“On the dombra, not fingers must play but the soul” – Z. Karmenov
Instrumental folk music in Kazakhstan is its own particular art form, and its compositions are known as kuis (also kyuis, or küjis). Kuis can date as early as the 8th century CE, and commonly they were a vehicle to express emotion as well as hidden references to cultural traditions among the people of the Great Steppe. From what I understand, the earliest kui songs were meant to be played on the kobyz, the bowed string instrument of Kazakhstan – but later, the long-necked, two-string dombra became the primary instrument for performing those compositions (as well as the primary channel for relating epic Kazakh vocal music).
Some kuis do contain a vocal element, in fact, despite it being considered an instrumental genre. There are several styles of kui: tekpe (tökpe) which is associated with the west of Kazakhstan and has what is called a “sweeping” up and down playing of the dombra, producing a drone-like effect; shertpe, which is generally associated with eastern Kazakhstan and means “plucking and flicking,” and varies between softer playing and a major attack; zheldirme, a kui style that tends to be lyrically didactic; tolgau, with more philosophical content; and ceremonial kuis for weddings and events. One of the greatest composers of shertpe kuis was Tättimbet Qazangap-uly, and he composed the kui piece here, titled “Sarzhailau,” or “The Golden Steppe.” You can hear the distinct qualities of the shertpe style – the delicate melody and sudden, percussive hammering.
Tättimbet was from the Argyn tribe, born in 1815, and, as legend has it, composed his legendary 62 kuis in the yurt of a grieving man, Küshkibai, who had lost his son, and who resolved to end his life by starving himself to death. Tättimbet was summoned to play for Küshkibai and while the music continued, he overcame his grief. After coming to and confronting the sight of such a youthful, dombra-playing kuishi, the wealthy Küshkibai asked how such a young man could carry such a worldly, enlightened sense of grief in his kuis. Tättimbet answered, “Your grief is the grief of one person, while I bear in myself the grief of all people.”
Tättimbet died in 1862. Like all kuis, his works are passed down through oral tradition and memorized. In the Soviet era, Kazakh music fared quite well, despite the records’ scarcity today. Kazakh music on disc was certainly dwarfed by music from Russia proper, with its thousands of popular, classical, and nationalist recordings. However, compared to other musics by non-Russian cultures in the USSR, the availability of Kazakh music was overwhelmed only by the number of Uzbek discs available. Pekka Gronow has documented that in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union was still pressing 78s, well over 400 Uzbek discs were readily available. For Kazakh records, that number was nearly 300. This was a considerable figure, despite the fact that many of these 78s were likely nationalistic. It’s also a considerable figure when you compare that number to the relatively small number of available Azeri discs, 95 in total, when the Azeri and Kazakh populations were not wildly far apart at the time.
Abiken Khasenov was without question one of the primary interpreters of shertpe kuis in the 20th century. Born in 1897 in the central-east Kazakhstan district of Shet, he learned dombra from his uncle, and eventually found a home at the Kazakhstan State Drama Theater, where he taught from 1934 onward. This disc was recorded in 1957, and issued on a special imprint of the Soviet state-run label (pressed in Tashkent, but featuring an illustration of the Abay Opera House in Almaty) marking the 40th anniversary of Kazakhstan since the Russian Revolution. Khasenov died just a few years later, in 1962.
Label: Tashkentski Zavod
Issue Number: n/a
Matrix Number: 28536
Kendirbaeva, Gundir. “The Specific Nature and Peculiarities of the Manifestation of Folklorism in Kazakhstan.” Central Asiatic Journal 37-3/4 (1993): 169-187.
Additional information from:
Levin, Theodore, Saida Daukeyeva, and Elmira Köchümkulova, eds. The Music of Central Asia. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016.