses the reverence he feels for the Huns, called Xiong-nu in ancient Chinese sources, as founders of Inner Asia’s first nomadic empire and progenitors of the later Turkic and Mongol steppe empires. Nurak’s küüs are known for their meditative cast and deep philosophical content. Alongside his activities as a composer, instrumentalist, and singer, Nurak is renowned as a komuz maker.
Ak Satkyn menen Kulmyrza
(Ak Satkyn and Kulmyrza)
Text: Traditional, arranged by Barpy Alykulov (1884-1949)
Performers: Tengir-Too; Kenjegül Kubatova and Toktobek Asanaliev, vocal duet
A dastan, or short epic, whose tragic text was sung rather than recited. A comparison to the murder ballads of America’s southern Appalachians would not be out of place. Nurlanbek Nyshanov first heard the melody from a country performer whom he saw on television as a child. Much later, as an aspiring urban-based folklorist, he came across the same melody again and taught it to the other members of Tengir-Too. The text reflects the editorial hand of Barpy, who created his own variant from what, according to Nurlanbek, would have originally been a much longer poem. “A lot of young people are trying to revive these dastans,” says Nurlanbek. “They set them to melodies that they find among older singers or on recordings, or sometimes make up their own.”
Under me is a blanket from rough silk, my friend.*
Under my head is an embroidered pillow.
I lay on my side.
In my head were deep thoughts.
Having made a path from one side, you followed it across,
Slashed the side of the yurt, and thrust in your hand.
Having made a path from another side, you followed it across,
Slashed the front of the yurt, and thrust in your hand.
* “My friend” [dosum] repeats at the end of each line
I said, “Stop, stop”; but you didn’t stop.
You crawled into my bed.
I pleaded with you but you didn’t obey.
You crawled next to me.
Not only did you not leave, you didn’t listen to me.
After midnight you fell asleep.
I slept uneasily; there were strange dreams.
I awoke from nightmares.
You didn’t take your hand away from my neck;
You didn’t get out of my bed.
Someone bent down and looked through the hole [of the yurt].
Two people came in through the door.
You were thrown toward the entrance.
You fell to the ground, breaking your neck.
A double-whip hit your croup;
A double-dagger plunged into your liver.
Your innards are strung out on the ground.
Your face turned pale, you’re dying.
Six people came together.
Your dear life was put to an end.
My brothers talked among themselves.
They gave advice to people around,
And buried the body in an ash heap.
That’s how my grief was buried.
From your clan they came to search for you.
From your village’s upper land
They looked for you, but couldn’t find you.
I did not like your deeds, my friend.
Today your father brought in several horse-riders,
And asked about his dear one:
Who killed, and who died,
Who buried the dead body in the ash heap.
Now I’ll tell your people;
Let it be clear to all.
Today let the people know about your death.
Let the wind know that blows from above.
Let the people know today about your demise.
Let the wind know that blows from afar.
Your gray horse with a white spot on the forehead,
Let the grey horse be returned to [your] people.
Those who came to search for their dear one,
Let them dig up that ash heap.
If they open it, they will find your body;
The flower-bed will be refreshed.
I’m testing my strength;
Let me fix the levy for your death:
Sixty herd animals with big horns and a hundred gold coins
And a beautiful young girl.
I am at their disposal.
Let’s agree on this, my friend:
Let my father suffer, paying the compensation;
Let your father be joyous taking the compensation.
Kulmyrza died, very good indeed;
And he became a couple with Ak Satkyn.
Ak Satkyn killed herself with the white dagger’s thrust:
People saw the power of love.
Fantasy on the chopo choor (ocarina)
Composer-performer: Nurlanbek Nyshanov
In Kyrgyzstan, the ocarina has traditionally been considered a children’s instrument, but adults - both women and men - also play it. According to Nurlanbek Nyshanov, it was used as a signaling instrument by horsemen riding at night in the thick forests of southern Kyrgyzstan. Nurlanbek considers that his “Fantasy” preserves the basic features of music for chopo choor: short phrases, variation, repetition, and melodic fluidity. “The melody sounds traditional,” he says, “but I thought it up.”
