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Back Roads Beat

Beauty or Bleakness? Seeking Jazz in Kyrgyzstan During the Holiday Season

By Published: December 2, 2006
When the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of countries experienced a cultural awakening. In Kyrgyzstan, the artists fled.

So says saxophonist Arthur Dew, a former resident of the capital city of Bishkek, during a break between sets at a gig where he's sitting in with some friends. The sports bar buzz and youthful crowd are hardly signs of deprivation. But the surrounding buildings are aging Cold War-era cement relics, most of them dark and quiet except for a neon sign outside a gloomy, living room-size casino. There may not be a similar band playing anywhere else in the country on this wintery evening.

"After the revolution, perestroyka, you had all the Russian people going to Russia, the Ukrainian folk going to the Ukraine, the German folk going to Germany," said Dew, who now lives in southern Russia, although he returns regularly to visit his daughter.

Unlike bustling former Soviet republics in Europe like Estonia and Latvia, there isn't enough history or stability to nurture a jazz culture in the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, a nation the size of South Dakota where horses outnumber cars outside cities.

Kyrgyzstan's moment in the modern media spotlight is a TV documentary about the traditional ritual of a groom setting a wedding day, followed by his relatives kidnapping a bride. Rampant corruption and crime continue to frustrate most citizens more than a year after the current president came to power in the violent "tulip revolution." It doesn't help that the average annual salary of $300.

Yet Kyrgyzstan is referred to as the "Switzerland of Central Asia," with jagged Himalayan mountains covering nearly 95 percent of the landscape. Some aspects of its shaky tourism infrastructure are surprisingly friendly, such as being the only country in the region where U.S. travelers don't need a prearranged visa. Nearly everyone not wearing security uniforms are helpful to a sometimes embarrassing degree. While they're eager to make a buck from visitors, there's less intent on hustling and overcharging them than a lot of supposedly more tourist-friendly destinations.

My four-day visit was part of my extended quest to find jazz musicians in the world's most unlikely places. Several days of difficult travel to hear what ended up being a single gig might not seem like much of triumph, but there's enough to suggest a return is worthwhile during the months more likely to attract visitors. In addition to better weather during the warmer months, Kyrgyzstan hosted its first-ever international jazz festival last April, including five performances by Bishkek bands (a second festival is scheduled for April of 2007).

But my initial inquiries upon arriving were less than promising, as the few people who spoke even limited English indicated I might be there at the wrong time or sent me chasing bands apparently no longer performing.

"In America you have a jazz tradition," Dew said when I finally encountered him. "All the old people (here) had to listen to jazz on the radio, listened to the formats. In Bishkek there is no tradition. Young people today have very little information about jazz in America. Where they sell discs there is no jazz. Without all that special intellect they do not understand all that?"" and he breaks into a scat of vocal be-bop notes and hand gestures.

There's little innovation as the quintet tackles standards with a competence neither dull nor noteworthy. Dew's alto tone is smooth with a '70s feel, consistently playing mid- density phrases in a conventional range. Probably the best playing was the hollow-body electric guitar wielded by Alexeg (he and the other band members declined to give their last names—in fact, asking a polite "are you sure" was regarded as an insult). His transitions between smooth and thudding tones, and harmonic and exploratory notes, were regular without being contradictory. Most of the other work was pretty basic rhythm foundations, although Alexander the pianist (and normally the group's leader) did regularly infuse melodic passages into the mix.

Notable and disappointing was a complete lack of crowd reaction. I heard no applause or acknowledgment of the band during solos, between songs and when they wrapped up sets. Similar disconnect occurs in plenty of places where the food and socializing is the primary reason for gathering, but it's also my experience audiences tend to be more appreciative of jazz when it's played in places were it's rare.

History, if not the present, favors jazz

It's not like Kyrgyzstan people need to learn jazz fundamentals. Techniques of the country's traditional music are embraced by masters such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Chick Corea.

