Tatar and Kyrgyz Traditional Music: A Research Paper by Courtney Van Cleef


*DISCLAIMER: I did not include my bibliography nor are my sources cited in this online posting! Although I organized the research in a cohesive manner, the information presented is not all my original work and should be reviewed with educational purposes in mind.

     Several lifetimes of research would not be enough to cover the history of Russia’s rich music culture. In part, the process is complicated by the many ethnic groups that fall or have fallen at some point under the umbrella of Russian borders and/or occupation. It can be easy to immediately consider only the cultural history of Muscovites; however, this way of thinking ignores the millions of ethnic Russians in all directions beyond the capitol. Furthermore, there are regions beyond current border lines whose inhabitants represent cultures forever changed by soviet influence. One such region includes the Tatars (an ethnic group extending from Tatarstan in the Volga region of the Russian Federation to the bordering country of Kazakhstan) and the Kyrgyz (most of who currently reside in the neighboring Kyrgyz Republic). Together the Tatars and the Kyrgyz stand as a unique bridge between eastern and western music traditions. In many ways, including a largely pentatonic tonality, eastern style instruments, and Islamic religious influences, the music is firmly rooted in the ways of central Asian life; however, evidence of the consequences of Soviet occupancy , for example the appearance of “modifications” to otherwise ancient instruments, suggest a nod to the west. This paper aims to take a focused look at the musical practices that define the Tatar and Kyrgyz people.

     Before delving into the specifics of Tatar and Kyrgyz music, it is sensible to address the forces of time and Russian contact. Although the Kyrgyz were somewhat included in the Russian empire at the end of the 19th century and later became a full republic of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, Kyrgystan is farther removed from Russian culture and influence is more subtle. More widespread Russian influence is naturally found in Tatar music as even today a significant portion of the Tatar ethnic group live within the Russian Federation’s borders. Craig Macrae writes in his review of the Luman Seidjalilov: Legend of Crimean Tatar Music recording, “Russian influence dominates the instrumental aspect of performance [including] the violin and accordion accompaniment, the ubiquitous minor key, and the nostalgic mood”. In regions on the fringe of the Moslem centers of the Tatars, for example the Tatar-Mishars living in Russia’s Volga area (also referred to as Volga Tatars), we see genres such as wedding songs. Ceremonial songs were not acceptable per Islamic law and thus one is left to conclude that they are only found in Russia where Eastern Orthodoxy is the more common religion. Kazakh musicologist M. Nigmedzianov is careful to make the distinction that although the more ancient music of the Kazakh Tatars is closer to the heritage of the Tatar-Mishars “young people choose to ignore it” suggesting that the more modern generation of Tatars within Russia are moving further away from the bonds of tradition. Despite the seemingly overwhelming Russian presence, researchers generally agree that in reality ancient traditions continue to dominate the music traditions of Tatar peoples. László Vikár in his paper on Tatar Folksongs observes that “around the mid-Volga region, the predominant ethnicity is the Kazakh Tartars” and that “this influence has always remained stronger than that of the Russians who found the Soviet state”. An immensely positive byproduct of Russian contact was the encouragement of written records of music previously kept alive only through oral passing from generation to generation. For example, the “Traditional music and musical instruments of the Kyrgyz” website credits Russia by saying that “it was only when [the Kyrgyz] came into the Russian sphere of influence that their traditional music was written down in any form, let alone in musical notation”.

          The simultaneously eastern and western features of the instruments seem to support the theory that the Kyrgyz and Tatar region’s central place in Asia effectively makes it a bridge between the two worlds. A few examples of string instruments include the Komuz (also called a “Chertek” meaning “striking) and the Kul Kyiak. The Komuz, played by a musician called a Komuzchu, is similar to a lute in that it is played horizontally and is plucked. The instrument is made from apricot wood and only three strings. The Komuzchu is usually sitting, but he can be standing.  The online Encyclopaedia of Britannia makes the special distinction of the Komuz as the instrument of choice in the development of rare polyphonic tunes called “Kernel Tunes”. The Komuz goes by several different names in other central Asian cultures, for example the Kazakh Tatars refer to this instrument as a Dombyra.

