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Volume 50, Number 2March/April 1999

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Plucked from Obscurity

Written and photographed by Elaine Eliah

Across Lake Son-Kul, strains of the komuz, one of Kyrgyzstan's national instruments, echo through the highlands. Melodies played on this long-necked, three-stringed, pear-bodied instrument may not be as old as the country's vast Tien Shan Mountains, but they are as familiar to rural Kyrgyz as the sheep they tend and the horses for which they are famous.

Muratbek Begaliyev grew up tending sheep in the village of Jumga. "I was raised among musicians," recalls the man who is now Kyrgyzstan's leading classical composer. "Almost everyone could sing and play. I listened and absorbed."

When Begaliyev smiles, it all sounds simple, and he certainly seems to have absorbed music just that easily. Barely three years old when he was handed his first komuz, he made the instrument his constant companion. Its music entertained his first audience: the flock of sheep he tended throughout boyhood.

It was a newspaper ad that alerted the young man that a music school in Bishkek was enrolling students. At age 15, he traveled alone to the Kyrgyz capital to audition. Soviet conservatories at that time stressed only European classical music, which Begaliyev had never heard. "During examinations they showed me a piano," he recounts. "They asked me, 'Have you played this instrument?' and I said, 'This box? I am seeing it for the first time.'"

Despite this lack of instrumental competence, the instructors were impressed when Begaliyev demonstrated his sophisticated compositional skill—all the more because his work had been done "only" on a three-stringed komuz.

"Even before leaving for Bishkek, even as I first read in the newspaper that the composer faculty was open, I wanted to study composition," Begaliyev explains. At Bishkek's Institute of Arts, he became proficient on several woodwinds, beginning with the bassoon, as well as on "this box," the piano. More significantly, he had become the school's leading composer by the time he graduated.

During graduate studies at Moscow's Tchaikovsky State Conservatory, Begaliyev's "Symphonic Poem" took the grand prize in the 1983 All-Union Competition of Pianists. Inspired by 19th-century Russian painter Karl Brullov's "Last Day of Pompeii," the Begaliyev symphony gave voice and expression to the tragic fate of humans entangled in natural and social collapses.

A string of awards and a UNESCO grant opened doors throughout Europe, yet the composer was caught up in social collapse himself: the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Too many friends in Moscow had no work," he recalls. "Good musicians were unemployed: There were no good orchestras, no good theaters." Without any idea about what he would do next, or of how he would earn a living, he felt drawn back to the newly independent Kyrgyz Republic. (See Aramco World, May/June 1997.)

Soviet art subsidies were a thing of the past, and Kyrgyz government funds were severely limited, yet Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev's donation of more than $200,000 paid for the renovation of an old state-owned building, and the newborn Kyrgyz Conservatory had its cradle. Twenty of Begaliyev's unemployed musical contemporaries eagerly joined in nurturing it. Today, the school trains hundreds of students—but what really makes Begaliyev, its rector, proud is that nearly half his students play both classical and traditional Kyrgyz music. "I want the world to know these musicians, to know this music—Kyrgyz music," he says.

Though most of the world knows little of Kyrgyz instruments, the twang of the temir komuz, or Jew's harp, is widely familiar. Its harp- or pear-shaped iron frame is held between the player's teeth, and a slender tongue of springy steel, fixed to the frame at one end, is plucked with a finger. The player must change the shape of his mouth to isolate different harmonics from the single note the instrument produces. The Jew's harp's portability makes it ideal for nomadic musicians, and Kyrgyz often carved elaborate wooden cases for theirs. The gigatch is a similar instrument, but carved from wood for a mellower sound. Its vibrating tongue is "twanged" with an attached piece of string. A small clay one-octave flute the Kyrgyz call a chopo choor is known in the United States as the ocarina. Other flutes are popular throughout Kyrgyzstan.

"During the Communist time, these instruments were almost forgotten," explained Norlan Nishanov, a teacher at the conservatory and master of several traditional instruments. "Now children are beginning to learn them again."

A Begaliyev work composed especially for Kyrgyz instruments featured Nishanov and several other conservatory musicians in a recent performance. Begaliyev arranged traditional Central Asian music for a film made in neighboring Kazakhstan, one of more than 30 films and 20 theatrical productions he has scored. There's an opera planned, based on Kyrgyz novelist Chingitay Aitmatov's White Cloud about Genghis Khan, and another based on Kyrgyzstan's national epic about its legendary hero, Manas. (See Aramco World, May/June 1996.)

So while conservatory historians pen a book about traditional folk music, and Begaliyev pushes ahead with composing, he insists that his students routinely perform at schools throughout the country. By encouraging today's young people to learn about their traditional music, he hopes to ensure that their generation will value the culture it is heir to, and that the sounds he grew up with will always be heard by the children of Kyrgyzstan.

Elaine Eliah is a free-lance writer who lives in Kampala, Uganda.

This article appeared on pages 38-39 of the March/April 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1999 images.