Call me crazy, but I had obsessed about it since I arrived in Kazakhstan… the dombra. The national instrument features in historical depictions and even on building gables, but I hadn’t actually heard one yet. Then last Saturday as we entered the old city market, there he was; an elderly fellow, resplendent in his costume, strumming his dombra. Few took notice except us; two ‘part-time tourists’, eager for culture. No it didn’t sound brilliant, a little twangy and scratchy, but then could you expect more from a two stringed instrument? As I placed a few tenge into the man’s pot, the musician glanced up and smiled. I stepped back to appreciate, intrigued with the simplicity of the tune. Yet I imagined that there must be more to this skinny long necked lute than his gentle strumming would suggest, perhaps it was the wrong setting?
On our recent trip into the ‘outback’, I had attempted to set the scene with some authentic Kazakh music. After jumping into the 4 x 4 and hearing the young driver’s stereo system, I innocently thought of dombra music. Even though Bon Jovi, Sting and the odd Russian ballad was on his playlist, I had the audacity to ask nonetheless…
“Sergei, would you mind playing some dombra music, pazhalsta?” He smiled politely, chuckled and shook his head decisively. All the while he must have been thinking… NYET! You silly foreign woman, don’t you realize I’m a 25 year old with a very decent truck and stereo, not to mention I’m Russian! We don’t play dombra music, that’s Kazakh and so not cool!
Complete cultural faux pas on my part… no dombra music on that journey then!
I can’t help it that I love music of all kinds and for me, the music should compliment the time and place. My kids would often cringe in an Italian or Thai restaurant when I’d suggest that the ‘music should really compliment the menu and surroundings’. They were used to my pursuit of music authenticity. Ud music in Oman, Mozart in Salzburg and maybe it wasn’t culturally authentic, but it was always Tom Petty while sand-duning in Qatar. So this week when the newsflash came through that there would be a dombra performance at the local philharmonic hall, I could barely contain my excitement. I summoned hubby home early from work.”We’re going, be home on time!”
Actually, Bruce is usually quite accommodating with these things. When we lived in Scotland he surprised me with front row tickets to a Fiddler’s Rally, a romantic indeed! There were the fiddlers and accordion players in their kilts, mesmerizing us with Strathspeys, Marches and Reels; bagpipers in the back row droning at opportune moments. As memorable as it was, I’m ashamed to admit that my enduring recollection of the evening was of an old kilted fiddler, front row centre. In the passion of playing, he ill advisedly crossed one leg over the other, a few gasps were heard from the crowd as he revealed more than we wanted to see. A wee nudge from a fellow musician, the leg went back down, and the mercifully the music played on.
It is however, far more difficult to cross one’s leg while playing the accordion. I should know as I am one… a proud player who has been teased about it throughout my life. I was only eight when my mom ‘gave me the gift of music’. There I was, a skinny wee thing, lugging my massive Italian squeezebox up and down the stairs to my lessons. More often than not, I was reprimanded by Ms. Bergan for not having practiced enough, yet I did eventually perform in a concert or two. Certificates prove that I was part of a duet called Two Freckles, yet I would set it aside for sports and other pursuits. I can still play that beloved instrument which is stashed away in a closet, ‘set free’ maybe once a year. I lug it out of it’s tattered blue case and summon a tune or two on its aged keys. I’ve since learned to play the piano, yet there is nothing quite like heaving those bellows in and out as a rollicking song somehow materializes from that mass of buttons and keys. No, it isn’t glamorous, but I tell myself we’re a select bunch that can play.. that reminds me to thank my mom for those long ago lessons!
As I got ready for our dombra outing, I recalled what I had read about the intriguing instrument, vital to Kazakh culture. It’s an essential part of their oral and musical culture; excavations of ancient cities have revealed terracotta statuettes two thousand years old, plucking similar instruments. Nowadays whether it be a staged performance or a traditional gathering in a yurt, the dombra represents the heart and soul of the Kazakh nation. Musicians tour the country vying to outdo each other, eager to share their virtuosity in styles that vary from region to region. Would any of them be performing this evening, I wondered. Yes, they’re as integral to this culture as the bagpipes are to Scotland, as the sitar is to India. Or, as it’s Octoberfest this time of year, as oompah music is to Germany. Which reminds me, allow me one more musical digression if you will.