     The Kul Kyiak is a bowed string instrument with two strings made of horsehair and a “jaa” or bow made of Tabylay (a thick mountain plant) and also strung with horse hair. This instrument has a close relative to the Kobyz played by the Kazakh Tatars. The uses of horse parts in string instruments of the Kyrgz and Tatar alike seem to reflect a closeness of the equestrian focused Central Asian cultures. The bow is typically cupped from below. Modern Kul Kyiak and Kobyz instruments typically use four metal strings, likely in attempt to more closely relate to the western violin. These modifications appear around the 1930s during Soviet occupation by Russia. Vikár suggests that the introduction of four strings by the Russians is likely the cause for the prevalence in Tatar songs shifting a repeated line to the lower fifth. As he puts it “it is easier and more natural for the singer to repeat a line on the lower fourth than the lower fifth.

     One must be careful not to confuse the Kobyz with the traditional Tatar instrument, Kubyz.  The Kubyz, in contrast, is a reed-and-plucked instrument commonly referred to as a “jew’s harp”.  It is a small instrument with a lyre-shaped frame that is held between the teeth and a projecting steel tongue that is plucked to produce a twang. Contrary to early research, the Kubyz is not an idiophone as it requires use of the performers “performer’s respiratory and articulatory organs”.

     The Asa-tayak is an idiophone instrument that essentially comprises of a stick with various metal, animal bone, and fabric attachments. Unsurprisingly, these attachments are assembled with horse-hair, once more reminding researchers of these central Asian equestrian cultures. It is meant to be struck against the floor in order to generate noise.  Although the Asa-tayak is found amongst the Tatar and Kyrgyz alike, the shamanic connotations make it far less common in the more heavily Islamic influenced Kazakh Tatar region. Often it is abandoned in favor of the Kobyz or percussion instrument.

     The Kernei is a wind instrument specifically identified with the Kyrgyz as an instrument that announces the arrival and departure of official peoples (rulers of militaries). There are two types of Kernei including the Jez Kernei (made from brass) and the Muyuz Kernei (made from mountain goat horn).  Kernei are unique in that they have remained unchanged from their original form. Although the spellings vary, creating confusion in research, the Kyrgyz and the Tartar share many wind instruments in common. Most of these instruments are a kind of flute that belongs to the Choor instrument family. The Bashkir-Tatar Kurai, a five- holed example of a Choor, is particularly conducive towards a pentatonic tonality as the five fingers make it possible to play two types of pentatonic scales. The notes in both scales combined spell out a major hexachord.

     Tatars and Kyrgyz music cultures both boast of Akyns, or master improvisers, that resemble the European model of a minstrel. Akyns are most typically known for competing in Aytish during which two Akyns will accompany themselves on a Komuz (or Dombyra amongst Kazakhs) and duel in sung verse, each bouncing off the other’s words and ideas in rhythmic singing, chanting and exclaiming. A special kind of Kyrgyz Akyn called a Manaschi is tasked with the purpose of relaying the story Manas, the epic hero central to the culture of Kyrgyz peoples.  Although women Manaschi are rare, they are not unheard of.

     Yet another special kind of performer is the Kazakh Tatar Kuishi or the analogous Küü performer in Kyrgyz music tradition, who perform programmatic instrumental works called Kui (or küü) on the Dombyra (or Komuz).  The Kui is approximately two minutes in duration and composed by the Kuishi himself. Although lyrics are not provided, it is widely accepted that the story line for each Kui are typically “so well known to the audience as to need no announcement or specially provided for listeners by the performer through a verbal introduction”. In addition to storyteller, Kui performers would also assume the role of entertainer by performing tricks such as playing the instrument in unconventional manner (over the shoulder, between the knees, etc.).

