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Komuz and Creation

November 6, 2010

“Over the radio came a tune I knew, played on the komuz. It was a Kirhiz song which always made me think of a lonely horseman riding through the twilit steppe. He has a long journey before him, the steppe is vast, he can think at leisure and softly sing a song, sing on what is in his heart. A man has many things to think over when he is alone, when the only sound in the stillness about him is the rhythmic thud of his horse’s hoofs. The strings of the komuz rang gently, like water rippling over smooth, clean stones . The komuz sang of the sun setting behind the hills, of the cool blueness sweeping stealthily over the ground, and of the wormwood and yellow feather grass stirring and swaying, shedding their pollen on the sun-baked road. The steppe would listen to the rider and sing with him…” – Chingiz Aitmatov, Тополек Мой в Kрасной Kосынке

Voices rang out from one room. A piano tinkled in another. I was navigating the corridors of the Kyrgyz National Philharmonic, following the meekest Kyrgyz man I had ever met. After spending time with eagle hunters who collect videos of dog fights, I was genuinely relieved to meet Turatbek. His moustache and artist’s beret set him apart from the more thuggish types with whom I’ve been cavorting. His demeanor, too, was refreshing – a caring sensitivity that immediately put me at ease. My friend Mark Humphrey had given me his number, and he had generously offered to give me a tour of the ‘philharmonia’ and his musical instrument workshop.

Turat was a master woodcarver, and from boiled blocks of Batken apricot he created beautiful specimens of the iconic Kyrgyz lute, the komuz. It has three strings made of sheep gut and a neck without frets, but its seeming simplicity belies the incredible range of sounds that virtuosic komuz players, or komuzchus, can wrangle out of their instruments. It’s sound is clear and sincere, and any description of its song tends toward nostalgia. You read a lot of quotes like Aitmatov’s, of shepherd’s strums soaring over the open steppe. When I heard it, I somehow longed for this past that I never knew. I needed to learn more about it, and maybe learn to play it myself.

Sadly, I couldn’t hear any komuz tunes this time because all the resident komuzchus were on vacation. Besides the anonymous piano players behind closed doors, we were the only ones here, and we walked through this Soviet palace to music that felt sadly abandoned. The feeling only intensified when Turat took us downstairs, into the dark dungeon of the philharmonic. Our voices echoed in a hall filled with wood. The logs were waiting to be komuzes, but they would become tables and chair instead. The instrument workshop down here had been abandoned by the previous director of the philharmonic, and now a lonely old man made furniture with the komuz-carvers.  We saw wood-bending machines and a device used to make chopo choors, a kind of Kyrgyz ocarina. Turat had invented the contraption himself, but now it sat unused, covered in powdered clay.

Up at ground level, we walked through a lobby watched over by framed heads, portraits of komuz players past. Turat pointed to one, Atai Ogonbaev, and told me about how he once had a contest with a Kazakh musician where he played his komuz with his feet. Next he played it with a  knife, but the Kazakh player couldn’t keep up. He sliced his strings. Turat smiled, as if his story spoke volumes. Don’t try to outplay a Kyrgyz. You will end up a broken man, with broken strings.

Outside it was softly raining, and we jumped in a taxi to Turat’s. On the ride over, I was regaled with the story of Kambar Khan, the father of the komuz. Old Kambar was inspired by a mountain goat, impaled on a tree, its intestines humming softly in the wind. From those guts the Khan made the very first komuz strings. It was certainly a vivid creation myth. I had heard it before, but read it was a monkey whose insides had turned musical. This new version seemed to make more sense – there’s never been monkeys in Kyrgyzstan. Turat insisted otherwise. In the epics of old, he said, Kyrgyzstan was filled with lions, tigers, and rhinos. Monkeys were certainly possible. Kyrgyz are ever-boastful, and my translator Ertabyldy was not to be outdone. All people in the world, he said, are from Kyrgyzstan. The Italians are actually Kyrgyz who took lepyoshkas and made them into pizza. And the Native Americans, they’re Kyrgyz too. They have the same eyes, he said.

