The most important place in Kyrgyz art belongs to instrumental music. All inhabitants of a nomad group - from children to the elderly would gather together in order to listen the master instrumentalist's play. The most fascinating and interesting holidays were the times of the music competitions. Also, an instrumental ensemble was an essential element of military campaigns.
The main feature of the distinctive style of Kyrgyz music is the images it conjures in the mind. There is a very wide picturesque range: from heroics with dramatic (epic) effects, to the beauty of natural scenery (mountains, trees and streams) and domestic themes.
The term 'akyn' is used to refer to a performer that improvises verses - rather similar to a 'minstrel' in olden Europe.
The akyns began as the oral carriers of history, myth and philosophy for Central Asia's pre-literate nomads. In practice, they were also extemporaneous preachers who lectured in sung verse on the political and moral issues of the day, adapting old legends or codes for the country's latest ruler.
In the Soviet period, a lot of attention was paid to akyn and the communists used them to spread party propaganda. Akyns often sang about Lenin, the revolution and the achievements of the party.
One of the greatest Akyns of the Twentieth Century was Toktogul - who appears on the 100 som banknote and was a master at the art of Aytish. Some of his improvisations got him into trouble with the local 'manaps' and they arranged for him to be exiled to Siberia. After the Bolshevik revolution he wrote a poem about Lenin which is sometimes credited as being the beginning of 'democratic ideas' amongst the Kyrgyz.
It is said that at the time the Soviet Union collapsed there were only four akyns left in the country. The art form is, however, showing signs of a revival with the creation of the Aitysh Foundation, the opening of a school for young akyns and an increasing awareness in the Manas Epic (following the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the epic in 1995, it is even being taught in schools).
Sung in the Kyrgyz or Kazak languages, it is almost impossible to catch the pithiness of the verses in translation.
During the 2005 Parliamentary elections, akyns went on the campaign trail, taking their version of a stump speech from village to village.
Kyrgyz Music Instruments
Traditionally, the musical instruments of the nomadic Kyrgyz were simple affairs - made from materials which were readily available and easy to transport.
The two instruments most commonly associated with the Kyrgyz are Komuz and Temir Komuz.
Among the numerous national instruments the most widespread and popular is the komuz, which has rich repertoire. It is a stringed instrument, made from a single piece of wood (apricot or juniper are the favoured timbers), and plucked like a guitar. While playing it, the three strings are clasped by the left hand to the fingerboard and the right hand is used to pluck the strings in a variety of ways to draw out the sounds.
Today, the body of the komuz is usually made from a single piece of wood, but at one time there was a hollow in the body which made the sound resonating from the instrument even deeper.
It is a very versatile instrument and can be played by either men or women, boys or girls - as a solo instrument, as part of an larger group, or as part of a larger folkgroup ensemble featuring other traditional instruments. It is not unusual to see young children in the streets of Bishkek carrying a Komuz as they make their way to, or from, lessons in one of th city's specialist "Music Schools".
It is a very old instrument. In 1962, near the village of Shamsy in the Chui valley, archaeologists made a number of amazing discoveries – including the famous “Golden Mask” along with … a komuz – dating from the 4th and 5th centuries.
The Temir komuz has also become a musical symbol of Kyrgyz - like komuz. This instrument can be extremely small and is probably better known in the west as the 'jew's harp', or "jaws harp" and variations are found in Yakutia and Tuva, Britain, Norway, American, France and even in Australia.
The origins of the Tmir komuz are lost in obsurity. There is no doubt, however, that it has an ancient lineage. It is known by a number of names throughout the world. The first European mention of the instrument is a dutch customs document ... and this seems to clearly identify it as a "jews harp" which is the oldest recorded name for the instrument - the designation "jaws harp" came much later ... it is not encountered until the mid eighteenth century. There is older evidence however, including a miniture enamel in New College, Oxford (one of a series depicting angels playing a variety of musical instruments), the 14th century Swedish coat of arms of the Trompii family, and a Chinese drawing dating from the 4th cethtury BC.
It has been suggested that the metal version we are now so familar with, evolved from wooden or bamboo instruments developed in Asia, (perhaps Indonesia) - similar to the Jygach ooz komuz. The instruement then made its way to Europe either along the trading routes of the Silk Road sometime around the thriteenth century.
Made of iron, (the name means “iron komuz”), it is a subtle musical instrument with an variety of shapes, sizes and methods of playing. Most commonly, it is shaped in the form of a broken, stretched circle with two prongs, and attached to the center is a steel plate. The shape and size of the instrument govern the fundamental note that the reed produces. The sound is made by placing the prongs between the lips and striking the steel plate – and adjusting the shape of the hollow of the mouth. The moth acts as a "sound box" - the shape of the mouth and placing of the tongue changes the and timbre of the notes which be produced: to produce a lower note the tongue is placed at the bottom of the mouth and to produce a higher note it is placed to the top of the mouth.
Although in Kyrgyzstan men sometimes play the instrument it is more usual to see it played by women.
Tradition has it that the sound of a temir komuz being played near the cradle of a new born infant, then the baby will grow up clever, gifted and eloquent.