That observation from multi-instrumentalist Kurmangazi Azykbaev refers to similarities such as changing rhythms and versatility in Kyrgyzstan's traditional instrumental folklore. Instruments like the three-string pizzicato komuz and reed-based temir ooz komuz can handle guitar- and woodwind-like duties in such performances.

"I would tell you that in my music, there are all essences of the world, of the eternity," he said during a radio interview. "Maybe there is wood, there is metal, there is air, there is water, etc. all this is present in it."

Kyrgyzstan has a native jazz player of international acclaim in 18-year-old piano prodigy Eldar Djangirov, who's earned raves since coming to the United States as a child. When I interviewed him following a club gig in Seattle a month after my visit, he didn't make much of the connection. He doesn't follow the often turbulent news from his homeland and, while aware of the country's musical heritage, doesn't make a point of listening to or seeking out current players. Even his last name (pronounced John-GEAR-off) is something from the past, as he no longer uses it in public.

"When I was 10 I moved to Kansas City," Eldar said. "That's where I grew up."

Still, his name came up most frequently during my initial inquires about musicians in Bishkek. There were few suggestions for finding players there except asking music vendors, the largest cluster of which are in shops surrounding the long stretch of monuments, museums and parks in the city center. Everybody was unfailingly polite and eager to help one of the few Western tourists they see during the cold months, but their responses when they heard what I was after suggested I was somewhere between misguided and nuts.

"I don't think you're going to find anything," said one of two girls apparently in their late teens who were working at a stand where thousands of pirated pop and techno CDs were stacked behind her. Their expressions indicated either they had never heard of jazz or I was a freak—or more likely both.

Seeking chic at a Soviet-style pace

The problem with having a bunch of neighboring countries with long names ending in "stan" is it's easy to get them confused.

As an actor on The West Wing put it, "Khazakhstan is a country four times the size of Texas and has a sizable number of former Russian missile silos. Kyrgyzstan is on the side of a hill near China, and has mostly nomads and sheep."

It's also hard sounding hip if you're from Bishkek, the Krygyz word for a churn used to make fermented mare's milk, the national drink. Everyone I saw was drinking vodka and beer, but that's probably because mares give birth during the warm months and aren't using their udders much in the winter.

The country has few claims to fame, although the world's largest natural-growth walnut forest is there. Their ancestors were driven out of Siberia by the Mongols around 1000 A.D., living as mountain nomads while the Mongols, Russians and others took turns violently dominating the region.

More than 40 percent of the country is above 9,000 feet in elevation, with Peak Pobedy reaching more than 24,000 feet. Rugged and resort types alike are drawn to Lake Issyk- Kul, one of the largest alpine lakes in the world at 2,445 square miles, with mountains up to 15,000 feet in elevation surrounding its surface at 5,300 feet.

Three-fourths of its 5 million people are Muslims, but observance in many cities is not as strict as some countries. The practice of bridal kidnapping—which predates Islam's emergence in Kyrgyzstan during the 12th century—was something a couple of people wondered if I'd heard about, perhaps due to the recent documentary and other media coverage, but didn't seem eager to discuss. I encountered enough women in a variety of occupations to support the idea they suffer fewer restrictions than many Muslim nations. It's also worth noting, without making light of the situation, that their cultural game of Kyz-Kuumai requires a man on horseback to overtake a woman with a headstart on a faster horse, or get lashed with a whip.

For optimists, perhaps Krygyzstan's biggest appeal is its vast potential for progress. It may be the 28th most unstable of 146 nations in a 2006 World Foundation survey, but at least Forbes magazine dropped it from its list of the 14 most dangerous countries for tourists.

For adventure travelers who thrive on the unscathed wilderness, Kyrgyzstan may well offer something akin to the best of an unspoiled Nepal. Everest-like treks, yak riding, paddling and skiing are among the numerous options for active types. The country also features a rich nomadic culture from being part of the historic 7,000-mile Silk Route between China and the Mediterranean. Just expect few English speakers, a shortage of modern conveniences such as being able to use ATM and credit cards, and the need for a respectful and pleasant attitude even when bureaucratic headaches arise.

