By Zeena Urynbassarova
At the end of April in the cozy lounge room of Stephane and Chantal de Mahieu's house, a big audience of expats and Kazakhs gathered consisting mostly of their friends and colleagues for a small chamber musical concert. For the “first part" of the concert, local professional musicians had been invited, and the second part was a wonderful surprise with the performance of the hosts Stephane and Chantal who as it appeared, are not only great admirers of the Kazakh music, genuinely interested in Kazakh folk music.. but also good music amateurs, who understand the music canons....
Stephane says that it was a big love for music that coupled him and Chantal and all their three children are musicians - the son Edward, a waltz dancer - Caroline, the daughter is a soprano studying in Namur, and the younger daughter Aurore plays the piano.
On that evening, Chantal accompanied on a grand piano, and Stephane with his velvet baritone voice sang opera arias, as well as several romances, one which he composed on the verses of his favourite French poet. At the end of the performance, as a musical surprise, Stephane soulfully (with so much passion) sang in the Kazakh language the famous Abai's song "Aittym salem, Kalamkas".
"It was music that coupled us"
The evening was organized by the Expat Partners Atyrau (group open to any expats living in Atyrau) for the purpose of introducing expats to Kazak music and Chantal and Stephane volunteered to open their home for the evening.
Stephane says that the Kazakh music, especially Kazakh songs, are very melodious and they are close to their sounding to European musical traditions, therefore they sink down into soul immediately.
Probably a similarly strong impression was made unto other sophisticated European audiences, among which famous French writer and musicologist Romain Rolland, by our well-known tenor Amre Kashaubayev when he performed in Paris in 1926 at the international expo nearly 100 years ago.
After Amre's performance Romain Rolland wrote in his articles that the Kazakh music and especially “kui" (Kazakh instrumental music) were an advanced and distinguished musical form, comparable in its depth with the creations of the European musical classics.
"I very much love Kazakh songs and music, I listen to them and sing, and my wife Chantal plays Kazakh songs on grand piano, - says Stephane.
"When I play Kazakh melodies on grand piano, the gardener looks through the window and gives me a big smile" – says Chantal.
"We wanted expats who live and work in Atyrau to get better acquainted with Kazakh music, and maybe fall in love with it, just as we did" – says Stephane.
"After all it is not so often that we have the opportunity to go to concerts of Kazakh music and if there is one in the city, we try not to miss it" – says Chantal.
The evening concert was conducted in the form of presentation of Kazakh musical instruments and the treasure of the Kazakh musical culture – instrumental pieces “kui".
I told the stories of creation of Kazakh musical instruments - a legend about dombra where a legendary kui composer Ketbuga delivered bad news to Gengis-khan about the death of his elder son during hunting. Gengis-khan ordered to pour melted lead into Ketbuga's mouth, but the composer said: "Your majesty, I haven't uttered a word, it was dombra that delivered you the message". "Then pour lead into this instruments' throat!" – ordered the khan. They say that since then a little hole remained on the dombra's surface ….
Another legend is about the creation of kobyz by Korkut-ata …. The legendary Turkic composer of the 9th century, Korkyt-ata all his life was seeking immortality, but having understood that human life is only transient, he hollowed a musical instrument from a tree, slaughtered his camel Zhelmaya and pulled the skin onto the music instrument. Then he started to play kui, one more beautiful after the other. Suddenly a snake bit him and Korkyt died, but the music instrument that he created lives on, as well as the music that he composed. The main thought of this legend is that life isn't eternal, but art is.
Being in general one of the most ancient instruments in the world, kobyz is considered the forefather of the European bowed instruments, including violin.
Musical instruments of Kazakhs are the tone embodiment of traditional ideas of the nation of three levels of the universe or Three Worlds – Upper, Middle and Lower.
Low vibrating sounds of kobyz, rich with overtones capable to express roar and rumble of the Lower World : this was the shaman's instrument for communication with spirits and according to legends, kobyz music could heal diseases.
Sybyzgy - the wind instrument made of reed with its whistling tunes, transmits the sounds of birds, the sounds of Upper World.
And in the center of this universe is dombra - the instrument of the Middle World - of the world of people - an inseparable friend and spiritual twin of a nomad.
