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

Mark Sabbatini By

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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.


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