Before you tune out from the unappealing idea of folk music from a country you may have never heard of, just give this a chance. The Smithsonian Institution has launched this ambitious project through its Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label to document the traditional music of Central Asia over a 10-CD collection starting with this lavish release focusing on Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan has historically had a nomadic, rural culture due to its remote and mountainous location. The Kyrgyz music reflects this isolation and solitude as the songs are largely meant to be played solo. So, while the featured group Tengir-Too is a touring ensemble, it generally acts more as a showcase for each individual performer and guest rather than presenting a concerted group effort. The performers utilize an intriguing set of instruments that are primarily local variations of flute, upright fiddle, Jew’s harp, and the main tool, a three-stringed, long-neck lute.
While most of the songs are instrumental only, vocalists make key contributions on a few tracks, none perhaps more impressive than the rhythmic spoken word of “Episode from the Manas”, a performance that bears striking similarities to Jamaican dancehall chatting, Korean pansori storytelling, and of course US hip-hop. Elsewhere, Jew’s harp takes the lead on two songs which is perhaps one too many as a little bit goes a long way. The rest of the tracks are fascinating glimpses at the artistry of this nomadic people, echoing the vast, empty landscape of their homeland. You can quite literally hear the solitude and beauty of the region in these simple and enchanting compositions.
It’s interesting to note that the fall of Soviet rule 15 years ago opened the door for this project as it allowed the traditional Kyrgyz music to emerge from decades of subjugation to socialist themes. On the same token, this is a crucial time for the recording of this work as the resulting turn towards capitalism has fostered an accelerating cultural shift away from the traditional rural nomadic life to a modern urban lifestyle where simple folk music may eventually lose its appeal and significance.
The CD package is phenomenal, including an exhaustive booklet as well as a bonus DVD featuring a brief documentary filmed in Kyrgyzstan about the music, an interactive glossary, and a map of Central Asia. Even the map is worthwhile as you can see how the folk music of this country must have been informed by its location next to China, south of remote Russia, and north of Iran, Afghanistan, and India. The CD booklet gives an overview of the region and its music, the formation of the ensemble recorded for this project, a glossary of the traditional instruments, highly detailed background of each track, as well as full original lyrics and their English translation. It’s a beautiful package that serves as a fantastic showcase for this music.
Written by Caballero Oscura