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World: Ancient European Music Meets Central Asian Masters

Namazbek Uraliev (left) and Sylvian Roy find a common language Artists trying to preserve Europe's ancient music traditions have gathered at the St. Chartier Festival in central France for the past 30 years. In July, their knowledge of ancient music was illuminated by Central Asian masters -- both performers and instrument makers -- who were guests of the festival. RFE/RL reports on the recent meeting of two ancient musical traditions.

St. Chartier, France, 1 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Sylvian Roy plays a medieval bagpipe; Namazbek Uraliev has mastered a three-stringed lute, called a komuz, in his mountain village in northern Kyrgyzstan.

Meeting in a tent at the St. Chartier Festival of ancient music in mid-July, they couldn't speak to each other without a translator. But sitting together with instruments, they discovered a common language. [To listen to Uraliev And Roy playing, click here for Real Audio or here for Windows Media.]

Uraliev was among a dozen Kyrgyz and Uzbek musicians and instrument makers invited to the summer festival through an international project called the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia.

The St. Chartier Festival was created in 1976 as a professional event for traditional instrument makers. But it soon became a meeting point for Europe's antique music revivalists -- many bringing their instruments, chatting with friends, or learning from the traditional music that filled the air.

This year, the Central Asia masters brought more with them than their instruments. The Kyrgyz and Uzbek artists carry a living oral history of an ancient music, passed down through generations of story tellers, and deeply rooted beliefs about spirit worlds and the magical healing properties of music.

In some ways, these Central Asian masters provide a glimpse at Europe's own pre-Christian musical and lyrical traditions going as far back as Orpheus -- the ancient Thracian musician and poet of Greek myth, whose songs were said to charm rivers and wild beasts or coax rocks and trees into movement. It is the lore of mountain musicians as shamans or satyrs.

"It's a new vision and a new sound," said festival organizer Philippe Krumm. "[The Central Asians have] special instruments -- special things to play music. It's not the same way as the French style, because in France, many [musicians who play ancient instruments] play for the stage. And [these] musicians from Asia play for people in the village. Not for the stage."

To instrument maker Olivier Pont, the visit by the Central Asians brought revelations about a mysterious bowed lute from his native Brittany -- knowledge of which is lost to history except for the preservation of its form in statues and paintings.

Pont let out an excited gasp when he saw an oval-shaped lute from Kyrgyzstan called a "kyl-kyiak." Holding the two-string bowed instrument next to a replica of the ancient French lute he'd built, he smiled at the similarities in size and shape.

"This [replica] is made from a sculpture from a church in France -- in front of a church," Pont said. "The church and the sculpture are 800 years old. But we don't know exactly how it was played. So we are very interested with instruments that we can find in the world that are relatives to this one."
Holding the two-string bowed instrument next to a replica of the ancient French lute he'd built, he smiled at the similarities in size and shape.

Pont found the right man to question about the kyl-kyiak -- a 36-year-old villager named Marat Berikbaev from northern Kyrgyzstan. The secrets of building the kyl-kyiak have been passed down within Berikbaev's family for generations.

In Kyrgyzstan, the quality of Berikbaev's workmanship has earned his instruments the nickname 'Stradivarius of the kyl-kyiak' -- a reference to the 18th-century Italian master violin maker Antonio Stradivari.

Berikbaev explained how the knowledge was passed through his grandfather -- a man whom he describes as a magician who could transform a dog into a sheep with his music.

"When I start choosing wood for the instrument, I acquire an ability to converse with the spirits of my ancestors," Berikbaev said. "Before applying the skin [to the body of the instrument], I study the sound of the wood. While carving I see the sound as steam or a stream. And that helps me to find out where the sound stumbles, and where I should carve more."

But the art of making the kyl-kyiak is a dying tradition in Kyrgyzstan. Despite his stature as a master craftsman, most of Berikbaev's income comes from assembling wooden floors in Bishkek.

But the Aga Khan Music Initiative helps Berikbaev share his knowledge abroad and make contacts for selling his instruments in other countries. The foundation also has agreed to purchase some of Berikbaev's instruments in an attempt to preserve the art.

After hearing the kyl-kyiak played by a Kyrgyz master, Pont immediately purchased one from Berikbaev. And with a little practice, Pont was adapting what he knows about French lutes to the kyl-kyiak.

The St. Chartier Festival also hosted stage performances by Central Asian musicians this year. The ensemble "Tengir Too" played new adaptations of ancient Kyrgyz music while the "Sanam" Uyghur Ensemble from Uzbekistan introduced their traditions with a performance of "muqam" music and dance.

(RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz contributed to this story from Prague.)

Listen To The Kyl-Kyiak

Real Audio

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Listen To 'Mugam' Music

Real Audio

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