- Kazakhstan. Le Kobyz. L'ancienne viole des chamanes/Kazakhstan. The Kobyz. The Ancient Viol of the Shamans, and: Akku. Kazakhstan. Kyl-kobyz
These two recently released discs already have historic value as the first solo recordings introduced to the world market by Western companies of music for the kobyz, the two-string fiddle, central to the sacred culture of the Kazakhs, Turkic people inhabiting a vast country at the heart of Eurasia. Their emergence reflects the growing interest in Kazakh music and of this ancient instrument outside its homeland, facilitated by the opening of political borders in the aftermath of the Soviet era and generated by processes of change in kobyz performance itself as a response to its earlier history.
Kobyz or kyl-kobyz ("kyl" referring to its horse-hair strings), made from a single piece of wood in a ladle-like shape with a covered lower part and two strings tuned a fourth or fifth apart, has acquired a special status and dignity among [End Page 155] the Kazakhs as the instrument of mediation with ancestral spirits invented by a legendary hero, Korkyt, to overcome death. Originally used by Kazakh shamans (baksy) and epic bards (zhyrau) for healing and soothsaying purposes, it retained its sacred meaning and significance outside the ritual domain in the art music of the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. During the Soviet ideological and cultural campaigns, the kobyz, as "a remnant of the dark past" (Zataevich 1925, 370), became an object of persecution and transformation resulting in an abrupt decline of former practices and a near discontinuity of performance traditions and repertoire, paralleled by the imposition of European-modeled music-making and training of kobyz players (kobyzshy). Recent years, however, have seen a revival of the instrument through study, restoration and promotion of its image, causing musicians to search after "tradition" and giving rise to questions of "authenticity" in kobyz performance.
The released discs feature three celebrated kobyzshy on the contemporary Kazakhstani musical scene who, being actively engaged in this process, have to a great extent shaped the appearance and perception of "traditional" kobyz performance today: a master, Smatai (Smagul) Umbetbaev, and two young though already recognized performers, Saian Aqmolda and Raushan Orazbaeva.
Each of the three has a personal bond of attachment to the tradition through tribal and family lineage claiming the heritage of former musicians, kobyz players, and shamans. Together they embrace the core classical repertoire transmitted from the nineteenth to early twentieth century and linked to the ancient ritual or epic traditions: instrumental pieces (küis; singular—küi)—folk, those attributed to Korkyt, composed by the great master Ykhlas Dukenov (1843–1916) and other kobyzshy—and songs (än) to the kobyz, each accompanied by oral narrative, a story or legend.
Yet the two recordings not only demonstrate different interpretations of the küis—an anticipated aspect of performance given their improvisatory nature and oral transmission—but also reveal distinctive understandings of "tradition," influenced by training and, as in the past, consistent with the personality of the individual musician...