Music and text: Atai Ogombaev
Performer: Zainidin Imanaliev
Atai Ogombaev was a well-known singer and komuz player from Talas, in western Kyrgyzstan. In this song from the early 1930s, he expresses the optimism of those times. Zainidin Imanaliev imitates the style of Atai’s singing, which often employed falsetto, and emphasized sweetness more than power. The nightingale is a central image of Sufi-inspired poetry, and its spiritual symbolism resonates in Atai’s verse.
The hollyhock that appears in the spring
Grows like a flame day after day.
When the nightingale sings in the spring,
The flower is still more beautiful.
The time comes for the flower to bloom,
Spring is the time of flowers.
You blossom like spring flowers.
Spring is truly the time of the young.
The nightingales cling to the flowers;
They turned heads to exchange glances.
The nightingale is like a dew on the flower.
Truly we’re worthy of this [happy] life.
If a nightingale sings at dawn,
It’s like the aroma of a fine flower.
Our spirits rise, and we open up
In this new time.
Jol jürüsh (On the Road)
Composer-arranger: Nurlanbek Nyshanov
Nurlanbek Nyshanov expanded and arranged two traditional melodic motifs into this short composition. “We always play it from notation,” he says, “and it remains fixed in its present form. The first two motifs are old; the rest is new.” The major scales, symmetrical phrases, and lively tempos call to mind folk music from parts of Europe. Is this resemblance a vestige of ancient contact between Inner Asian nomads and proto-Europeans? History does not provide a sure answer, but songs and tunes rooted in diatonic major and minor scales are common not only in Kyrgyz music but among the historically nomadic Kazakhs and Khakas.
Composer: Ybrai Tumanov (1888-1967)
Performer: Namazbek Uraliev, komuz
Ybrai Tumanov composed “Kengesh” in the 1920s, at the dawn of the Soviet era, and dedicated it to the newly established Soviet government. According to Kyrgyz folklorist Raziya Syrdybaeva, the jaunty character of the küü illustrates the “people’s happiness about the new changes, and the hope of a better future.” Komuz player Namazbek Uraliev is not a regular member of the ensemble Tengir-Too, but with Nurlanbek Nyshanov, he teaches young musicians in the master-apprentice (Kyrgyz: ustat-shakirt) program established by the Aga Khan Music Initiative. He is also an outstanding luthier whose komuzes are much in demand in Kyrgyzstan.
Esimde (I Remember)
Composer: Atai Ogombaev
Text: Jusup Turusbekov (1910-1943)
Performers: Tengir-Too, Toktobek Asanaliev, vocal solo
Atai composed “I Remember” in the 1930s, after coming to Bishkek to work in the Philharmonia Society, the government cultural organization that managed and booked performing artists. According to Nurlanbek Nyshanov, Atai was illiterate when he arrived in Bishkek, and Philharmonia officials sent him to adult education school. “He was a terrible student,” Nurlanbek recounts. “He couldn’t learn either to read or write. Once a teacher brought a Kyrgyz newspaper and read the text of this song. The author, Jusup Turusbekov, was then a young poet who had just started to write like a Russian or a European. When Atai heard the text, he liked it, and asked the teacher to give him the newspaper. That’s when he learned to read. He memorized the poem, and composed a melody based on it. But the more literate he became, the less he created. Reading and writing didn’t help him. They sent Atai to the Moscow Conservatory, and when he returned, he never did anything more in music.”
When summer reached its peak
On the hilly mountain,
She chose one of the many flowers and picked it.
I remember that tranquil girl.
We agreed to entrust our fate to one another;
We agreed to pick the flowers of this life together.
I remember the days when we talked about this,
As the meaning of life grew deeper.
