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The Voice of Kyrgyzstan

February 7, 2011

Salamat Sadykova was dressed in a long fur coat with silver studded boots. Her nails were well-polished and her makeup was well-done, and on her arm hung Louis Vuitton. She was driving me to the national philharmonic in her gleaming Mercedes. She was a diva without a doubt – you would be a diva too if you had been called “maybe the greatest singer you’ve never heard.”  In Kyrgyzstan, at least, she was definitely heard of, a household name, the queen of Kyrgyz folk music. She was big and she knew it, and she carried herself like a woman of importance.

Yet mention her name outside of these borders, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. She had traveled abroad, sure, from Spain to France and Korea to Thailand, but Kyrgyz music is so low on the world music radar that even that scene was hard to penetrate. You need only to listen to her voice, though, to understand that this relative obscurity is nothing less than a shame. Her singing is powerful but nuanced – she’ll belt out a note for fifteen seconds but it doesn’t sound like showing off. She’ll modulate it somehow so that it’s like a stream of deeply-felt feelings, constantly changing. Its been known to make people cry. Now as we were driving through the rain-soaked streets of Bishkek, she sang to herself only quietly. If she really used her lungs she might break the windows.

Image courtesy of

At the philharmonic, we went to her third-floor changing room, her name embossed on the door. Frilly traditional dresses hung on a rack and I recognized a red robe I had seen in one of her videos. She apologized for the mess but there wasn’t any – it was simply part of her natural hospitality. We sat and made small talk, going over the story of how we had gotten in touch. My friend and close advisor Mark Humphrey had first heard her voice on a Japanese CD fourteen years ago, and was so enthralled with the wonders of Kyrgyz music that he came to Kyrgyzstan to find her. He ended up producing an album of hers, which he called “The Voice of Kyrgyzstan.” It’s the only collection of hers available in the states, and it’s worth a look. Having a mutual friend so dear to her made for a comfortable chat. Any friend of Mark’s, she said, she was happy to meet.

Mark had sent me recently some good news – Salamat had been appointed director of the official state folk ensemble, Kambarkan. It represented a remarkable change in fortune for a singer who just five years before had been just about blacklisted. She had sang for the Kambarkan collective since they were assembled in 1987, and was a close friend of the first president of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akaev. They would go abroad together often, Salamat singing for diplomats as a symbol of Kyrgyz culture. In 2005, her friend was overthrown in the bloodless Tulip Revolution, replaced by a man named Kurmanbek Bakiyev. “Bakiyev” was now a dirty word in Kyrgyzstan – they had another revolution last year just to kick him out.

Salamat was obviously no fan – “He wasn’t a patriot,” she said. “How can a man be a patriot if he dances to Uzbek music at his inauguration?” In 2006, there were protests in the central square against the new president (protesting is a Kyrgyz pastime), and Salamat sang an ode to her nation to the crowd that had amassed. She was thereafter labeled a “singer of the opposition” and pressured out of Kambarkan. She made it by on her sheer popularity, but I could tell that those times were hard for her. The Bakiyev era was a rough one for Kyrgyz music. Salamat spoke of how the president put all his weight behind young pop musicians, putting them on national TV. She called them karaoke singers and lip syncers. The president would go to their concerts and dance to their music, she said with a shake of her head, but folk music was forgotten.

All the while, members of the ensemble were leaving to form their own private groups, but with them they took Kambarkan’s repertoire. Salamat was obviously bitter – “they take our songs and call them their own.” They were in it for the money and not the music, she suggested. She spoke with disdain about these newly-sprouted ensembles, who have more of a new-age inauthenticity to them. “They write new songs, but they don’t smell Kyrgyz. They smell Indian, or Arabic. Its not pure Kyrgyz, like Kambarkan.” The trouble was that people just weren’t that interested in pure Kyrgyz folk music. Add a keyboard, though, or an accordion, and you’ve got yourself a hit. If you wanted to make money, pureness wouldn’t cut it. If a state-supported music ensemble seems strange, consider how it can be used to enshrine actual musicianship and authenticity, and avoid this cultural debasement. With some government money in your pocket, you’re less-inclined to bring in a drum machine to boost your sales.

Still, it was not all doom and gloom. Salamat said the new president, a former diplomat named Roza Otunbaeva, was a friend of hers and a friend of Kyrgyz music. She hoped that Kambarkan would be sent abroad more for the purposes of Kyrgyz propaganda (not a bad word here as it is in the west). The whole idea was that Kyrgyz music was making a comeback, and the government had to do their part to get the word out. I also served a role, she said. Not many people in the states know about Kyrgyz music – there are not many people like me and Mark who care about promoting it. With our efforts, she hoped a producer in America could hear her music, and for the first time, Kambarkan would have their own album. That, she said, would make her proud, and would be an honor to her country. “Things will get better,” she said. “Hope dies last.”


Listen to Salamat Sadykova’s stunning vocal prowess on this track from “Voice of Kyrgyzstan,” her fantastic collection from Mark Humphrey’s Frequency Glide Enterprises.

Gulgun Jash (Happy Youth)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Palmer permalink
    February 8, 2011 1:28 am

    I’m sure you’re aware of this, but a rhetoric of “pureness” what it comes to folk music is a little problematic, no? Just being pedantic. That’s what brothers are for.

  2. Mahabat permalink
    November 29, 2013 6:23 am

    What a briliant article! Well done. It exactly highlights Salamat Sadykova’s personality.

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