A hip-hop band plays exclusively on traditional instruments to forge a new Kazakhstani identity

Screenshot from a video interview on YouTube Balu KZ channel showing how the group The Buhars used the sound of traditional Kazakh instruments to produce three experimental songs.

In Kazakhstan, an oil-rich Central Asian nation, rural residents still account for a significant part of the population yet remain largely socially ostracized, often deemed ‘backward’ by urban elites. Now, an experimental musical project is trying to reverse the widespread disregard for rural traditions by owning and transforming its rich musical heritage, integrating it into a new and more inclusive Kazakhstani identity. 

In December 2020, in Kazakhstan’s cultural capital of Almaty, the musical duo of Chokan Nukushev and Emil Dosov joined creative forces with producer and cultural expert Nargiza Shukenova to release three songs as The Buhars, an experimental project aimed at proving that contemporary urban music can be entirely performed on traditional Kazakh instruments. 

Dosov, a professional musician, explained through a Zoom call to Global Voices how they came up with this unusual concept:

Мы однажды собрались вместе и решили что-то сделать с национальными инструментами. Я подумал, что сплав когда соединяются национальные инструменты и современная музыка давно существует в Казахстане, много таких проектов. Принцип такой: берем музыку из прошлого, добавляем туда европейские инструменты, и из этого делаем, например, джаз или электронную музыку. Так как это уже было, я подумал, что можно пойти в обратную сторону: мы возьмем современную музыку и будем играть ее на национальных инструментах,  как будто не существовало никогда никаких европейской инструментов, или западного мира. 

We got together once and decided to do something with our traditional Kazakh instruments. We have many projects in Kazakhstan with this kind of fusion, when people mix traditional instruments with contemporary music, and then produce, let’s say, jazz or electronic music. Since this has already been done, I thought we could go in the opposite direction: we would take contemporary music and perform it on our traditional instruments, as if there had never been any Western instruments, any kind of Western world. 

The result is surprising, as can be heard in this song, “үндеме”, which means “Do not speak!” in Kazakh: 

The group produced another song in Kazakh, “Теңіз (The Sea), and one in Russian, called “Новый мир” (New World). For the soundscape, they invited performers of traditional Kazakh music to play, recording the sounds on a computer and then editing and mixing to obtain the effect they needed.

In the process, they discovered the diversity of Kazakh instruments, which combine a variety of drums, string instruments and the mouth harp. You can appreciate the range in this video (starting at the 24th minute, where icons of the instruments appear at the bottom of the screen), in which The Buhars are interviewed in Russian:

Cultural visibility and ownership

Beyond the experimentation with sound, The Buhars project raises a sensitive issue: the invisibility of rural Kazakhs in today's Kazakhstan.

The country, which can be best described as large, scarcely populated and oil-rich, is the eigth largest country in the world. With a population of slightly over 18 million, its density is between six and seven inhabitants per square kilometer, one of the lowest globally. It also holds the twelfth highest proven crude oil reserves in the world, which explains why industrial and urban zones are attracting massive numbers of people in search of job opportunities and higher standards of living.

Yet, half of ethnic Kazakhs – who account for just above 60 percent of this highly multiethnic nation – still live in large numbers across the Kazakh steppe, in villages and small towns. According to the latest estimates, over 40 percent of the population, mostly Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Uyghurs, live in rural areas where the economic gap with cities continues to grow.

As a result, many rural inhabitants, particularly youth, try to move to the large cities of Almaty, Nur-Sultan, Shymkent, Aktobe, Karaganda — all places with specific cultural and linguistic codes. They tend to speak more Russian and be less religious than the countryside, and while young people often manage to secure jobs, they often live on the outskirts, ostracized by urban residents who can easily identify them because of their clothing, accent, or adherence to Islam.

Dosov explains:

Казахстан – это одна из тех стран, где половина людей живет не в городах. А национальные инструменты всегда ассоциируется с селом, с народом который не оторвался от земли. Опять же тут такая фантазия, мы тоже Казахи, нас прибило к асфальту, к бетону, к улицам, и мы пытаемся наладить связь для самих себя. В городе есть такая атмосфера что мы хотим все это прошлое откинуть, мы хотим современное все как на Западе или у Арабов в Дубае. Вот это все старое нам не нужно, а почему не нужно? Можно же попробовать сделать те же песни используя наши инструменты.

Kazakhstan is one of those countries where half of the people live outside of towns — and traditional instruments are always associated with the village, with people who have not abandoned the ground. Again, we have this fantasy, that we are also Kazakhs, but chained to the asphalt, to concrete, to streets, and we are trying to to find a connection by ourselves. In cities, the mood dictates [we should] get rid of all those old things of the past; we want contemporary things, like in the West or in Arab countries like Dubai. We have no use for this old stuff, but why? We can try to make those [contemporary] songs by using our instruments.

The Buhars are also mindful of another complex issue: cultural appropriation. Traditional instruments often play a sacred function in rural culture, so the band had some initial concern that their music might be misconstrued as disrespect. They see the need for a more relaxed attitude towards this issue, however, as those instruments have already been used in non-traditional settings, like the Soviet time concerts of “ethnic music”.

Nukushev adds that Kazakh instruments are also used in everyday life, and as musical vehicles of humorous content.

The band, which from 2009 to 2013 operated without Shukenova under the name Buhar Jerreau (in honour of the 18th century Kazakh poet Бұқар жырау ) and played mostly hip-hop music, hasn't yet decided if they will continue the experiment.

Apart from the experience of working with a large group of musicians, Dosov said that its most important discovery was “opening a new door into a space from where we can take out more and more ideas”, while Nukushev felt that the band “made something for the nation […] a contribution to our cultural heritage.”

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