Cultural development work in the Kyrgyz Republic focuses on music and music education as development instruments. Music and musicians have historically played a vital role in Central Asia, and nowhere moreso than in Kyrgyz culture, where music and oral poetry were traditionally transmitted orally from master (ustat) to student (shakirt). During the Soviet era, this transmission was ruptured, and transformed into Western-style music education rooted in the study of instruments such as piano, accordion, and balalaika. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, a vacuum in support for arts and culture was filled by an influx of Western pop. Recognising the importance of revitalising local musical traditions, His Highness the Aga Khan established the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI), which was launched in 2000.
The Music Initiative’s long-term partner, originally established by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, Bishkek-based Centre Ustatshakirt, operates throughout Kyrgyzstan’s seven regions in collaboration with educational institutions ranging from primary schools to universities. The centre’s flagship programme, Umtul, provides primary school students with an arts and culture component of their education through group instruction on the popular Kyrgyz stringed instrument komuz. Students also participate in theatre productions whose themes underscore the values of cultural pluralism, and learn to recite excerpts from the monumental epic Manas, widely viewed as the most treasured expression of Kyrgyz national heritage. Centre Ustatshakirt presently offers more than 200 Umtul classes that serve close to 6,000 students in 38 schools. A complementary programme, Muzchyrak, offers seminars and short courses for music teachers that develop skills for teaching and music making, and provide teachers with musical repertoire as well as instruments for children’s ensembles. Since Muzchyrak’s inception, some 2,000 musical instruments have been presented as gifts to teachers.
Ustatshakirt Centre also trains talented young performers in “cosmopolitan musicianship”. In addition to rigorous performance training on Kyrgyz instruments, students study music arranging and composition with the aim of adapting traditional Kyrgyz musical styles and genres to neotraditional and contemporary artistic languages and idioms. An ensemble comprising graduates of Ustatshakirt’s programmes plays an active role in events organised by the AKDN throughout Kyrgyzstan, and is also part of the artist roster of the Aga Khan Music Initiative, providing access to international performance venues.
A long-term initiative of Centre Ustatshakirt Centre is a programme for university students in music criticism and journalism whose aim is to promote competent arts writing and reporting in Kyrgyzstan’s print and broadcast media on the theory that democratic artistic practice must be fundamentally intertwined with robust arts criticism and journalism.