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Looking For Trouble In Shymkent?

Are you down with "kazaksha"? Son Pascal wants to know.
Are you down with "kazaksha"? Son Pascal wants to know.
Earlier this year, Italian singer Son Pascal released his parody video of the Sting song "Englishman in New York," "Englishman in Shymkent," a pop tribute to life in the southern Kazakh city.

I don't drink coffee I drink kymyz my dear
I like my bayrsak, with shai
I left London for a sunny magic land
I'm an Englishman in Shymkent

The video shows Pascal driving around town with an old Kazakh woman and failing to get the girl in a few chance encounters on the street.

WATCH: "Englishman in Shymkent"

In August, Pascal released another video, where he takes what Matthew Kupfer at Registan describes as an altogether more political tack on life in Shymkent. In "You Should Speak Kazaksha," Pascal and friends cruise the streets of Shymkent telling people they meet that they should be speaking the Kazakh language.

But as Kupfer notes:

Pascal’s newest song is not simply a paean to the joys of life as a foreigner in Kazakhstan. Rather, it’s a reggae-pop anthem taking sides in one of the biggest and most potentially destabilizing debates in the country: which language to speak—Russian or Kazakh?

Currently in Kazakhstan, Kazakh is legally regarded as the national language, while Russian is designated a second official language. But things are never as simple as they seem on paper. It is well known that Russian is more widely spoken in urban centers and the heavily Russian north. Kazakh is more widely spoken in the south and west.

Oh yeah, and people don’t always agree on which language should be officially spoken in the government and public sphere…etc, etc. Funny…seems like I’ve heard this story before…

WATCH: "You Should Speak Kazaksha"

Kupfer refers to another video Pascal released, in which he tells Kazakh friends sitting down to eat that they should use the Kazakh word for "delicious" and not the Russian one, which is for "losers."

He asks what would happen if Pascal had made a similar video in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2009, telling people to speak Kyrgyz in an area with a large Uzbek minority. When the violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks broke out in June 2010, would he have sided with the Kyrgyz nationalists?

Let’s not forget that one of the rumors that stirred up Kyrgyz anger towards Uzbek was the Uzbeks’ alleged desire for their language to be designated an official language of southern Kyrgyzstan. And this rumor, as well as others, didn’t just lead to a minor interethnic scuffle. Nearly 500 people lost their lives in four days of ethnic pogroms that destroyed large swaths of what then was a beautiful city.

But some people don't see Pascal's videos in such a harsh, confrontational way. My colleague Merhat Sharipzhan thinks Kupfer is reading it wrong, that the video is just urging young Kazakhs in a southern city where the biggest non-Kazakh influence is actually Uzbek to take a little pride in their language and stop speaking Russian all the time.

After all, when Pascal gives the Kazakh granny he rides around with in "Englishman in Shymkent" a bouquet of flowers at the end of the video, she thanks him in Russian....

-- Dan Wisniewski

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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