     Vikár carefully denotes certain tonal and features that appear unilaterally across all genres of Tatar songs.  Like the Kyrgyz songs, the overwhelming majority of Tatar songs are pentatonic with a mere ten percent instead falling into the sol-la-do-re or la-do-re-mi tetratony. Very few songs end on Re but when they do, they typically imply a closing Sol. Interestingly, the Re and Sol pentatonic scales are related in that both are without 3rds. Additionally while the Re and Sol pentatonic scales are considered by Mongolian folk researchers to be “truly ancient”, the Do and La pentatonic scales that do contain thirds are thought to have only evolved from western influence. Although large intervallic leaps are rare, when they do appear in the form of 6ths or 7ths, grace notes are placed between the notes in a way that aid the leap without “coagulating into glides”. A byproduct of pentatonic tonality, 4ths and 2nds are far more common than the strings of 2nds and 3rds observed in western major minor modes.

     The primary song genre of the Tatars is the lyric-epic song called ozyn koi (also spelled uzun koj). Ozyn koi follow the traditional monophonic form without instrumental accompaniment. Even the addition of a choir is prohibited. They are typically without leaping intervals although they are often highly embellished with melismatic ornaments and rhythmic freedom. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia further defines the Ozyn Koi as having variable meter and asymmetric structure. Ozny Koi, sometimes referred to as the lyric protracted song, retain such extravagant freedom that Nigmedzianov notes performances between singers in the same village share “merely the same outlines of melody and rhythm while the words remain completely identical”.  Vikár notes the necessity of a mature male voice in singing the Ozyn Koi. In addition to perfect pitch, and an ability to mold rhythm, the singer must also have an excellent memory in order to finish the entirety of the text. Vikár provides only one example of relatively short ozyn koi, “Kara Urman” (black bear), which would typically be sung by a woman. The words themselves are typically solemn and serious as they often speak of great persons and events of the past.

     In contrast, the kyska koi (also spelled Kiska Koj) are generally shorter, light-hearted, dance songs with set metrical and rhythmic organization, absence of ornamentation, and a quadratic structure.  Vikár notes that the syllables typically number 7-12 per line. He also makes the distinction that Tatars themselves are unclear how to classify Kyska Koi in relation to the Ozyn Koi from which they typically transition. Interestingly, the The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, tries to make the claim that Takmaki (or in Russian, Chastushka) are a subgenre of Kyska Koi due to their funny, jubilant nature. Vikár, however, aligns what he calls “tak-mak” with the song genre “Baet” because “both feature text in the first place and the role of simple melodies is secondary”.

     Baet (also spelled Bait) belong to the next largest genre of Tatar songs, the Baity. They tell the stories of old men, thus it is no surprise that the words are the main feature. Four lines per strophe feature 7-8 syllables with each syllable containing no more than a single melody note. As previously alluded, these songs are typically sung by old men who Vikár observes “can convey events of the past most authentically”. Nigmedzianov adds that the Baity are typically written in a structure of arioso-recitativo. He also makes an intriguing distinction between Volga Tatar and Kazakh Tatar baity by noting that the Volga Tatar tendency to lyricize poetic images within the baet suggests a sort of unique blend between baity and the lyric protracted song, or ozyn koi.

     The other main genre of Kyrgyz song, separate from the songs of the Akyn, is the ïr. Beyond that a “striking features of Kyrgyz vocal music is the ability of its finest exponents to sustain notes at full volume for a seemingly superhuman duration”, there regrettably seems to be little or no further accessible research on this particular genre. Based on similarities in instruments utilized and close proximity to the Tatar region, the ïr genre has a high probability of at least featuring elements of the discussed Tatar genres.

     The Tatars and Kyrgyz represent only a fraction of Russian touched central Asian music and are undoubtedly linked to those cultures beyond the scope of research presented here (for example, the cultures of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc.).  Furthermore, the uneven nature of readily available research in favor of the Tatars over the Kyrgyz portrays an inaccurate deficiency of Kyrgyz traditional music.  Fortunately there appears to be an ongoing movement to create more written records.  What makes the people of central Asia so peculiar and important in the history of our world is their special seat between the western reaching Russia and the east. Russian Imperialism and Soviet Occupancy in many ways disrupted the traditions of the Tatars and Kyrgyz and yet they also created a rare specimen culture that permanently falls somewhere between two otherwise separate worlds.


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