Recall your vow and make a choice;
My passion for you did not cool.
Let modern, merry youth
Have a life-partner like you.
Ker özön (Wide Valley)
Composer: Murataaly Küröngkeev (1860-1949)
Performer: Baktybek Chytyrbaev, kyl kiyak
The wide valley represented in this piece is said to be that of the Chui River, in northern Kyrgyzstan. Although performed on the kyl kiyak, a bowl fiddle with two horsehair strings, “Ker özön” evokes the sound of the surnai, a loud oboe associated with military music, according to performer Baktybek (Bakyt) Chytyrbaev. “No one plays the surnai now in Kyrgyzstan,” says Bakyt, “but there are recordings of it.”
Bakyt grew up in the countryside of mountainous Naryn Region and began his musical studies at age seven. These studies, however, focused on European music. “I was 19 or 20 when I started to play kyl kiyak,” he recounts, “and when I started playing, there was only one person in Kyrgyzstan who was playing the kiyak, and he had only one instrument. I searched inside the music to try to find its essence. I have students now; kids come to me to listen and learn.” When not playing the kyl kiyak, Bakyt works as a computer system administrator. He is also a serious practitioner of tai chi.
Sagynam (I Miss You)
Composer and text: Musa Baetov (1902-1949)
Performers: Tengir-Too, Kenjegül Kubatova, vocal solo
“The text of this song is nothing special,” says Nurlanbek Nishanov, “but the melody is beautiful. There’s love, melancholy, and nostalgia.”
Thinking of you, I miss you;
Remembering you, I realize your value.
One day will I extinguish
The flame that burns in my heart.
On the next day I left on horseback for a long trip.
If only my golden one came here!
Is she living in good health in her village,
She who is beloved and spoiled by the akyn?
I say this as if singing
With passion boiling inside me.
Where is she now,
The girl with eyes gleaming like a mountain ram?
Composer: Karamoldo Orozov (1883-1960)
Performer: Nurak Abdrakhmanov, komuz
Throughout Central Asia, legends portray Kambarkan, also known as Kambar-ata, as the father of music, inventor of musical instruments, and patron of musicians. Among Kyrgyz musicians, he is regarded as the creator of the komuz. Nurak recounts the creation legend as follows: “Kambarkan was a hunter, and once when he went to the forest, a monkey fell as he jumped from one tree to another. The monkey’s stomach became impaled on a sharp twig and burst open, and his intestine got stretched out between a high tree branch and the ground. When it dried, a wind came up, and the intestine emitted a magical sound. Kambarkan realized that the sound was coming from the monkey’s intestine, and he got the idea of using that intestine to make an instrument. He took a piece of wood, curved it, and fixed the intestine tightly over it. That’s how he invented the komuz.” No evidence suggests that monkeys ever lived in what is now Kyrgyzstan, but terra-cotta statues of monkeymusicians dating back almost two thousand years have been unearthed in various parts of Central Asia. A variant of the legend recounted by Nurak was also known in India, where it turns up in 14th-century literary sources, underscoring historical links between Central Asia and the Subcontinent.
There are many variants of “Kambarkan” in the repertory of komuz players, but all exhibit a deep philosophical and meditative character and are played in a specific tuning with the strings set at the interval of a fifth (bosh tolgoo). “Instrumental music starts where the expressive power of words ends,” Nurak explains. “Words have a limit: they can describe thoughts up to a point: after that, there are other feelings that we can express only with music. Music is more important than verbal traditions, and instrumental music is the highest expression of the Kyrgyz soul.”
Kyz oigotoor (A Melody That Wakes Up a Girl)
Composer: Attributed to Asanaaly Oshur uulu
Arranger: Nurlanbek Nyshanov
For a finale, Tengir-Too performs its arrangement of this rousing komuz piece from one of the principal genres of the küü repertory: shynggyrama, from shynggyra, “to jingle softly.” The genre is characterized by a lively tempo and playful, refined melodies.
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