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Komuz in Translation

January 27, 2011

“Drink your tea!” said the most famous Kyrgyz guitar player known by no Kyrgyz. “We have a saying – if you don’t drink tea, where will you get your strength?!” Temiraly beckoned forward with a grand sweep of his arm, and when he commanded the tea-drinking, or said anything, really, he said it like a mighty proclamation, his voice booming with theatricality. He obviously had a certain self-regard, because he spoke eagerly about his supposed fame abroad, yet he looked like a starving artist, clad in an ill-fitting sweater with a scattering of stubble and a shortage of teeth. I came across this character by happenstance – I had met a woman and told her I was a guitarist, and she insisted that I meet him. Her name was Aida, and she was something like his agent. “He’s quite popular in Europe,” she told me, “but here, he’s unheard of. It’s a shame.” She had said it with wonder, shaking her head and clicking her tongue. Now we were all together as she had hoped, sitting around a short table with our legs crossed, sharing a meal on a raised platform in the Central Asian style. Temiraly sat apart, chain smoking cigarettes, a bit detached. For a man who seemed so self-assured, he was paradoxically closed off. When I tried to ask him his story, he puffed at his stoge to waste some time and fed me snippets between smokes.

He was self-taught. Puff puff. He was a friend of Chingiz Aitmatov. Puff puff. Aitmatov helped find him fans abroad. Puff puff. Any style of music, he could put on guitar. Arabian, I can do, he said. Chinese, sure. Even Persian. Kyrgyz, though, is my specialty.  He said that many people had tried before to put Kyrgyz music to the six-string but they had failed. The heart of the music was lost. He was different though, more sensitive, and the music spoke to him. He could transform the spare sounds of the komuz, he said, into something more full and alive, something that could survive on guitar. I was intrigued. You’re not the only one, he told me. There’s a producer in America, and he told Temiraly he’s got a “new way of playing guitar”  (he called the man “Joel” like America was so small, or Joel was so big, that I might know who he is.) I was eager to hear this musical revelation, but Temiraly kept his guitar in its case. “We need to eat first!” he said, and slid cubes of kebab onto his plate.

After eating, it was actually I who gave the first performance. When my assistant Ertabyldy told me of our scheduled meeting, he had passed along one request – bring your guitar. The Kyrgyz virtuoso was keen on judging my chops. I played them short songs to demonstrate my style. I play in an open tuning, so I showed them its advantages. It’s quite conducive to slide guitar, I said, and put a UC Santa Cruz shot glass on my fingers to make the strings sing. Harmonics are easier, too, I said, and showed how I press gently on the 12th fret to make a gentle ringing. And most fun of all, you can slap your guitar like a bass. I beat the strings with my thumb and they clapped like they had never seen anything like it. I blushed and told them how much I enjoyed playing for such an intimate audience. Really, though, I didn’t come to give a concert. I was ready to see what Temiraly had to show me.

He opened his case and out came an old classical guitar that looked like it had seen better days. For a guy with such a reputation, his instrument was strangely scruffy. He gave it a few strums and the strings sounded muffled with wear and tear. “In Kyrgyzstan,” he said, “you can find any brand of cigarette you want. Guitar strings, though, not so much.” Still, the notes flowed easily as he moved his fingers around the fretboard to warm up. You could tell he understood his guitar quite well, like they had been through a lot together. With another bold announcement he explained the first song he would play, and then he plucked his old friend with tender precision.

The song, he said, was about a bull. When the Kyrgyz were nomads they would move often from camp to camp, and the bulls would carry their stuff. This was the bull’s song, the sound of its careful plodding. I had heard the song before on komuz, and the contrast was interesting. You can listen for yourself. First, here is the song on the komuz, as it was meant to be played:

Kyrgyz Kochu (on komuz)

And here is the song as rendered by our guitarist:

Kyrgyz Kochu (on guitar)

It was interesting how he transformed the song, but what I thought first was how little his playing really affected me. For a man of such self-declared originality, I found the style a bit bland, and even his technical abilities to be a little lacking. The timing was off sometimes, and there were a few misplaced notes. I certainly can’t play like he can – the guy’s fingers moved in ways mine never have – but I was a little let down after all the hype. This was the guitar revolution we had been waiting for? Nevertheless, it was fascinating to hear how he re-imagined the Kyrgyz classics that I had heard so many times before. Something was lost in the translation, but the new versions had an appeal of their own.

Temiraly played a few of his Arabian pieces and somehow they sounded Spanish – I asked him nicely if he could just stick to the Kyrgyz renditions. He asked Aida for some suggestions and they settled on a composition by a classic komuzer named Niyazaly. Niyazaly, they said, was from the same part of little Kyrgyzstan that they were from, near a mountain lake called Sary Chelek. There he was fondly remembered, and the locals all knew his songs. Of all his compositions, there was one that was most treasured. It was called “Kyz Oigotoor” – “The Melody to Wake the Girl.” What did it mean?, I asked. Aida began to explain.

When Kyrgyz men turn sixty, she said, they are entitled to take for themselves a second wife. Niyazaly got to that golden age and, given the opportunity, snagged himself a sixteen-year-old. For their honeymoon, they set up a yurt at the edge of town and stayed there all-alone. Late one night, some neighborhood kids were playing a Kyrgyz game nearby, stunning in its sophistication – you throw a stick in the dark, and then try to find it. The stick landed near the newlyweds yurt, and when they went to retrieve it they were surprised to hear not snoring but strumming – it was four in the morning, but Niyazaly was playing his komuz! The kids ran back to town and told the neighborhood gossip hounds of the scandal. Why would he be up playing music and not sleeping with his young wife?

It seems that Niyazaly’s wife was not only young but young and lazy, and she was failing in her womanly duties. A Kyrgyz woman should rise early, before the sun, to clean the house and milk the cows. Like most sixteen-year-olds, though, this girl would rather sleep in, so Niyazaly would wake up every morning at four and play her a song. This is what he played her on komuz – the Melody to Wake the Girl:

Kyz Oigotoor (on komuz)

And here is Temiraly’s take:

Kyz Oigotoor (on guitar)

Aida’s tale and Temiraly’s tune were examples of one of my favorite features of Kyrgyz music – every song tells a story.  If you didn’t know Temiraly’s girl-waking melody was programmatic, you might just think it was a pretty ditty. But when you know that each note has something to say, it makes the music that much more meaningful. Somehow, without words, a Kyrgyz komuz kuu (an instrumental piece) can evoke the dawn or praise a swan, or vibrate with feelings a hundred years old. The repertoire is truly rich. Moreover, the music is intimately entwined with oral storytelling. It’s rarely just music for music’s sake. The player will tell a fable from times past, and then with music they will bring it to life. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

I got the feeling, though, that Temiraly’s songs didn’t quite tell the same stories. As they were moved from komuz to guitar, the stories seemed to lose their relevance. The guitar versions were more about finding a fuller sound for the song than trying to tell its tale. I decided you had to just appreciate them for what they were, as inspired compositions instead of something authentically Kyrgyz or inherently truthful. They were pretty and complex, and that was worth something too, I suppose.

Temiraly played a few more songs, and then we got to talking about his plans for the future. He was happy to have fans abroad, but he wanted to be respected in his homeland. Aida was finding him concerts and making him music videos, and they were working on putting together an album. He was getting old, but they thought that stardom was within grasp. As we drank one last cup of tea, I wished him luck. He thanked me but looked restless to go, putting out his final cigarette on the plate before him. He boomed a goodbye and went out the door. He had a country to conquer.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Palmer permalink
    January 27, 2011 10:02 am

    Kyrgyz Kochu definitely gets better once the tempo picks up…do you think maybe part of his unrefined style is deliberate?

    Also, his Arabian music probably sounded “Spanish” to you because much of Spanish music, like flamenco, is a product of the hundreds of years of Arabic presence in Spain.

    • January 27, 2011 11:00 am

      No, smartypants, it sounded Spanish because he was using Spanish-guitar techniques a little too much.

  2. eles permalink
    April 3, 2012 10:02 am

    it is a very simple sounds and it is difficult to make different notes on komuz because it has only 3 straws. but in the same time kygyz people are being able to express the things deep in side their souls, the things that impossible to describe by words. komuz melody has a very very deep meaning, something very serious, in there you can also find a rythm of the hunting eagle, the atmosfere of ancient battles, the strong running horse and the ideology of the kyrgyz nation.

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