Kazakhstan embraced independence 30 years ago, but continues to actively build its nation around language, shared history, and cultural diversity with over 100 ethnic groups living in the vast Central Asian state. . Music plays a vital role in defining the diverse identities of different communities, genres and age groups. While some artists are rediscovering and reinterpreting the traditional music of nomadic Kazakh tribes, others are turning to K-pop for inspiration.
Global Voices spoke with journalist and cultural commentator Yevgeniya Plakhina, a contributor to Global Voices, to provide a musical guide to this rich heritage and decode the multiplicity of genres, languages, references and messages in contemporary Kazakh music. .
GV: For many years after independence from the Soviet Union, the local alternative music scene in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, only flourished in underground clubs with small audiences. What has changed now and why?
Yevgeniya Plakhina: Alternative music has always been there, but it was for a limited number of people, because to become famous you had to have media exposure within the country. Now, in the age of the Internet, this is no longer a problem.
It is also a question of language: Kazakh became more visible after being suppressed during the Soviet period, until the end of the 1980s. The most creative artists are those who sing in Kazakh or in a mixture of Kazakh. and Russian.
During the Soviet period, Russian was the language of instruction. After independence, few ethnic Kazakhs spoke their language at home, if they lived in cities, as Russian still dominated all aspects of life. Kazakh language schools were few in number. Now the attitude towards the language has changed. People explore their identity, which is inextricably linked with language. Young people, including non-ethnic Kazakhs, learn the language and feel that they are part of Kazakh culture. Many Russian speakers also left the country, while ethnic Kazakhs from the countryside settled in the cities, shifting the balance in favor of the Kazakh language.
GV: How did you get interested in contemporary Kazakh music?
PJ: I don’t speak Kazakh very well. My Greek great-grandmother spoke Kazakh to me when I was a child. For more than three generations, my family has been close to an ethnic Kazakh family whose members spoke to me in Kazakh. This heritage is close to my heart and to my roots.
Music has become an important way to express myself. The turning point was a Halloween party I attended: Ghalym Moldanazar, now a kazakh music star, played his songs in a big house full of people chanting his name. I realized that independent music was not just a western trend. There was a local version. After listening to the group GHAD., I also understood that this kind of rap music has a very political language, close to activism. I think the Kazakh language is perfect for rap, its rhythm, mixed with political texts in our local context, sounded amazing.
GV: How did you come up with the idea of creating a playlist?
PJ: I created this playlist to prepare for a lecture on Kazakh media that I was giving to American students. People don’t know much about this country they could mention Borat or the many name changes to our capital. Cultural products such as movies and music allow people to better understand other cultures. So I put together this music playlist that spans 2000s to 2020s. When I posted it, even local Kazakhs shared it. I update the playlist regularly, so it’s a work in progress. I check social media, ask people what they like or listen to, and add new entries, including older songs.
GV: What is your favorite song from your playlist and why?
PJ: I will offer two: “Undeme” by The Buhars. I love the singer’s voice, and their conception of contemporary music played with traditional instruments.
PJ: And for the second, I would choose “Agha” from Irina Kairatovna and Kairat Nurtas. It’s funky: “Agha” means “uncle”, but colloquially it refers to a man with great social influence. Nurtas represents popular music often heard at weddings. So it looks like a very unlikely mix of two very different worlds.
Here is Plakhina’s full playlist on Youtube with 40 songs to discover and appreciate contemporary Kazakh music:
You can also hear most of Plakhina’s songs on this Spotify Playlist: