Kazakhstan embraced independence 30 years ago, yet is still actively nation-building around language, shared history, and cultural diversity with the over 100 ethnic groups living in the vast Central Asian state. Music plays an essential role in defining the various identities of different communities, gender, and age groups. While some artists rediscover and reinterpret traditional music from nomadic Kazakh tribes, others turn to K-pop for inspiration.
Global Voices talked to journalist and cultural commentator Yevgeniya Plakhina, a Global Voices contributor, to provide a musical guide to this rich heritage and decode the multiplicity of genres, language, 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, spread only in underground clubs with a small audience. What has changed now and why?
Yevgeniya Plakhina: Alternative music was always there, but it was for a limited number of people only, because to become famous you needed to have media exposure inside the country. Now in the internet era, that is no longer a problem.
It is also a language issue: Kazakh has become more visible after being suppressed during the Soviet period, until the late 1980s. The most creative artists are the ones singing in Kazakh or in a mix of Kazakh and Russian.
During the Soviet period, Russian was the language of education. After independence, few ethnic Kazakhs spoke their language at home, if they lived in cities, because Russian still dominated in all aspects of life. Kazakh-language schools were few. Now the attitude towards the language has changed. People have been exploring their identity, which is inextricably connected to language. Young people, including non-ethnic Kazakhs, learn the language, and feel they are part of Kazakh culture. Many Russian-speakers have also moved out of the country, while ethnic Kazakhs from the countryside have moved into the cities, changing the balance in favor of the Kazakh language.
GV: How did you get interested in contemporary Kazakh music?
YP: I don't speak Kazakh very well. My Greek great-grandmother spoke Kazakh to me when I was a kid. For more than three generations, my family has been close with an ethnic Kazakh family whose members spoke to me in Kazakh. This heritage is close to my heart and my roots.
Music became an important medium to express myself. The turning point was a Halloween party I attended: Ghalym Moldanazar, now a star of Kazakh music, played his songs in a big house full of people who were chanting his name. I realized indie music was not just a Western trend. It had a local version. After listening to the band G.H.A.D., I also understood that this kind of rap music has very political language, close to activism. I think 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 to create a playlist?
YP: I created this playlist to prepare for a lecture about Kazakh media I was giving to US students. People don't know much about this country, they might mention Borat or the many changes of the name of our capital. Cultural products such as cinema and music make people understand better other cultures, so I prepared this playlist of music that spans from the 2000s–2020s. When I posted it, even local Kazakhstanis shared it. I update the playlist regularly, so it is a project in progress. I look at 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?
YP: I will suggest two: “Undeme” by The Buhars. I like the voice of the female singer, and their concept of contemporary music played in traditional instruments.
YP: And for the second, I would go for “Agha” by Irina Kairatovna and Kairat Nurtas. It's funky: “Agha” means “uncle,” but colloquially it refers to a man having a large social influence. Nurtas represents popular music often heard at weddings. So it feels like a very unlikely mix of two very different worlds.
Here is Plakhina's comprehensive playlist on YouTube with 40 songs to discover and enjoy contemporary Kazakh music:
You can also hear most of Plakhina's songs on this Spotify playlist: