The hills are alive


Recalling songs and stories passed from “generation to generation and from hut to hut through time and distance,” Zamira Sydykova, Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to the United States, kicked off last Tuesday’s crowded Noruz celebration at International House. A Persian holiday coinciding with the vernal equinox, Noruz welcomes both spring and the New Year. At Chicago, however, Noruz had to wait for the end of spring break. Presented by the University’s Central Asian Studies Society on March 28, the three-hour festival began with music and poetry. Soloist Akylbek Kasabolotov played traditional Kyrgyz flutes and jaw harps, and Kyrgyzstan national laureate epic singer Rysbai Isakov gave a riveting half-hour recitation—in Kyrgyz—from the Manas, one of the world’s longest epic poems.

Independent anthropologist Helen Faller, meanwhile, offered some cultural context for the concert. A Silk Road country and former Soviet republic, Kyrgyzstan is 97 percent mountainous and its societies are historically nomadic, Faller said, explaining the compact portability of Kasabolotov’s instruments. Introducing Isakov’s performance, she noted that Manas singers are called to their occupation by a vision. Those who ignore the vision succumb to “mental illness”; called at age 12, Isakov suffered crushing migraines, Faller said, until he devoted himself to reciting the Manas ten years ago.

After intermission, the five-man Tuvan throat-singing ensemble Alash brought listeners to their feet. Led by jovial virtuoso Kongar-ool Ondar (a celebrity and member of parliament in the Republic of Tuva, situated between Siberia and Mongolia), Alash breezed through a repertoire of humorous, catchy, and lively songs. Interpreter and band manager Sean Quirk explained the practice of throat-singing, in which the singer sustains a low, thrumming note while simultaneously humming one or two notes in a higher pitch. Tuvan traditional songs come “from nature,” Quirk said. “These are the sounds of the lifestyle”: water rolling downstream, feet in a horse’s stirrups, rushing rivers. The musicians played traditional jaw harps, drums, flutes, and stringed instruments to accompany their singing, and they also incorporated more modern influences, Quirk said, pointing to an accordion borrowed from Russian culture. “Tradition is not something that’s encased in a crystal box and doesn’t change,” he said. “It’s something that’s alive.”


Photos: Akylbek Kasabolotov (top); Master throat-singer Kongar-ool Ondar, of Alash (bottom).

April 5, 2006