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The Music of China's Nomads

The Instruments of China's Nomads
By Anne-Laure Py

Music of China’s Nomads introduces three instruments that are part of the cultural traditions of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in China’s Xinjiang Province:

The Dömbra: The long-necked fretted two-stringed lute of the Kazakhs. This slender cedar wood instrument is associated with Kazakhs’ nomadic heritage, and is an essential part of their tradition of oral history.

The Komuz: The three-stringed fretless lute of the Kyrgyz. The instrument is very similar to the Dömbra, and like its Kazakh counterpart is used to accompany bardic singing, folk songs or instrumental kui pieces. The Dömbra and the Komuz have both experienced a revival in Xinjiang over the past 20 years.

The Sybyzghy: The upright end-blown flute of the Kazakhs that is usually accompanied by the vocal drone sounds of khoomoi throat singing. The Sybyzghy is said to have been completely obliterated in Soviet Kazakhstan during the Soviet-era collectivization-push of the 1930’s, surviving only in China’s most remote Kazakh communities. Today, although the Sybyzghy tradition is slowly being rekindled by a handful of masters, it remains hard to find and stands on the threshold of extinction as a musical tradition.

Myths of Origin

Musicians and ethnomusicologists in northern Xinjiang tell many stories recounting the birth of their communities’ instruments. Most are tales set on the wide summer pastures, in which the dömbra, the komuz and the sybyzghy are instruments played to enliven the solitary lives of herders.

Among the many different legends about the birth of the dömbra in northern Xinjiang, two stories are most common: the first story’s protagonist is a beautiful young woman, who dares her suitor to win her hand in marriage by making a pine tree create sound. The young man works night and day to discover a way to make the pine tree make a sound too, finally chiseling and carving out an instrument from the tree. Finished, he beckons his love with sweet serenades, and the dömbra is born.

Another popular fable tells of the gifts of the natural world conspiring to help the nomads. The story centers on a young shepherd undertaking the hard lonely work of tending to his sheep in the summer pastures. Lonely and aching for company, the shepherd hears a strange voice calling him from across the pasture. He follows the sound across the plane to stumble on the dried carcass of a sheep. The sheep’s intestines, torn apart by vultures and other predators have been wrapped around the sheep’s ribs, where they have dried. Strung across the hollow of the leather carcass the dried strings of intestines are vibrating in the wind, producing sound. Intrigued, the shepherd starts to pluck the strings, and is stunned by the emotions he can translate with this natural echoing box. The young shepherd reproduces the instrument with wood, recreating the hollow of the sheep carcass above which he strings sheep intestines, making the first dömbra.

Traditionally, dömbra strings were made with naturally processed sheep intestine.

Landscapes and Sound

The music of Central Asia’s nomads was born of the grandeur and challenge of life on the pasturelands, shaped by its expanse, beauty, and danger. The stories of the instruments’ creation reinforce the close connection between the music and the nomad’s natural world.

The materials used to make the instruments were also all traditionally found on the pastureland: wood (the same used for yurts, the traditional felt and wooden homes of Central Asian nomads), sheep intestine for the strings, camel hide, reeds etc. The instruments' shapes themselves were also molded by the pastoralist lifestyle. “The dömbra’s shape is that of a long-necked swan,” notes Sultan Gaze, a Kazakh instrument maker and former director of Yining’s Song and Dance Troupe. “We are a nomadic people,” he says, “We have to be able to carry it [the instrument] easily, in our tents. It is adapted to our way of life.”

Speaking of the music of Kazakh and Kyrgyz nomads in Xinjiang, Han Chinese ethnomusicologist Zhou Ji, an expert affiliated with the Xinjiang Art Research Institute, notes that “nomads’ music, their songs, their rhythms are very connected to their land, to their experience as pastoralists.” In Ili Prefecture’s Tekesi County, a Kazakh dömbra teacher and master, Hakima, reinforces the close connection between music and the surrounding environment, saying; “dömbra music is closely related to life on the pastures. It reflects honesty. Direct, like sheep.” Talking about the free rhythms and beats of the Kazakh’s dömbra music, Hakima further notes that traditional songs are based on asymmetric rhythms that are “free, like the nomad’s life.”

Prof. Zhou Ji remarks: “Kazakhs have the dömbra to tell stories. This is common to all nomadic peoples.” The music provides entertainment, serving as a means to express deep emotion and preserve the heritage of the nomads.

Oral History

Born of the jailoo (the summer pastures), many of the dömbra, komuz and sybyzghy songs played in northern Xinjiang tell stories of past feats, military prowess, a tribal leader’s difficult choices, an important man or woman, travels, ideas, and many other important moments in the community’s life.

Songs are narration, whether through lyrics, or what ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin calls musical onomatopoeia. In one kind of instrumental piece, played by both Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, and known as kui -- meaning “frame of mind” or “mood” -- the dömbra or the komuz imitates the nomad’s environment and natural world without the support of lyrics. Purely instrumental, kui pieces tell stories through the power of the instrument’s sound alone.

In Qinghe city, near China’s border with Mongolia, Houtebai, a master of the sybyzghy plays a kui that recounts the forced migration in the 1930s of a group of Kazakhs from Qinghe to Gansu. Told purely through the instrumental prowess of the end-blown flute, the melody expresses the devastation then provincial leader Sheng Shicai brought to the Kazakhs, and how hard it was for the Kazakhs to leave their homeland. In Altai City, on the northern tip of Xinjiang Province, nine-year-old Alibeke plays a kui called Aldai, which recounts the feats of a Kazakh hero. In the countryside around Tekesi, Nortu Han plays a kui written by his great grandfather Hocike that recalls his flight from the Tsarist police. All of the kui pieces tell rich and emotional stories simply through the virtuosic force of the instruments.

Beyond the narrative onomatopoeias of the kuis, the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have a whole repertoire of sung or spoken musical performances used to convey the history of their respective communities. The most common are folk songs, whose lyrics narrate a wide variety of anecdotes -- from a couple’s courting to historical feats, to the blooming of trees and plants on the pastures. Sung by both men and women, they often include incredible vocal feats, like the folk song called Maida Hong, sung by husband and wife team Maolin and Koulbaketi in the town of Boardjin.

Virtuoso-performers called akyns are specialists in another kind of story-telling musical genre - present in both the Kazakh and Kyrgyz musical tradition. The akyns use improvised lyrics to speak of both the present and the past. An akyn -- either a man or woman -- improvises a text, often humorous while playing to a set traditional rhythm. The akyns must not only be master dömbra players, but must also be masters of improvisation. The akyns often play in pairs, in a kind of competition in which each player performs individually and responds to his “opponent”. These competitions are both theatre and soul – a comedy of the present sung and spoken to the rhythms of ancient traditions. Improvised, they depend entirely on the wit and acumen of the singer.

Today, akyns tend to sing about a given community’s most pressing issues. They are also adept at interpreting the past.