SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

19. Em taba almai


Singing tradition

Sary-Arqa is also identified with the art of singers (änshi), poet-improvisers (aqyn) and versatile artists akin to medieval troubadours or minstrels (sal-seri), who travelled across the region, welcomed at major celebrations and fairs for their poetic eloquence and vocal skills. The tradition reached its zenith in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with singer-poets such as Segiz-seri Bahramūly, Birjan-sal Qojaghūlūly and the great philosopher, poet and songwriter Abai Qūnanbaev. The hallmark of the Arqa singing style is an expressive lyrical cantilena punctuated by high, sustained notes delivered in a powerful, resonant voice reflective of the acoustic conditions of Arqa’s wide open spaces. Described as the Kazakh bel canto, this style since the 1930s has inspired the operatic scene in Kazakhstan.

Serjan Mūsaiyn, a singer from Qaraghandy known for its masters Mädi Bäpiūly, Jüsipbek Elebekov and Bekbolat Tileukhan, Serjan’s tutor, features songs by Arqa’s celebrated composers (Tracks 15–17, 19) and a folksong (Track 18), evoking images of love, romantic chivalry and philosophic meditation. His singing to a dombra accompaniment in the shertpe style that largely echoes the vocal line underscores the fine melodious qualities and sophisticated artistry of Arqa songs.

19. Em taba almai (Not Finding a Cure), lyrics Abai Qūnanbaev, music Bekbolat Tileukhan

Not finding a cure, a flame kindled in my breast full of sorrow.
Not speaking a word, not disclosing my secret to a soul, I was grieving.
My young heart was blazing and seething.
Set me in order, direct me towards the true path, oh, my God. 

I used to be arrogant, careless, never grieving about anything,
But I was quick to burn, quick to pine, at times hardly alive, at times like ice.
Sleep was my only food and my only labour then.
Simply by lying down I would find peace and gather strength.