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Kazakhstan: U.S. Gets Rare Opportunity To Hear Rare Kazakh Folk Music

  • Nikola Krastev

Kazakh State Kurmangazy Orchestra of Folk Instruments The Kazakh State Kurmangazy Orchestra of Folk Instruments and the Kazakh State Chamber Orchestra last week gave rare performances in Washington and New York. One Kazakh official described the events as an attempt to show Americans that the Central Asian country is about more than "gas and oil." At New York City's Carnegie Hall, audiences were particularly enthusiastic about the folk program, in which skills and styles that nearly vanished during the Soviet era were on stirring display.

New York, 8 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The program, known as "Melodies and Songs of the Kazakh Steppes," marked the first major performance of Kazakh folk music in the United States in nearly 25 years.

Duissen Kasseinov, an ambassador at large and a former Kazakh minister of culture, said it took nearly two years to bring the musicians to Washington's Kennedy Center and New York's Carnegie Hall for performances last week.

The purpose of the concerts, Kasseinov told RFE/RL, was to give the American public a glimpse of Kazakhstan beyond its reputation as a land rich in fossil fuels.

"Of course [it was organized] with a strong support from the president, [Nursultan Nazarbaev]," Kasseinov said. "The idea was [to make] Kazakhstan known to Americans not only as a gas and oil country, but also known for its rich and spiritual culture."

The first part of the concert was devoted to a classical repertoire. Works by Brahms, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky as well as Edvard Grieg and Leonard Bernstein were performed ably by the Kazakh State Chamber Orchestra.

Aiman Mussakhodjayeva, the orchestra's artistic director and a violin soloist, concluded the classical part of the evening with Igor Frolov's "Concert Fantasy on Themes from Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess'."

Mussakhodjayeva performed on a 17th-century Stradivarius purchased for her by the Kazakh government for $3.5 million.

The second part of the Carnegie Hall concert featured traditional folk music and elicited frequent applause from the audience.

The Kurmangazy Orchestra, which last year celebrated its 70th anniversary, was a refuge for instruments and musical skills that nearly vanished during the Soviet era.

The most striking example of the preserved Kazakh folk instruments, Kasseinov said, is the "kobyz," one of the world's oldest instruments and considered by some to be a prototype of the European violin.

"During the massive suppression of religious activities [in Soviet times] we almost lost this instrument," Kasseinov said. "In the 1960s there were only one or two people left in the country who knew how to play it. They've been brought to the Kazakh Musical Conservatory. It is no coincidence that 'kobyz,' which was earlier associated only with very old people, is now played by young, modern people."

Reflecting on the Kennedy Center performance earlier last week, a music critic with "The Washington Post" daily, Andrew Lindemann Malone, said he regretted the orchestra's decision to present what he called "so many forgettable lollipops." But he gave high marks to the performances of traditional Kazakh music and songs.

Kasseinov, himself a professional violinist, acknowledged that the classical repertoire might not be as popular as the Kazakh folk music. He said the program was determined by the Culture Ministry.

"It's unlikely we will impress Americans with chamber music or with our chamber ensemble, but they were really impressed and excited by the performance of our folk musicians and folk orchestra, and by the soloists performing on those ancient instruments," Kasseinov said.
The Kurmangazy Orchestra, which last year celebrated its 70th anniversary, was a refuge for instruments and musical skills that nearly vanished during the Soviet era.


Two standout folk pieces were "Song About Beautiful Khusni and Khorlan" sung by baritone Talgat Musabayev, and "Freedom is My Call," sung and played on a dombra string instrument by Bekbolat Tleukhan.

Other pieces included "When a Young Man is 25," sung by Ramazan Stamgaziyev and "Teasing Melody," played on the dombra by Tuyak Shamelov.

Joel Sachs is the founder and conductor of the New Julliard Ensemble in New York, which has toured throughout Central Asia and will perform there again in April.

Asked whether Americans are attuned to traditional forms of music from Central Asia, Sachs told RFE/RL that the Kazakh folk music would be better received in bigger cities where audiences are culturally more aware and perceptive.

"There are certainly lots of people who would recognize [the Kazakh folk music] as a credible art form, a genuine art form, and would be very interested in it," Sachs said. "And I'm sure there are some that would see it just as exotic -- take it or leave it. We have so many levels, so many ways in which people listen in this country, as in any country, that to generalize about it is really almost impossible."

Sachs noted the growing popularity of throat-singing from Mongolia and the Russian republic of Tuva, noting their similarity to music forms from northern Kazakhstan.

"I think another kind of ethnic music that attracted quite a following [in the United States] is the Tuvan and Mongolian throat-singing," Sachs said. "It's such a strange kind of music to hear that, I think, people are really attracted to it. In northern Kazakhstan you get them, exactly."

If the audience's response in Carnegie Hall was any indication, then the solo performance of throat singer Edil Khussainov was the high point of the evening.
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