"We get many visitors who are interested in our mountains, (but) most are from nearby countries," said Garib Karimov, a tourism agency manager who met my 2 a.m. arriving flight in the capital of Bishkek. He had to wait nearly two hours on other side of a long customs line moving at a glacially slow pace, along with his brother and a friend.

Resisting help is futile

First impressions are a mix of frustration and friendliness, although even the latter can be annoyingly overbearing.

Clearing immigration at the Bishkek airport requires a $27 entry visa, and possessions such as CDs and books to be listed so customs can censor them. My jazz CDs from several previously visited Asian countries were no problem. But their requirement of declaring all foreign currencies to be declared was a nuisance since I was carrying trifling amounts as souvenirs from the roughly two dozen countries I'd visited to that point.

Karimov and I talked tourism and politics during the 30-minute drive to the city. I mentioned I'd need cash if an ATM was available to pay for his services and buy food. I wasn't looking for a cultural adventure at 3 a.m., but finding one of the perhaps three ATMs in the city that take international cards took time. A travel tip: Exchange all of your som back into real currency before leaving, as no other country in the world seems to want to have anything to do with it.

As for food, one of the few businesses still open was a small grocery store near my hotel, making a quick stop possible.

Or at least it would have been quick without Karimov as an escort.

"I'll be back in a minute" was a phrase that fell on deaf ears, as did increasingly blunt requests not to have my purchases scrutinized as he insisted on following me and explaining each item. He kept pointing to items in the rows of sardines and vegetables long after I'd chosen a can of horse meat out of pure curiosity (verdict: better than Spam, worse than tuna).

(Speaking of food, a brief primer: I ended up eating a lot of roasted chicken served with massive flatbreads, samsi puff pastries stuffed with meat and "gamburgers" with gyros-like meat, all readily available cheaply from street vendors. They have the worst Diet Coke in the world, containing carbonated gas and artificial sweetener in trace amounts. Enterprising cooks wanting to make the national dish, Besh Barmak, need only boil one medium sheep and two pounds of chopped onions for two hours, make noodles from four cups of flour and an egg, then boil the noodles in the sheep broth while cutting the meat into smaller than bite-size pieces. Or get some store-bought noodles and seven pounds of lamb.)

I learned the desire for close personal attention wasn't just a quirk of my driver when I checked into my hotel. Call me a wuss, but I opted for one of Bishkek's cushiest places (roughly equal to a Ramada Inn) over a rustic homestay due to the time of year and miseries experienced while traveling there. The desk clerk kept insisting breakfast be delivered to my room at a prearranged time despite my preference for hitting their buffet ?" the typical tourist lineup of bread, pastries, cheese, cold cuts and cereal—whenever I happened to wake up.

"There's no extra charge," she said at least half a dozen times, either feeling I wasn't understanding her or unable to grasp a person rejecting such an offer.

The flip side of the close personal attention came from people like a security guard at Doka Pizza, who gave me a lengthy Soviet-style interrogation after spotting my notebook and camera.

"Why do you want to write about that?" he asked when I told him I was there because of the band. It's hard enough convincing most people jazz is interesting, to say nothing of a humorless, burly guy in a uniform who speaks only a few words of your language and is probably carrying a firearm.

Exploring the sights and sounds

My hunt started ingloriously on the first day as my cab driver got lost looking for the largest shopping area in the center of town, perhaps due to language misunderstandings. Undeterred, he smilingly insisted on finding it through the process of elimination by driving around town, stopping occasionally to ask directions based on an English- language note I'd written that nobody seemed able to read. He eventually dropped me off downtown at the "memorial," one of a handful of words and destinations apparently familiar to him from driving other visitors around.

A half-dozen statues of figures honoring military and cultural heroes, each occupying a block-size public square where a handful of vendors sell trinkets, make for an interesting walk. Statuesque museums and auditoriums—featuring theater, opera and classical—are also heavily promoted by the city.

