Written by Noemi Pollack on November 16, 2011.
Not in the habit of turning our blog into something of a travelogue I, however, could not resist to comment on the country I am presently in — Kazakhstan, a country of both storied and anecdotal history.
Other than business news about oil, minerals and such, not much news about this country reaches outside Central Asian cultures, making our trip to this remote land — just a single mountain range away from Northern China and on the eastern side of the Himalayas, and with the steppes of Tibet just south of its borders — an exhaustive and fascinating adventure. This country even boasts the largest portion of the old historic (and romanticized by in movies) Silk Road, upon whose treacherous mountain paths fearless European traders bravely traveled, risking their lives to reap new riches from the Far East. Today’s Kazakhstan’s 15 million inhabitants, 60% Kazakhs, 30% Russians and 10% assorted ethnic cultures that include, in large part, Koreans, live side-by-side in a country the size of all of Western Europe or of the whole eastern half of the US.
But, even though little-known, that’s the stuff relegated to geography and history experts…
I, on the other hand, was fascinated by something else… Native Kazakhs, for the most part, don’t speak nor understand their native tongue, a Turkic-based language, Kazakh, but rather speak Russian, based on the Soviet rule of 70+ years. The Kazakh language is mostly relegated to the hinterlands since these regions were of little interest to the Soviets. For now, not much attempt is made to reinstate that language. On the other hand, the Russians attempt to learn Kazakh as a hedge for their future, based on their present minority status. And the Koreans here, have never spoken Korean, do not speak nor attempt to speak Kazakh, and view Russian as their native tongue.
Amid all this babble, the broadcast media reports in both languages, on different stations, of course, for different peoples, who are not seen as different at all in this country, but all as just Kazakhs.
I am here accompanying my concert pianist husband, Daniel Pollack, who was invited to perform the opening concert of a newly established American New Music Center in the former capital, Almaty, a city of 1.5 million. By the reaction of the public to an American pianist, I found yet another reason why that old “cliche” about music being a universal language holds true. It’s a language without words, but a language just the same. It’s a connectivity that embraces people on an emotional level, and through it, diffuses differences.
The Kazakhs held their own concert as part of the opening of the 5th Almaty International Piano Competition, (held every three years), which was a celebratory performance by proud-full youths performing on old instruments developed by their nomad ancestors, from the days of Gengis Khan and his vast Mongol Empire (that overran this vast area by 1300). These instruments have little to do with any traditional western instruments for their sounds replicate nature’s sounds, including — yes, galloping horses. The legend goes that the sounds of these instruments were meant to relate tales of the nomads’ everyday lives as they traveled the steppes of Central Asia. The energy of the youths’ ensemble of 50-60 performers, their relentless rhythmic force and drive, ended the concert in a roar.
The Kazakhs, who are as colorful as their history, are finding a way to retain the old, while adapting to the new. How great is that?