SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Kazakh Music: Songs & Tunes from across the Steppe

The Kazakh steppe lies at the crossroads of Eurasia, stretching from the Altai foothills in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, and from the Tien Shan Mountains in the south as far as the Siberian Plain in the north. This extensive geographic area embraces diverse natural and climatic regions. Turkic and Mongol nomads roamed this land in the past, and from the fifteenth century onwards it was dominated by the people called ‘Kazakhs’ (‘free’, ‘wandering’ steppemen), grouped within three major confederations. The fertile oases, deserts and mountain ranges of Jetisu (Seven Rivers) in the southeast were occupied by the Great Horde (Ūly Jüz). The vast steppes and low mountain ridges, known as Sary-Arqa (Golden Steppe), spanning eastern, northern and central Kazakhstan, was the stronghold of the Middle Horde (Orta Jüz). The Little Horde (Kishi Jüz) inhabited territories along the Syr-Darya River and western Kazakhstan. Waves of migration during the Jungar invasion and the Russian annexation of Kazakh lands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, brought Kazakh tribes, mainly from the Middle Horde, to Altai, northwestern China and western Mongolia.

The music originating from these regions, varied in landscape and culture, is richly diverse, encompassing a range of singing and instrumental performance traditions. Although unified by the widespread use of the two-stringed long-necked lute dombra, the favourite instrument of Kazakh virtuosi, singer-poets and bards, these regions are identified with idiosyncratic forms and styles of singing, instrumental playing and epic narration. This double CD takes listeners on a musical journey across the Kazakh steppe, introducing a wide-ranging repertoire of songs and instrumental tunes from the regional traditions. It features ten acclaimed Kazakh musicians from different parts of Kazakhstan and the diasporic community in Mongolia – solo singers and performers on the two-stringed fiddle qobyz, the dombra, the open-ended flute sybyzghy, the zither jetigen and the ocarina saz-syrnai. While mapping the musical traditions and bringing out contrasts between them, the journey traces continuities and cross-links arising from geographic proximity and cultural interchange.

It is, above all, a journey in time, since most of the repertoire featured here derives from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the heyday of Kazakh ‘traditional music’ (dästurli muzyka) – and its renditions reveal the different historical trajectories followed by regional traditions throughout the Soviet and recent periods. Some traditions were maintained in their original milieus, others were altered or transformed, and yet others regained momentum after a period of decline or loss as either recreated or reimagined practices. The CD thus indicates that the very notion of tradition’ (dästur), commonly applied today to forms and styles of music practice, has assumed different connotations, implying in some cases a living and evolving tradition, and in others a style or a body of repertoire.

The juxtaposition of regional traditions here also offers an insight into the varying geography of their current distribution. While some are still rooted in their homelands, others have travelled across Kazakhstan, being elevated to the status of national cultural heritage and widely disseminated through institutional training, concert practice and electronic media. Conservatoire-trained performers boast knowledge and mastery of various regional repertoires. Yet, despite a blurring of regional delineations in musicians’ expertise, hereditary and master-pupil bonds in regional schools remain valid, often underlying formal system of tuition and ensuring continuity within local traditions.

The musicians featured on this CD were brought together in London in June 2007 for a concert at Cadogan Hall. They belong to a young generation of tradition-bearers from their respective regions. Descendants or pupils of renowned masters, they combine knowledge and skills gained through formal training and concert practice with an inherited awareness of regional styles. Evoking the legacy of the past and communicating it to contemporary audiences in their individual creative ways, these artists shape the unique identity of Kazakh traditional music today.


Liner-notes and translation by Saida Daukeyeva © 2007