My lingering memory, however, is the large number of elderly women sitting next to bathroom scales on the sidewalks, asking the equivalent of about two U.S. cents to learn your weight. I paid one a dime for my weight and the privilege of taking her picture, using crude notebook sketches to communicate with her. Another was selling a few items of used clothing, including a drab brown fur-lined coat I bought using the same negotiating technique for about $4, having left my previous one behind a few days ago in the 90- degree heat of Bangkok.

Street vendors near the markets sell anything and everything, and the so-called mall is simply a cluster of them in a bustling five-story building. One floor is packed almost exclusively with CDs and DVDs, all pirated and selling for a few dollars each. But the word "jazz" isn't part of the limited tourism vocabulary.

"We don't have anything like that," said a woman in her 20s at one booth, after determining a lone Ella Fitzgerald disc in her stacks wasn't what I was after. She named a few nightclubs, but said they all played rock or dance music.

That was the most productive exchange during two hours of searching and I was feeling a looming sense of doom as I headed for the exit. Just before getting there I heard my first jazz notes since entering the country. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a big-screen TV dealer playing a promotional DVD of a U.S. concert. Not for sale, he stated firmly. But given my need for accomplishment and willing to take a chance in the presence of 100,000 pirated albums, I did some pantomime-heavy bickering and eventually exited with the disc and a wallet nine dollars lighter.

It was much the same during two more days of visits to everything from the gloomy casinos to museums where I couldn't even get into gift shops without paying the entrance fee. I bought a couple of CDs packed with pirated MP3 albums from area bands, featuring a mix of beat-driven techno dance music and traditional instrumental folk. Twice I chased futile leads to clubs, getting rockers one night and DJ-pumped CDs the other.

Not wanting to get stuck only pounding concrete, I made two efforts to get to the mountains using private drivers. They're a relatively expensive option at around $50 a day, but the only realistic one I found on short notice during the off-season. Even if an outsider could rent a reliable car in the winter, it'd be insanity trying to navigate their rough and tangled roads using the cyrillic-letter signs.

A 20-year-old well-maintained Mercedes awaited outside my hotel for the first trip out, a notable step above the rickety minicars cabbies usually favor. A studious driver in his 30s with a neat casualness befitting the non-profit responsible tourism agency he worked for greeted me in solid English. Once we got past greetings and destinations, however, the language gap got more pronounced. It was annoying, for example, he couldn't spell his name in English, but downright embarrassing I couldn't say it in Russian.

Fog shrouded the mountains as we left the city on an unremarkable two-lane road, leaving little to see beyond a continuous stretch of farmlands that could be any any high plains state. Aside from the avoiding the occasional stray livestock or cattle train, whose presence on the road quickly becomes ordinary in such countries.

The hope was to make it to Ysyk-Kol lake, by far the country's largest, with the town of Balykchy an obvious starting point roughly 100 miles away. But before long we encountered snow, turning a grey city day into a full-fledged winter storm within a couple of hours. The road became little more than a couple of snow ruts and, while my driver was willing to plough ahead undeterred, my nerves weren't as steady. I tried with a different agency the next day despite similar weather conditions, with similar results.

I was bit edgy by the last night of my jazz quest, following one of my final leads to Doka Pizza. Bright lights and a bustling crowd stood out among the mostly closed storefronts, but the hope from those was nothing compared to opening the door—and hearing the blare of a saxophone. Maybe it was the camera or maybe the inexplicable shout of triumph from an obvious outsider, but after 10 minutes of unfailingly polite conversations and smiles with the previous mentioned burly security guy, I managed to stake an empty table in front of the tiny stage.

Dew, the visitor fronting a quintet of old friends who comprise the regular house band, helped turn what might be a pleasantly forgettable evening elsewhere into an oasis here by talking with me between sets. While the music scene has regressed, he said the country has attractions even this time of year not found in his current homeland.

"Here you have a nice climate— no winter. No cold winds like Russia," he said. That, he added after a moment, is a relative comparison.

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