I was in Germany, almost two years ago enjoying a ladies Christmas Market trip. The previous day had included choral music in a cathedral in the beautiful northern town of Lubeck, yet I felt that I hadn’t experienced that defining music that would encapsulate my travel experience. And so the last day found us in Hamburg’s Christmas market, steamy mugs of glühwein warming us in the frigid December air.
We wandered through the fairy tale atmosphere where every festive delight surrounds you; from the folksy hand carved decorations in evergreen stalls, to endless creations of marzipan, to the twinkling tanenbaums and painted nutcrackers. With food so irrisistedly delicious you smile as you compliment it with yet another mug to keep you warm. All of it was perfect and then we heard it! It was the music that I had so longed for; horns blasting, accordions blaring and a ‘stick a thumping’. Five minutes later there we were… dancing, twirling and shaking tambourines. Singing, laughing and soaking up the moment; musical and cultural perfection that I had hoped for. I then considered my trip complete.
But back to the dombra, surely you’re curious about the concert after all this rambling?!
It was brilliant, simply brilliant. We had expected simple musical fare, but bouquets of flowers decorating the stage and richly dressed musicians hinted otherwise. When the statuesque compere took the stage, her diction was lyrical, rolling and guttural, beautiful even if incomprehensible to us. Her flowing red dress and fur-lined ‘saukele’ with a feather-tipped ‘spire’ transported us to a different world.
Rows of male dombra players to the left and, to the right, in pale blue flowing dresses, an array of ladies with two-stringed kobyz ‘fiddles’ nestled in their laps. Violinists, drummers, bassists and accordion players, all poised to respond to the precise commands of the conductor. The music was of the country and it flowed like the wind ripples through the steppe, like horses rush on the prairie. My imagination conjured winter sleighs and cozy yurts. It was truly music sculpted by the landscape and the culture of the open plains.
Dressed in full-length boots, deep blue tunics and fur-brimmed hats, the dombra players were mesmerizing. Their style was at once simple and evocative – profound and lyrical.
And then came the Akyn, tall and broad in a long Kazakh robe and fur hat. These minstrels of bygone years once traveled to nomadic camps to entertain and enlighten. The Akyn tells tales that range from epic battles, to rich folklore to simple village gossip. I could hear it now in the music. First his dombra punctuated his words in rough accompaniment, then gave forth an eloquent display of virtuosity, widespread hands flashing across the strings. The crowd responded in the time honoured way, the way an audience around a camp fire or village square might have yelled out… “it can’t be so!” or “tell us more Akyn!” or simple whoops of approval. I didn’t understand the words but realized that this interaction was steeped in tradition. The Akyn was the master of the story, the dombra his canvas, the audience his confidants.
And so it continued, different styles all telling of a vast musical heritage, unbroken across the centuries. Dombra masters such as Serzhan Shakrat and young pretenders alike were given their place in the programme. Our favourite was without a doubt the young soloist who played with such delightful arrogance; clearly vying for deserved notoriety and acclaim. Beloved opera star Bibigul Tulegenova had obviously won the nation’s heart long ago. This great musical icon was surely the star of the evening, presented with bouquets of flowers after each song and lavishly lauded in closing speeches from admiring dignitaries. However, what touched me were the countless young people in the audience who rose to their feet the moment the revered Bibigul was introduced. Cameras poised, videos readied, they nudged each other as if in disbelief that the great star was before them. That in itself was comfort; that the respect and love for this music is very much alive and will continue to be passed on to new generations.
We were dazzled by the absorbing and unique atmosphere. There were more than a few glances in our direction as locals sensed that we were ‘visitors’. They smiled knowingly as if to say, “This is our heritage and we’re proud to share it with you.” We were honoured to be there.