The Music of China's Nomads

hina’s western border is a mosaic of Central Asian cultures: Kazakh, Kyrgyz and, further south, there are Uzbeks, Tajiks and Uighurs. Before the Russian and Chinese empires extended their control over these areas, Mongols, Kyrgyz and Kazakh nomads dominated the northern plains of Semirechie. Today with the fixing of national borders, the Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Mongol populations are dispersed across international boundaries, with many in China.

Tekesi County in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture is also home to 7,000 of Xinjiang’s more than 150,000 Kyrgyz. A nomadic people like Kazakhs, Kyrgyz have a similar musical tradition, rooted in their experience in the grasslands of Central Asia. Relying on bardic narrative techniques, the Kyrgyz musical tradition is anchored in its role of orally transmitting experiences. Kyrgyz music, however, is centered not on the dömbra, but on a three-stringed lute called the komuz.

In Tekesi, a local Kyrgyz song and dance troupe is already rehearsing a Naruz concert. Naruz is a celebration of the New Year in the Islamic world, observed by both the Turkic and Persian populations of Central Asia -- from Kazakhstan to Iran. It was banned in China until 1978, but has only recently been recognized officially. The Tekesi Cultural Association’s concert rehearsal seems awkward, as traditional Kyrgyz culture strives to accommodate the local government’s political prerogatives. But among the chaotic mix, a group of talented Komuz players stands out with their raw talent and intensity.

Following this extraordinary group of Kyrgyz musicians back to their homes in Tekesi County’s Kokterek, or Blue Tree Village, listeners receive an unexpected treat – an impromptu concert given by the amazingly talented Assan Joltesh. He demonstrates the versatility of the komuz by playing both folk songs and Kui, instrumental pieces that are designed to relay an emotion, event or idea through the expressive force of the instrument. This is definitely a concert to remember.

"The Music of China's Nomads" is a production of with funding provided by the Open Society Institute.
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