Beauty or Bleakness? Seeking Jazz in Kyrgyzstan During the Holiday Season
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 freakor 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 kidnappingwhich predates Islam's emergence in Kyrgyzstan during the 12th centurywas 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.