«We need to look into the past in order to understand the present and foresee the future»

The voice of the steppe

The voice of the steppe
Apart from the dombra and kobyz, Kazakh people had many other musical instruments

The great expert on the traditions and culture of the Kazakh people, Mukhtar Auezov, comparing himself to «tragic wanderer roaming the endless centuries and boundless steppes» wrote that the nomadic way of life defined a high level of development not so much in terms of material but rather the verbal forms of creativity such as music and poetry. The main testimony to this is the professionalism of the oral tradition of Kazakhs, both in musical and lyrical genres and also in instrumental forms. Anshi were singers of love songs, akyn was poetic improviser singing their verses under their own accompaniment on the dombra. Zhyrshy was storyteller of legends from the days of old and conducted poetic narrative with the sounds of the kobyz. There were also instrumentalists who played complete pieces called kyui. These musicians were called kyuishi, dombrashi, kobyzshi and syrnaishy.

 Apart from the dombra and kobyz, Kazakh people had many other musical instruments. Some had utilitarian function such as for hunting or for military signaling. Others were used for children’s entertainment. The third group were used as attributes for the rituals of the shamans (bakhsi). The Kazakh national instruments differed completely in their unique timbre. Such instruments do not exist in any other nation in the world. The Kazakh’s musical instruments have a seemingly muffled sound with the existence of a considerable quantity of overtones and additional sounds. The outstanding folk instrument specialist with a deep sensitivity and understanding of Kazakh music, A.V.Zataevich noticed that the sound, in particular, that of the dombra, «makes a big impression with its large, considerable and even magnificent range». Therefore, with two strings, the dombra or kobyz, in one voice with the sybyzgi, can produce a vast range within an ensemble or orchestra of Kazakh instruments. 

 The construction of the instrument has a large impact on the sound production which sounds particularly exotic to Europeans. A good example is the sound of Shan-Kobyz. The Kazakh shan-kobyz is a laminar self-sounding tongue instrument. The instrument is played by pressing it against teeth. The reed is set in motion by a finger blow on plucking. The reed vibration gives the basic tone. Women often played the shan-kobyz as a lullaby for babies in their cradles (besik). 

 The ocarina is well-known in the world as a wind instrument of the same family as the flute. Its prototypes were found by archaeologists at the digs of ancient cities in Kazakhstan. The people called it the tastauyik, the saz-syrnai or the uskurik. The sound of the instrument is similar to a howling wind. The saz-syrnai is made of clay impregnated with wool. 5 or 6 holes are drilled in the tube to provide simple melodies with an average musical register.

 Simple musical instruments included tuyaktas (foal hooves) and muyiz (the horns of wild or domestic animals). 

 Imitating the sound of nature is a fundamental principle of music which was created using the tools for hunting. The Kazakhs used such instruments as the bugyshak or hunting horn on which the sound was made by the movement of air. In order to disturb ducks from reed thickets during hunting, they used such instruments as the sok-pan, shertyldauyik, the shyndauyin and the dauyilpaz. 

 The dabyl was the biggest drum, whose sound served as a single about approaching enemies. The skins of two bulls or camels were used in its construction. Its terrible voice was similar to a clap of thunder reaching far across the steppe. The kernei and uran wind instruments had military application. 

 A derivative musical role was held by instruments used during religious and shamanistic rituals by Kazakh shamans (bakhsi). Their mace was called an asatayak which was a wooden baton with a flat head from which were suspended metal plates and curl in the form of horns. When they were agitated, they produced a mysterious clanking sound. The second instrument that the shamans used was a dangyra, which was a tambourine with metal rings suspended from brackets of one half of the internal part of the rim. 

 The main instrument of the shamans was the kobyz. According to the legend, its founder is considered to be Korkyt who lived in VIII-IX centuries. Korkyt was a person who dared to search for immortality. He travelled around the world in search of it, but never found the answer to the timeless question of life and death in their wanderings. When he came back to the banks of the Syr-Darya, Korkyt made an instrument hollowed from the trunk of a strong coniferous tree. The lower part of the case was tensioned with the skin of a sacrificed young camel. The top part remained open. Two strings of the kobyz were made from horsehair of the veins of a camel. 

 From ancient history to the present day, other musical instruments have been used such as the string and bow sazgene and the Kazakh harp or gadyrne. There was the seven-stringed instrument called the zhetigen, which was used as accompaniment to the epic narratives of the zhyrshy storytellers. 

In XIX century, the sybyzgy longitudinal flute was widely used by the nomads. It had a length of 50-70 cm and was open at both ends. It had 3 or 4 apertures. It produced a very specific hissing sound which is unusual for Europeans. It was reminiscent of the wind sound over the sound — «the ancient voice across the steppe horizons». 

 The most widely used instrument of Kazakh people was and continues to be the dombra. The dombra has different designs in different regions of Kazakhstan. In the west, on the steppe of the Caspian plains, the dombra evolved a roundish, tear-shaped form with a long thin neck. The strings were produced from lamb or goat gut. The playing technique uses extreme strumming actions. 


 In the Central and Eastern regions of Kazakhstan, the dombra became flat bottomed with a short thick neck. East Kazakhstan dombras have 7-9 frets which related to the playing requirement for accompanying song melodies of the region. 

 The composition and performances of the dombra improvisations reached its peak in XIX century. Abyl, Kurmangazy, Dauletkerei and Dina in the west, Tattimbet and Kazangap in the east as wellas Kozheke in the south along with other names were all brilliant individuals concerning style, education and tradition. The dombra was a constant companion for these professional wandering singers. The images of Birzhan-Sal, Akan-Sere, Mukhit, Dzhambyl, Amre and hundreds of others who glorified the «akyns» and singers are invariably associated with accompanying dombra.

 The nomadic was of life has already been over for a long time. The time of the solitary instrumentalist has passed. However, the aesthetic relationship of all Kazakh national music instruments has enabled them to be united in ensembles and orchestras. Ethnic folk groups are one of the methods of restoring and reconstructing the rich musical artistic heritage of Kazakh people. 

 Used materials: 

Margulan A.H. «Kazakh folk arts and crafts».