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Master and Apprentice

January 10, 2011

Before you read this post, you might want to know what a komuz is. I wrote about it back in November, so you can refresh your memory here.

It feels surreal. I’m in a classroom-converted computer lab behind a shopping mall, reading ancient Kyrgyz runes while strumming an instrument that has been played by nomads for centuries. The symbols tell my fingers where to go. Put your pinkie finger here, says a diagonal line with a tail on it; then, put your index finger here, says the sideways v. I do as the marks tell me and then, miraculously, I’m making music. A song written in 1932 by a Kyrgyz man born in the Russian empire is now flowing free from my fingers, the notes flying out to the shoppers below. Everybody in the room gathers round. The American’s playing komuz!

The runic notation is an invention of my teacher, Nurak Abdrakhmanov. Officially deemed a “Renowned Artist of Kyrgyzstan,” the man is a legend without peer. His komuz has rung out across continents, and has been featured on nearly every Kyrgyz music compilation you can find. A concert in his honor was held in the fall in the hall of the national philharmonic; an adoring crowd threw flowers at his feet. His past is fascinating, almost mythic. He was the only remaining komuz player, or komuzchu, to have studied with the last generation of masters before they were eclipsed by the Soviet tide. One biography tells of how he was fed the meat of a snow leopard when he was young to keep his fingers nimble, and the meat of a mountain turkey so his voice would be as sweet.

I believe the stories – the guy can shred. I’m learning a song called Mash Botoy, a full-throttle stampede of lightning-fast strumming, the runes coming so fast that the fingers can hardly keep up. It’s much too hard for me, I think – I’ve only been playing for three weeks. Nurak shrugs off my skepticism with the Kyrgyz equivalent of a “Pshhh” and launches into it. Like any virtuoso, he makes it look easy. His hands move with confidence and grace, and he smiles as if he could do it in his sleep. There are no frets on the komuz, but his fingers hit the right notes without fail, like they’re going home to old friends. The master looks at his student and waits. Without much of a common tongue, we exchange mostly smiles or furrowed brows. This time, it’s an encouraging stare. “Okay,” it says, “now it’s your turn.”

My rendition sounds wretched in response, the notes falling flat, the strums coming in waves of uncertainty. Nurak could do better playing with his toes. Yet he waits patiently, offering me “good job”s to buoy my mood. I thought this would be easier. I’ve been playing guitar for ten years, and the komuz has three strings to the guitar’s six. The math seemed to suggest an easy adaptation. I soon learned, though, that this is a different beast altogether. The lack of frets means the strings are undivided by notes – you need to hit the right spot, every time, or you get a sour sound. You strum with your nails and your knuckles – after the first week, my cuticles were reduced to pulp. And it’s not so simple as up and down, up and down. Strange rhythms catch me off guard, and the up and down turns into side to side, as you stroke the komuz from top to bottom, or round and around, as you do pinwheels with your hand between strums. These flourishes are for performance’s sake only, and there’s a ton of them. In one, you flip your hand upside down and beat the komuz with the back of your hand. With another, you cut across the strings with the tips of your fingers, back and forth – it’s called ‘the knife.’ In the grandest display of all, you flip the komuz onto your shoulder with a shout and pluck it as it rests against your head. I haven’t gotten that far yet. I’m still getting the komuz to behave as it rests in my lap.

Luckily for me, all these theatrical nuances are notated too, so I can read Nurak’s songbook and practice at home. Dozens of songs are written out like this, note for note and strum for strum. The book is beautifully bound and was published this fall. For me, it’s a blessing. I’m one of those rare musicians who can’t read music, and I’d be lost in front of classical notation. Instead, I can be the first in a new class of komuzchus, reading runes to make our tunes. I feel truly proud when I look at the front cover and see Nurak’s face, his smile beaming. When people see the book at my place, I can’t help but brag – “That’s my teacher!”

I owe a supreme amount of gratitude to Mark Humphrey, who led me to Nurak and put me on the path I am now. He runs a terrific website,, and has published a collection of traditional Kyrgyz folk music, compiled with much determination and lovingly annotated. The CD is called “Shüüdüngüt’s Road” – guess who is on the cover?


I got a lot of requests to share a komuz song with my readers, so that they know what this beautiful instrument sounds like. Here, then, is one of my favorites, a song called “Kyrgyz Kochu.” Nurak was teaching it to one of his students the other day. He said it was written while riding on a camel, and should sound appropriately bouncy. He wasn’t happy with the kid’s rendition – “It doesn’t sound like you’re riding a camel, it sounds like you’re riding a taxi!”


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