On Second Thought
Shüüdüngüt’s Road - Music Of The Kyrgyz People Of Central Asia






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Kyrgyzstan is the smallest, most remote, and (arguably) the most beautiful of the Central Asian republics. The Pamir Alay and Tian Shan mountain ranges dominate the country and actually separate the northern part from the southern part. The people of the north are closely connected to the Kazaks; their languages and customs (nomadic herding, a limited belief in Islam) are very similar to one another, to the point that some believe they are variants of the same group. The southern people, especially those in the dangerous Fergana valley, have more in common with their neighbors in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (about 13% of the population is Uzbek, in fact) than with Kyrgyz in the north.

You might ask yourself, why would two diverse groups of people choose to form a country together? The answer is...they didn't. The Soviets created Kyrgyzstan as a way to "divide and conquer." They wanted to divide the Kazaks and the Uzbeks—the two major Central Asian groups—so that they could more easily control both groups. So the Soviets created Kyrgyzstan as a way to separate large groups of Uzbeks and Kazaks from one another by lumping some of each in with the Kyrgyz.

Now that there is no Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to find its identity. But that's starting to change. As I am writing this, a revolution—begun in the southern cities of Jalal-Abad and Osh before moving to the capital Bishkesh in the north—has swept the country's leader from power, and opposition leaders are poised to set up new, democratic elections. What's most striking about this revolution is the cooperation between groups in both the north and south. The disparate people in this country found a common enemy and fought together to depose it. Through this cooperation, these groups are starting to recognize all that connects them, rather than all that separates them: yurts (giant tents used by the traditional Kyrgyz nomads), kumis (the fermented mare's milk that is the national drink), and a nomadic spirit that is best expressed through music.

The nomadic spirit, the desire to live and travel without barriers or limitations, is at the heart of Kyrgyz music, which consists primarily of folk songs performed by small, portable wind and string instruments like the komuz (a three-stringed, fretless lute), the kyl kiak (a two-stringed bowed instrument similar to the horeshead fiddle found in Mongolian music), and timur komuz (Jew's harp). These instruments can be played anywhere by anyone (hence the term "folk music"), but they are nowhere better performed than on Mark A. Humphrey's wonderful compilation, Shüüdüngüt's Road—a work which, he claims, is the first full-length anthology of Kyrgyz music to appear on CD in the United States.

In these 31 songs, you'll discover all the shapes and nuances of Kyrgyz music, both vocal songs (which the Kyrgyz call ïr) and instrumentals (küü). The Kambarkan Folk Ensemble, the Kyrgyz national folk troupe, performs the bulk of the songs. However, only one or two musicians play on any given song; these are solos or duets, not full-scale ensemble pieces. Personally, I prefer my Central Asian music like this, stripped of full-scale artifice. A solo komuz performer plucking and strumming along at an ancient melody is far more interesting to me than an entire group of artists transforming that same melody into something larger and more complicated.

For example, the three works titled "Kambarkan," each one a solo performance for komuz, are beautiful pieces that shed a great deal of light on Kyrgyz music and history. They are named "Kambarkan" after the inventor of the komuz (and the legendary founder of Kyrgyz music), Kambar (the "khan" is honorific). Each piece is a virtuoso performance by a different komuz expert, and each one reveals a different shade to this interesting instrument. Jusup Abayev performs the first, and it is a happy, hopping song, the artist plucking and strumming a melody that reminds of a horse galloping over a series of hills. Fahriddin Bayabov performs the second one, and it follows much of the terrain as the first, only this time the strumming slows and sputters in spots, like a horse stepping carefully over water or around boulders. The final one, by Nurlanbek Nïshanov, takes this horse theme to its logical conclusion, tossing the horse onto a gigantic plain, letting it speed up and gallop off into the far distance. In three songs, each with the same name, we get a glimpse of this culture's rich heritage, for these are only three out of dozens of variations on a single theme, and this theme is only one of hundreds of different themes for this single instrument.

While I enjoy the küü (instrumental) songs here—in fact, I find them the equal to any instrumental songs I've encountered on other Central Asian works—I must admit a fondness for the ïr, or vocal, songs. There are only a few of these on this disk, but they are all fascinating. The album's title track, for example, is both a tribute to Attila the Hun (whom Kyrgyz believe to be an ancestor of theirs) and a story explaining the origin of the komuz. Another song, simply titled "Improvisation," is just that, an improvisation between two singers, one young and one old. The older one is praising his country and announcing his satisfaction with his own life; the younger one is praising his uncle (the older one) for his wisdom and echoing those national sentiments. Each of these songs is a dissertation's worth of insight into Kyrgyz culture, and they are only two of eight fascinating vocal performances.

That national spirit is certainly in evidence today as Kyrgyzstan seeks to build a future for itself. For anyone who has read the news about this country and would like to learn more about its people and its culture, then I cannot imagine a better introduction than this work. It covers just about every musical tradition found in the country, including pop music (thanks to a pop rendition of Salamat Sadikova's "Ayïl kechi," or "An Evening in the Village"). Moreover, because Kyrgyz music is grounded in folk, not religious, styles, the music is a lot more palatable for western ears than, say, the music of Uzbekistan. Really, though, this is a document for a country that, despite centuries of aggravation and suffering, is trying desperately to be a country, and this process is nowhere better documented than on this album.


By: Michael Heumann
Published on: 2005-03-29
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