During archeological diggings in Koi Kyrylgan Kala (antique Horezm) archeologists found terracotta figurines of musicians playing on a dombra. Those figuries are two millennia old …
The music of steppe
Specially invited to this musical evening, an ethnographic team created impromptu from musicians of Atyrau academic orchestra of national instruments named after Dina Nurpeissova, gave one hour concert.
National musical instruments intrigued the audience at first with their freakish forms, and then with their unique sounding.
Sacral art of nar-kobyz playing was demonstrated by ethnomusicologist and composer Aknar Sharipbayeva, the descendant of famous Ykhlas kobyz player and composer (1843-1916). Aknar performed several creations of her well-known ancestor: "Korkyt", Zhez Keyek (Copper hoofed saiga).
There was one interesting moment … when Aknar played "Howling of the wolf". After the concert, the audience admitted with the smile that they were a little frightened by the sounds of a kobyz, that gave them a little shock, so naturally could Aknar express the sounds of wolf howling. But when she played the piece called “Romance" by Latif Hamidi, the sounds were more familiar to the European ear and they said that they recovered a little …
The shape of Aknar's kobyz reminds the flying swan, especially when she lifts it in the air and puts a bow across it …. And of course, she then played "Akku" (White Swan) …
Gulzhan Zholdybaeva demonstrated a rare art of sherter playing – an instrument related to dombra, but sherter has three-strings and its sound reminded me of.... banjo.
The leader of an orchestra, dombrist Erlan Raisov demonstrated different styles (schools) of dombra playing. As demonstration of “tokpe" style or "pouring, stream", characteristic for Western Kazakhstan, he masterly played “Adai"- a well-known kui by Kurmangazy. For the “shertpe" style (i.e. "plucking"), that is more popular in East Kazakhstan - he played kui "Konil tolkyny" - (The waves of the soul") by Saken Tourysbekov. Then he played Nurgisa Tlendiev's kui "Akku" (White Swan) that combines these two styles.
Elmira Imanbaeva played on a clay flute "sazsyrnai", similar to that was found during diggings at the ancient city of Otrar, once destroyed by troops of Chingis-khan in 1220. She performed Ermurat Usenov's piece "Happy cart-rider" and N. Tlendiyev's "Balapandarym".
Audience was surprised how from such a small clay flute, with the size of an egg, it is possible to produce such magic sounds.
A real furor evoked performance on exotic instruments - agash-kobyz, shan-kobyz and sybyzgy (flute), accompanied with magic throat singing, of the talented young musician – multi-instrumenalist Baurzhan Aktai.
As it became clear, sybyzgy is a special type of a flute in which a musician doesn't blow as we are used to see, but he sings into the flute and creates such unusual sounds. The instrument has no mouthpiece and man's mouth is used as mouthpiece.
All performers were highly professional and equally worthy of praise. It is only possible to rejoice to that in our busy and rapid era all of us have tremendous opportunity to hear antiquity voices, preserved by our musicians.
As the curtain fell the musicians played Tattimbet's kui "Sarzhailau" and Sougir's kui "Ingaitok" which to me sounded like jazz music based on syncopated rhythmic drawing. At that moment both Tattimbet and Sougir appeared before me in absolutely new image – as young musicians who like to improvise, and not in stereotypic images of bearded old men wrapped up in “chapan" robes that we are used to perceive them ….
At the end the musicians, of course, played the immortal pieces of Kurmangazy.
Musicians were in good mood, and the audience consisting of representatives of the different countries loudly applauded, shouted "Bravo!", but louder than applause, in my opinion, were their eyes that spoke. In them there was both a delight, admiration and even amazement. It was visible that many opened themselves to new and mysterious music of Kazakhs...
Responses of listeners after the concert
"I was struck by dombra - which has only two strings, but even on two strings the musicians played such difficult pieces : western guitarists who play on six strings would never dream of playing these pieces" – says Chantal.
At the end of the concert a young expat (unfortunately I didn't ask his name) approached me and said: "You put the performance of the musicians into such a beautiful frame of words. You presented the Kazakh music to us with so much dignity. I enjoyed it, thank you."
"According to the reaction of the audience which was at the concert, it was possible to understand why Kazakh traditional music is so interesting and attractive - the brightness, the variety, the emotionality and poetry, the philosophical depth, - the world needs to hear it and open that music for themselves" - considers Stephane. Chantal who attentively was listening to our conversation nodded her head and then gave him a hug. I could see that they shared one more passion in their life- the Kazakh music.