Home on the Range
The founder of Folkways Records, Moe Asch, would be proud. This lavishly packaged CD/DVD of the Tengir-Too (pronounced “toe”) ensemble does what the Smithsonian Folkways label does best. Partnering with the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia and hiring expert ethnomusicologists, Smithsonian has brought amazing sounds from a remote region to the attention of audiences in the United States. In addition to a CD of music, the album includes comprehensive liner notes, a short documentary video (actually the best part of the package—someone make a feature-length documentary film of this group!), beautiful photographs of the instruments, and images of the musicians wearing traditional garb.
As this ethnographically-oriented packaging suggests, what is most striking about Tengir-Too’s album is how much their music bears the marks of what can be called “the folk process”. There is a hyper-consciousness of the vanishing ways of a people, rescued just in time by those cut off from childhood traditions. Now grown, these musicians rediscover the old ways, but only after adjusting to the disruptions of modernity—both the expansion of the Soviet empire during the twentieth century, and the new incursions of the capitalist West in the twenty-first century.
Tengir-Too’s members are the mediators of this particular folk “revival”. On the DVD documentary film that accompanies the CD, for instance, we visit with Zainidin Imanaliev, Baykt Chytyrbaev, Nalazbek Uraliev, Kenjegül Kubatova, and, most movingly, Rysbek Jumabaev, who steals the show with his deeply-spiritual, expressive chanting of the epic Manas, an oral poem said to be twenty times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. These performers become the New Lost City Ramblers of Kyrgyzstan.
In Central Asia instead of in the American South, they are the salvagers of an idealized, agrarian past, bringing the music of a bygone place into the urban, technological, modernized present. Just as American folkies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as the New Lost City Ramblers, used older country and blues recordings as their guides, much of the music that Tengir-Too performs comes from old records made by earlier Kyrgyz performers. “My teacher was a gramophone,” singer and komuz player Zainidin Imanaliev explains in the DVD’s documentary video. Surely somewhere, just waiting to be found, there must be the lost recordings of Kyrgyzstan’s Robert Johnson, who sold his soul at the crossroads to learn to play the komuz.
The Kyrgyz New Lost City Ramblers they might be, but Tengir-Too is not an imitation of a recent world music group, such as Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club. They have not been rescued from the fading grandeur of a pre-communist nation (and we should remember that even the Buena Vista Social Club itself was not as purely preserved as ardent romanticizers wished); Tengir-Too’s members are not authentic representatives from an ancient people. Rather, they are active musical marketeers in the post-Soviet global village. Like traders along the Silk Road, they broker an exchange. This time it’s a historical barter between the nomadic past of the Kyrgyz mountain dwellers and the nomadic present of the globalized, digital age.
This album takes listeners to that strange meeting place between cultures, and between times. It’s an exciting, liminal place that is at once colonized and liberated, at once stolen like holy bones for a museum collection and freed by the distancing of Western appreciation. We listen in on this negotiation as it happens between the ancient komuz, a lute-like stringed instrument rooted in Kyrgyz myth, and the modern microphone, which arrives to condense a bygone world of vast steppes and mountain peaks into a discrete set of recorded bits and bytes. Old tools to Pro Tools.
That is to say, the members of Tengir-Too embrace tradition, but they are not straight off the yak farm. Artistic director Nurlanbek Nyshanov, who grew up in the northern mountains of Kyrgyzstan, is a conservatory-trained musician who began to rediscover older musical traditions after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Similarly, the performers who join him on this album are not innocent savages. They are postmodern bards mediating between the fading traditions from the nomadic past of the Central Asian mountains and the emergent traditions of a nomadic present: one in which the sounds of a fading, rural folk might suddenly turn up on the in-store soundtrack at Anthropologie or on the iPods of musical adventurers in the hipster enclaves of American and European cities. Strange sounds we will hear as we roam the vast soundscapes of World-music-landia.
