SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

8. Qyz-Jibek

Southern and Central Kazakhstan

Epic performance of Qyzyl-Orda

As a Kazakh saying goes, “The land of Syr-Darya is the land of epics.” Indeed, celebrated as the birthplace of the qobyz and shamanic music, the present-day region of Qyzyl-Orda, extending along the Syr-Darya and further south towards the Qyzylkum Desert, is also a recognised centre of epic performance by jyrau, who, similarly to baqsy, trace their genealogy to Qorqyt. While the tradition of epic narration accompanied by the qobyz has declined, epic singing with the dombra still thrives through oral transmission, perpetuated in both urban venues and at rural gatherings, where narration of poems and tales can last for many hours. To the north-west of Qyzyl-Orda, the Qarmaqshy district has fostered a number of epic schools attributed to individual eponymous bards, such as Balqy Bazar, Kete Jüsip and Särsenbai, each distinguished by a specific repertoire and performance style (maqam).

This recording features Maira Särsenbaeva, an epic singer of the third generation who inherited her vocation from her grandfather Särsenbai and father Alshynbek. Opening with her own epic song (jyr) (Track 7), in which she proclaims her musical and spiritual lineage, she then recites an excerpt from the famous Kazakh folk epic (dastan) Qyz-Jibek (Track 8), comprising sung episodes and a narrative interlude (älqissa). Maira’s strongly-articulated dombra accompaniment and vocal recitative, interspersed with long melismatic passages reaching towards the highest tones, illustrates the role of epic performance in edifying, soothsaying and guiding people through mediation with spirit-protectors.   

8. Qyz-Jibek, folk epic (excerpt)

The epic poem tells of a tragic love between the young man Tölegen and the girl Jibek. The first episode takes place in the land of the Jaghalbaily tribe from the Little Horde (Kishi Jüz) near Lake Aq Teŋiz. The leader of the tribe, the rich man (bai) Bazarbai has lost his nine sons by three wives and at the age of eighty he marries again. His junior wife gives birth to a son whom they call Tölegen (lit. Recompense). The happy Bazarbai throws a grand celebration in honour of his newly-born son. By the time Tölegen reaches the age of sixteen his father has arranged for him to choose a partner in marriage but, in all the places he roams, Tölegen cannot find a suitable bride. A merchant coming to Bazarbai’s land advises Tölegen to seek a girl in the land of the Alty Shekti tribe near the river Jaiyq (Ural). His mother is against this, and in tears begs him not to go but Tölegen comforts her, determined to fulfil his dream, and leaves, entrusting his parents to God and spirit protectors.

In the narrative interlude we are told how Tölegen with an entourage of eighty young male attendants and fifteen leaders, after a long journey, arrives in the land of the Alty Shekti, and, having erected tents, stays there setting up amusements and entertainments.

The following scene describes Tölegen’s meeting with Qarshygha, the assistant vizier and epic singer (jyrshy) of Syrlybai, the Alty Shekti ruler (khan). Heeding the advice given by Qarshygha to seek out Syrlybai’s only daughter, the beautiful Jibek (lit. ‘Silk’), Tölegen takes five men from his entourage and sets out, together with Qarshygha, on a journey towards the Jaiyq river in search of Jibek.

After eight days of travel they reach the river and pass one settlement after another. Several times on approaching a settlement Tölegen sees beautiful girls, each one better than the other, but Qarshygha takes him aside, saying that she is not Jibek. Finally, after resisting the charms of eleven beauties, Tölegen and his companions meet a large and prosperous nomadic community on the move. This is headed by Jibek’s mother, a respectable old woman, who informs him that Jibek has left the settlement earlier in the day, to travel in the cool and freshness of dawn. So, without stopping, Tölegen rushes away with his entourage to catch up with Jibek. After passing seven mountain slopes, they hear tinkling of bridle bells and before long come upon Jibek’s caravan. Tölegen is overcome by the magnificent looks of the fourteen-year-old Jibek, whose beauty shimmers like a summer mirage; and, having exchanged only a few words with her, he knows with his mind and his eyes that he has reached his goal.