On the east side of town, we wove around puddles and arrived at a gate, where a little girl smiled and beckoned us in. “My daughter,” Turat said. He was a loving father, kissing her gently on the head. She marched forward and showed us to his workshop, a small space brimming with wood. The walls were coated in instruments, komuzes, rebabs, and violins. I lusted for the twelve-string guitar  I spied in the corner, but he said I couldn’t play it. He didn’t make these instruments, he was just repairing them. The guitar was cracked, and disembodied komuz parts were strewn throughout the room. Water water everywhere, and nary a drop to drink.

I sat down and talked with him for an hour or more, asking him everything I could think of about how to make a komuz. I fancied most his stories of ‘the old days.’ Back then, they would make each komuz from only one piece of wood. The strings were made of sheep intestines, dried in the sun. I’ll share a secret with you, Turat said – if you slaughter the sheep in the spring, it will be thinner and have less fat. Perfect conditions for gut harvesting, he told me with a wink. I felt privileged knowing that spring strings are the finest. In the old days, they would also take their finally-carved komuz and bury it in animal shit.  They’d keep it there for a year, to toughen the wood. I thought it must make a nasty-smelling komuz, but it must not have bothered them. They do, after all, use shit for firewood.

As romantic as the old days were, Turat didn’t quite miss the komuzes of yore. They were built for playing in the confines of a yurt, but now they rang out to concert halls. And thus the instrument must evolve. So the komuz would grow thicker, the concavity deeper, the strings secured with pegs and not leather. Every komuz I make, Turat said, is a quest for the ideal. For inspiration, he looked not to humming goat guts but to guitars, role models for the komuz of the future. Yet while admitting the acoustic inferiority of this national icon, he was also insisting on its divine status. From the komuz came everything, he showed me, taking out a chart of stringed instruments. The violin, the lyra, the harp, you name it – all bastard stepchildren of the komuz of the ancients.

All this talk of gut harvests, shit soaking, and national pride made us thirsty, so we headed across the courtyard to Turat’s household proper, where we sat on cushions and drank tea. His musician friend came for a visit, and from an unseen room Turat found the one instrument on the property that wasn’t in disrepair. It was a kyl kyak, strung with horse hair and played between the knees with a bow, the original cello of course. It was small, though, like a violin, and the musician pretended it was one, tucking it under his chin and playing it like a fiddle. It was Turat’s first kyak, he protested, so the sound was not perfect, but I was happy to find what I came for – music, in Kyrgyzstan, played amongst friends.

Kuvanich Plays Kyl Kyak

As we left, I told Turat that next time I would bring my guitar and play him some folk music from America. Most people are amused to hear that such a thing exists, but he seemed genuinely excited. He would make me a komuz, he said, and then I could play folk music from both our countries.  Under his moustache flashed a smile, and I felt good to be amongst my own, the musicmakers of the world.


A full transcription of my interview is in the public domain, for any who are interested (it’s 27 pages long), and more photos from our meeting can be seen in the facebook album here.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Palmer permalink
    November 6, 2010 9:31 pm

    Dadmn, the kyl-kyak sounds amazing! Can’t wait to hear some recordings of komuz tunes. You never responded to my query about your pictures – make a flickr!

    • November 7, 2010 8:31 am

      Yeah, the kyl kyak does sound great here, but it’s a very atypical recording. Thisinstrument was made in a western style and has a fuller sound then usual, and I’m pretty sure the little ditty he plays is from the western repertoire because the musician was classically trained.

      And as for the photos, I don’t think they look much different on the blog. Probably just look nicer cause they have that pretty border around em. I may make a flickr, but i’m not sure its worth my time.


  1. Lit 101: Intro to Aitmatov « Keen on Kyrgyzstan
  2. Master and Apprentice « Keen on Kyrgyzstan
  3. Komuz in Translation « Keen on Kyrgyzstan
  4. Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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