What happens when the traditionally solo nomadic music of the smallest of the Central Asian 'stans is revitalised and delivered by an ensemble using Western compositional techniques and arrangements?
Well, the purist might argue that the music is diluted, smoothed out or otherwise compromised beyond its original appeal. But for some of us, the introductory CD in a series of releases showcasing the music of Central Asia (Smithsonian Folkways' Music of Central Asia Volume 1) has brought first-time exposure to an earthy acoustic Asian folk music played and sung with an abundance of zest, humour and soul.
The ensemble Tengir-Too ('Too' is pronounced 'Toe') comes from Kyrgyzstan, a land-locked former Soviet state separated from China to the east by the mountain range from which the ensemble derives its name (known as the Tien Shan mountains in China).
Supported by the Aga Khan Trust For Culture, the group was founded by Nurlanbek Nyshanov, a gifted composer, multi-instrumentalist and arranger who is a product of both the wide-open green spaces of the region and the Soviet education system that shaped his knowledge of those aforementioned contemporary song-writing techniques.
Nurlanbek: "Under Communism, traditional instruments were very unfashionable, they were remade into modernised, Soviet versions and used as part of large folk orchestras. The music was adapted to fit Soviet themes and culture, and people who continued to play the instruments as they were meant to be played tended to keep quiet about it."
Those instruments being the komuz (a three-stringed fretless lute), kyl kiyak (double horse-hair bowl fiddle), sybyzgy (side-blown wooden flute), choor (end-blown flute) as well as jew's harp and a clay ocarina (called a chopo choor) that resembles a Dutch clog with holes.
Nyshanov studied at the Kyrgyz State Institute of Arts in Biškek, on the border with Kazakhstan to the north of the country. As he explains, "I studied in a conservatory in the city for three years, where I learnt to write and arrange songs in the manner of students in Europe. I had made many albums for years before this one, mostly city music using accordeon and guitar as well as wind instruments like the flutes I play with these musicians. The idea of having an ensemble based on our own distinctive instruments came after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I felt that it was important to bring the music that had gone into hiding back to life."
This process involved the notation of songs handed down orally from generation to generation in the past. "Previously, because Kyrgyz music is that of nomadic people and played as solo pieces (known as küü), there was no composition. But now I needed to write it down to record and arrange for ensembles. I just had to make a couple of small adjustments to the instruments, for example tuning each komuz slightly differently in order for them to work well together. The opening track on the CD, Jangylyk (Novelty) is another example of this, with three jew's harps played from a score."
One nod to tradition is an extract from the Manas, a 500,000-line epic about the eponymous Kyrgyz war hero, delivered in a rhythmic guttural style by Rysbek Jumbaev, which has served as a dramatic opening to their recent well-received tour of the UK. The songs are all delivered with jaunty gusto, and the expressive hand-gestures with which the komuz is played are a key component of the performance, whilst the flutes and kyl kiyak add lively flights of melody.
Meanwhile, veteran master akyn (traditional singer, poet and entertainer) Zainidin Imanaliev beguiles the audience with a range of performances from the yearning blues of Küidüm Chok (I Burn, I Smoulder Like Charcoal) to a spirited küü that’s embellished by some flamboyant displays of komuz-sorcery including a cheesy display of fretwork with his be-socked right foot.
At the other extreme, thanks to the helpful addition of English sub-titles on an overhead projector to the side of the stage, the audience can follow the twisted murder-ballad Ak Satkyn and Kulmyrza, with its story line straight out of the Nick Cave songbook and delivered with bewitching clarity and emotion by female vocalist Kenjegül Kubatova.
All of which makes for a gratifyingly accessible range of Kyrgyz rural music played by modern city-dwelling musicians, as Nurlanbek Nyshanov explains:
"Many of the musicians we work with have moved to the city from the country, or are from families that have done so. It's sad that they must, but that's why I try for a combination of sedentary and nomadic styles." And the future of the music seems in safe hands: "It's really nice that the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is supporting traditional music, and they've opened a school so that children can learn to perform the music. The future looks bright."
Thanks to Sean Quirk for translation.
This feature appeared in the August/September 2006 edition of fRoots