But even though one should have healthy suspicions about Smithsonian ethnographic inquiries, which all tend to produce similar, romanticized narratives in order to navigate ruptures between the vanishing past and the uncertain future, the sounds on this album are just too beautiful to stay contained within the parameters of nostalgized folk music from halcyon times (and it should be said, the Tengir-Too musicians themselves and the ethnomusicological liner notes of the album register an awareness of the ironies of creating traditional, “authentic” folk music for a global audience). The music simply reaches out to our ears, right past the constraints of salvage-anthropology.
The music on Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan is just too striking. Stringed instruments provide the backbone for the music. The komuz and the kyl kiyak, an upright bowl fiddle with two horsehair strings, are strummed, plucked, slapped, and bowed. They produce rhythms and melodies reminiscent of Eastern European folk sounds, but the sounds are slightly less nasal and sharp, more filled with the open spaces of the Tien Shan mountains, where Kyrgyz nomads have lived for thousands of years.
Wind instruments such as the choor, an end-blown flute, the sybyzgy, a side-blown flute, and the chopo choor, a clay ocarina, add to the sonic evocations of this wide-open landscape, dominated by horse herders, yurts, grasslands, streams, and the distant, snow-capped mountain peaks leading toward the Chinese border. The music sometimes resembles the flute, drum, and lute ensembles of indigenous peoples in the Andean mountains of South America, but its tonalities and colorations are distinctive too.
The album begins with Nurlanbek Nyshanov’s own composition, “Jangylyk (Novelty)”, performed on the temir komuz and jygach ooz komuz, otherwise known as the metal and wooden jew’s harps. As Nyshanov points out in the liner notes, though the jew’s harp is often associated with the spiritual world in traditional Kyrgyz culture, it is also “truly a global instrument and provides a wonderful timbral resource for composers.”
After instrumental and vocal performances that merge traditional sounds with compositions from famous Kyrgyz bards of the early twentieth century, we hear from Rysbek Jumabaev, who chants an episode from the Manas epic. Intriguingly, Jumabaev employs guttural and nasal techniques with his voice that sound much like Tengir-Too’s use of the jew’s harp. Here, similar sounds line up to convey the tonalities of a people. These are the communicative devices that please, surprise, and signal unease, warnings, soothing messages, and spiritual depth.
Elsewhere on the recording, we hear the driving instrumental compositions of Nyshanov and others, which often seem to imitate the stampeding hoofs of horses on the steppes. This link is made explicit in a virtuosic performance on the DVD video by Nurak Abdrakhmanov in which he performs for children on the komuz while controlling miniature wooden horse puppets on a table by using his feet and knees.
We also hear the vocal laments of performers such as Kenjegül Kubatova and Zainidin Imanaliev, among others. Songs tell the stories of spurned lovers and nostalgic city dwellers. One of the most powerful vocal performances comes from Toktobek Asanaliev on “Esimde (I Remember)”, a song that soars and falls on a melody by Atai Ogonbaev, an illiterate musician who only learned to read when he heard the words of this song, composed in the Russian or European style by Jusup Turusbekov.
What most of the music conveys overall is a strange mixture of motion and stillness, the immediacy of movement and the quiet lulls when one gets lost in memory. There is displacement and rediscovery in this music. Most of the instruments are made from apricot wood, nutwood, or juniper, which gives them an airy, flitting, graceful sound. The wind hits the trees of thick forests as wrists again snap komuz strings. The horses ford a stream that tinkles and glistens in the lush flow of air through the choor and sybyzgy flutes.
We get a sense of being shadowed by a lost past, but also of being light on one’s feet, mobile and free. There is mourning in the music for a time and life that will never return again. But Tengir-Too also conveys a comfort with the flow of change. Komuz emerge from electrically-powered table saws. Traditional Kyrgyz songs get composed on computer screens. Singers look out from high-rise apartment balconies, make their way to rehearsal in trucks and vans, and teach young Kyrgyz the old ways under fluorescent lights. The group tours the world, playing music that is rooted in ancient traditions, but performing in front of a digital backdrop that artistically evokes the nomadic life of yore.
There is a measuring of rupture from the nomadic past in Tengir-Too’s mountain music of Kyrgyzstan, but also an embrace of new worlds as their sounds proudly navigate the new, circulatory paths of global culture. In this new context, they are home on the range once again.