The Music of China's Nomads

hile the dömbra is alive and thriving among China’s Kazakh community, the vertically held flute called the sybyzghy is a rarity, played by a handful of masters and their students. The sybyzghy is one of the Altai region’s oldest musical traditions, pairing the deep drone of Khomooi, or Mongolian-type throat singing, with the soft melody of the wooden flute. The slow layered sound of the sybyzghy is used by Kazakh masters to express hardship and suffering, and to speak of sadness. It is a solitary instrument, often played by herders as they tend their flocks during the summer months.

Unlike to the dömbra, the sybyzghy is traditionally played only by men. It is also very difficult to master. Playing even basic tunes can take more than two years of study with a teacher. Becoming accomplished in the instrument can take decades. The challenge inherent in mastering the flute means that the sybyzghy’s survival is contingent on the presence of the Kazakh’s traditional lifestyle, and the maintenance of close master-student relationships. An abrupt change to the traditional environment can break the master-pupil chain.

The traditional learning arrangement was endangered for much of the 20th century, due to the upheaval both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The Kazakh flute is said to have completely disappeared in Soviet Kazakhstan, so that by the early 1980s, the tradition remained alive only in China’s most remote areas. Today, China’s few remaining masters are striving to revive the sybyzghy, teaching students from both sides of the Chinese-Kazakhstani border.

This slideshow explores the rarely heard sound of the sybyzghy, profiling two masters from China’s Altai Region. One of them, 70-year-old Baisal Nabi, is reticent to play, and speaks of the hardship of China’s Cultural Revolution. Another master, Houtebai, is more upbeat. He recounts the deep historical roots of the sybyzghy in ethnic Kazakh culture, and how he has worked with more than 40 students in trying to promote the revival of the instrument.

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