There are many important facets that contribute to the creation of the Kazakh culture. One example we recently watched in amazement on the television is kokpar, a game where two teams on horseback attempt to drop a sheep’s carcass into what resembles an open yurt. Another is food, and the hours taken to slave over a beshbarmak. But a vital part of the Kazakh identity, as with many cultures around the world, is the importance of music. This week we got to witness music from across the world’s largest landlocked country: east to west, north to south.
We got wind of a national Kazakh folk music competition. Each of the sixteen regions sent a group of musical maestros to the capital’s Congress Hall. The prize for the winner would be to represent the country at an international event in Egypt at a later date. The stakes, as you can imagine, were high, and the television cameras scattered around the room were a stark reminder to all of the competitors about what they could achieve.
On a cold Tuesday evening, we walked across the road to the large hall. As with many Kazakh events, we didn’t have to pay to watch. It is incredible that we get to watch such talented musicians without paying a single Tenge coin. The hall was close to capacity, with many in the audience waiting patiently to cheer loudly for their region’s performance. One of my friends who attended is from Atyrau, in the west of Kazakhstan, and was imploring us to support them.
The event surprisingly started promptly at 7pm. The first performers had a bit of a nightmare due to a combination of a technical fault and the desire of the singer to continue booming out his lyrics when the microphone was screeching. I cannot say that I enjoyed that performance. The following group, from Almaty, had a much slicker and more vibrant production, involving dancing and singing in traditional clothing.
Indeed, much of what we saw gave us a clear idea of what constitutes Kazakh culture. There was a group who acted out a Kazakh wedding, and dombras were almost omnipresent in their use by the vast majority of the regions. There were some interesting variations; the group representing Shymkent, in the south, seemed to be having a rap battle. To those of us who don’t speak Kazakh, however, it sounded like a shouting match. A very loud shouting match.
The Astana group were well-polished in their performance and, perhaps symbolically when you consider how much money is spent here compared to other areas of Kazakhstan, were a bit different from the rest of the regions in that they had Russian included in their lyrics as well as Kazakh.
My favourite group were a trio of dombra players whose fingers were almost impossible to see, such was the speed of their harmonious work. Many dombra songs sound very similar, so it was a mark of how good they were that I found them particularly interesting and excellent.
We stayed for ninety minutes before taking our leave. I would have liked to stay for longer, but it had become slightly repetitive. Work and planning had to, unfortunately, take precedence over this fascinating experience. I was somewhat gobsmacked when I found out a few days later that the winners were actually the very first group who had had the microphone malfunctions. I hope their equipment works better in Egypt.
It was nice to experience something fresh in this second year of living in Kazakhstan. Being here for a second year means that there isn’t necessarily as much to do that is obviously ‘new’ to me. It does, however, allow me to compare and contrast with my first year in the steppe. One example is the weather. This time last year there was snow on the floor and in the air; this year, the temperature is still hovering in positive figures even as we approach the middle of November. Prices of basic foodstuffs have risen slightly, but not significantly when I see some articles about the price of staple foods back at home.
I am more prepared for the winter this year. We are aware of how cold it will become, so will strive to explore whilst this Kazakh version of an Indian Summer still holds. After all, dealing with the cold is surely a crucial aspect of their culture, surely?
Love you all