Kazakhstan is still very much in touch with its traditional music. This music, often considered the musical styles that were developed before the Russians arrived, is generally divided into two sections: vocal music and instrumental music.
Vocal music is the larger of the styles and is sung at gatherings, ceremonies, and festivals. Most of the topics these songs sung about included historical events, love poetry, family history, or songs that teach a moral. Not only are there songs for soloists, but there are also songs written for duets, trios, and larger ensembles. Instrumental pieces, on the other hand, are often performed as solo pieces. These songs are often set as an accompaniment to a story, and the text of the story is often portrayed in the background.
The Russians introduced European style music when they arrived in the area and opened music academies across the country. Music students were taught the ins and outs of modern European instruments and European music theory. Soon, these concepts blended with their traditional music styles. One of the major musical concepts the Russians introduced to the Kazakhs was the practice of musical notation, or how you put music on paper so that you can read it. This is a practice that has varied across many cultures and time. Kazakh traditional music wasn’t actually notated until the early 1930s. Up until then, traditional music was kept separately from European-influenced music. They adopted many ideas for ensemble make up, instrumentation, and stylistic features based on Russian music traditions and merged it with their own.
Kazakh folk music relies heavily on the use of string instruments. One of the most common instruments you’ll hear is the dombra. This long-necked lute has two strings that are tuned in 4ths or sometimes 5ths; it can either be plucked or strummed with just the fingers. Another instrument you’ll hear is the qobyz (also spelled kobyz). This instrument stands between the legs and is bowed like a cello. It’s typically made of wood with animal skin resonators, and the bow is made from wood and horsehair.
One dance from Kazakhstan I came across is called the Kara Zhorga (also spelled numerous ways). It’s considered one of their intangible cultural treasures. This particular dance combines grace with speed and agility; it’s tied to the horse riding traditions and often uses riding whips as props. These days, you’ll likely see this dance performed at festivals and other gatherings. The beginning of this video makes me think this dance is Mr. Bean approved.
Even in the music today, which mostly consists of re-creations of folk-style music, rock, and jazz, there are many influences from their traditional music that can be heard coming through. This gives their music a unique Kazakh-ness to it.
I took a listen to several Kazakh bands during the past couple of weeks. The first one I listened to is a metal band called Roman Khrustalev. Their music is quite melody-driven, and string instruments often intertwine with the guitars. They like to combine the ethereal with just plain old loud metal music. It actually reminds me of Yngwie Malmsteen at times. There aren’t any lyrics (at least none I’ve heard on the album Tethys)—it’s all instrumental. I really liked what I heard.
Another rock band I listened to is Ulytau. You can really pick up on the traditional Kazakh instruments in their music, particularly the dombra. Like a lot of other types of Kazakh music, it relies heavily on string music. The combination of the traditional instruments with the modern rock instruments is written so nicely that it has a very nice effect. I listened to the album Jumyr-Kylysh, and they have a couple of Baroque classical songs performed in a quasi-rock-classical-Kazakh style. I have to say, I was amused and entertained. Like the Roman Khrustalev album, this one didn’t have any lyrics either.
Roksonaki is far more acoustic than the last two bands and makes use of traditional instruments. The melody lines in the instrumentation are simple and almost relaxing. The vocal styles caught me off guard—at least for one song. It was quite guttural. I couldn’t quite tell, but at times it almost sounded like he was singing two notes at the same time and one of them was a drone note (like a vocal representation of a didgeridoo). I’ve heard of this practice when I was in college studying ethnomusicology, but I’m not sure if this is an example of that or not. I might be two people. Who knows? It amazes me that his voice is so extremely low—it’s like he’s a super bass. Not every song is sung like this, though. However, harmonizing on the fourths, fifths, and octaves is a common practice from what I heard.
I also listened to an album by Mamer, and this confirmed my theory about their open harmonization. Like Roksonaki, I believe they also utilize the mouth harp. Whenever I hear this instrument, I always think of the music of Appalachia (mountain music) in the US, and I was surprised it’s used here as well. But their music is also quite melodic and somewhat relaxing.
I also took a quick listen to Rosa Rymbaeva. Her music falls into the soft rock category, which is not so much a favorite of mine. You can hear the Russian influence on her music and in her voice quality.
Finally, I listened to a band called Urker. Their music reminded me of a cross between Bollywood and Middle Eastern rock/bellydancing music. I actually like this a lot. It has a nice beat, and the lead singer’s voice quality matches the song’s genre. I added in the album Made in Kazakhstan only a couple days ago, and I wish I had known about this one earlier. I would’ve liked to listen to this more. (I mean, I can always listen later.) Seriously, I’m glad I found this.
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