By Kelly Raftery
When I lived in the former Soviet Union a lifetime ago, I was always stressing to people that the Collapse offered a unique opportunity for these newly independent countries to forge their own path, to create something that was not a carbon-copy of the West, nor Russia, nor simply repeating what they had known under the old regime, but something truly different for each country, a blend of heritage and innovation, modernity and tradition. So now, many years later, I cannot help but be completely thrilled to see modern Kyrgyz pop culture and how it has taken what they found useful from the rest of the world and combined it with their own unique culture that has begun to take its place on the world stage. I take great pleasure in introducing you to a few artists that are not household names in the West, but represent a small glimpse of Kyrgyzstan’s rich and thriving pop culture scene.
Full disclosure ahead – my kid is a dancer. So, when not in the studio, he and I spend a great deal of time watching dance of all kinds on YouTube. At some point in the last year or two, we stumbled upon an extremely talented dancer from Kyrgyzstan, Atai Omurzakov. Beyond the talent is ambition, guts and a very compelling life story, as he was raised by a single mother in rural Karakol, a tough road for any young Kyrgyz man. A couple of years ago, Atai set his sights West and began competing in talent shows, making it to finals of Ukraine’s Got Talent and winning Czecho-Slovakia's Got Talent. Atai dances in a style called “electric boogie” and has taken his new-found fame and fortune home, where he organizes an international dance festival called “I am a Dancer.” I am attaching two videos below – one is of Atai as a Wall-e-esque robot, the performance that won first place. The second clip features modern Kyrgyz music and the incorporation of traditional nomadic themes. If you are still hungry for more after these two videos, look for him on YouTube, or for a real treat search for Atai’s younger students, who perform under the group name “Tumar.”
In the world of music, there are two artists who in my mind stand out from the rest – Tata Ulan and Kanykei. The former melds Kyrgyz traditional oral story telling structure with commentary on modern day political and societal issues. Tata Ulan’s deeply conservative views are reflected in his music and while I do not agree with his views, I do find some of his music and videos entertaining and recognize that he has created a singular form of Kyrgyz music. While some would categorize Tata Ulan’s music as rap, I hear a considerable Kyrgyz influence on the cadences and rhythms. The first of the two videos posted below is called “Hello Kyrgyzstan” and is sort of an inside joke, representing regional variations personified. It is sort of like a video that would show American cowboys, Bostonian blue bloods, Chicago cops, and California surfers along with their regional accents. In the second video, Tata Ulan lists all that he feels is wrong with modern Kyrgyz society. The first video is more typically western in style, whereas the second shows more traditional themes and very much mimics the lyrical patterns of the Kyrgyz oral history, Manas.
Kanykei is more of what I would consider a pop star by Western standards and frankly, one that I had somewhat dismissed and overlooked by categorizing her as such. I discovered Kanykei when she provided the theme song for a controversial Kyrgyz movie called “Empty House.” I saw her video and was impressed with the production values and her singing to some degree, but did not think much more about her. Soon, I saw that she had provided a song for another recent film, “Hello New York” which tells an immigrant’s tale from the Kyrgyz perspective and I started to notice her a bit more. Kaykei has been making appearances internationally, which also caught my eye. I would like to share with you the two videos that were my introduction to her:
Yes, these are pretty typical videos, albeit ones in a foreign language. Nothing particularly outstanding, I figured, kind of like a Kyrgyz Céline Dion. Then, I caught this video of Kanykei performing acapella at an event in Dubai and it literally took my breath away. The first time I heard the range of the vocals, pleasurable chills ran through my body, leaving goose bumps. This is a traditional Kyrgyz song (as you can tell from the crowd joining in) sung in a spectacular way.