Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Mr Kydykbayev goes to Washington

Mr Kydykbayev goes to Washington

In Soviet Kyrgyzstan, a teenager furtively listening to American radio broadcasts fell in love with the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Now, with his band Salt Peanuts, he is about to fulfil his dream of playing in the home of jazz

In Soviet Kyrgyzstan, a teenager furtively listening to American radio broadcasts fell in love with the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Now, with his band Salt Peanuts, he is about to fulfil his dream of playing in the home of jazz

Franco Galdini | September 9th 2016

This summer, the Kyrgyz National Conservatoire in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek was a hive of activity, despite the break. Visitors flocked to see the head of the percussion department Bakyt Kydykbayev and his band Salt Peanuts rehearse around the clock for the most important gig of their career to date.

On September 10th, Salt Peanuts (named after the Dizzy Gillespie tune) will become the first jazz band from the small Central Asian republic to perform on the prestigious Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC. The event marks the 25th anniversary of the country’s independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Salt Peanuts will alternate classics by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with their own compositions, which incorporate different traditional instruments, such as the stringed komuz (similar to a lute), and excerpts from the “Epic of Manas”, the national poem of the Kyrgyz people. Their style is the result of Kydykbayev’s years of experimentation with new forms of musical expression, until he found an entry point in the “aitysh”, the traditional Kyrgyz art of improvisation on oral poetry with musical accompaniment. 

Aitysh shares with jazz the elements of virtuosity and improvisation, as two performers jam on themes suggested by the audience in a back-and-forth competition of eloquence and musical skills. Salt Peanuts fuse this traditional dialogue with improvised soloing; Kyrgyz and modern instruments blending, competing and conversing in a crescendo of exchanges. The effect on the listener is almost trance-like. 

The scale of the band’s achievement is remarkable given jazz’s chequered history in the Soviet Union. From the 1920s, the Soviet authorities’ attitude towards jazz oscillated between state-sanctioned acceptance, mild toleration and outright prohibition. Whether it was in favour or not generally depended on the state of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, where the music was born. 

No single story better reflects jazz’s fluctuating fortunes in the USSR than that of German-Jewish cornet virtuoso Eddie Rosner. Following Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany, Rosner left his native Berlin for Poland. Once the Nazis invaded their eastern neighbour, he moved to Belarus and then toured the Soviet Union, including a stint performing at the Ala Too cinema in Bishkek.

In his book “Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union”, Frederick Starr describes Rosner’s rise to stardom during the second world war, after the USSR and the US joined forces against the Nazis. After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in summer 1941, the state-sanctioned journal “Soviet Art” announced that music-publishing houses would begin printing anti-Fascist songs and marches scored for jazz bands. 

After the onset of the cold war, however, jazz music became associated with – as Starr puts – “the vanguard of a Yankee assault that had already brought Western Europe to its knees.” The Soviets “singled out the Moscow office of the United States Information Service as the agent for this campaign [of American imperial expansion] in the USSR and the [radio station] Voice of America as its mouthpiece from abroad.” Rosner himself was swept up in Stalin’s purges and sent to a gulag in Siberia, along with most members of his band.

By the time Kydykbayev was growing up, Stalin was long dead and the authorities had gradually relaxed their ban on jazz, particularly during Leonid Brezhnev’s detente with the United States. But in the cultural backwater that was 1970s Kyrgyzstan, “you could play jazz, but you shouldn’t advertise it too much,” according to Volodiya Kleipilin, a session jazzman now running his own music school in the capital Bishkek.

 

 

In his teens Kydykbayev would lie in bed at night listening to Voice of America. “It was like nothing I’d ever heard before,” he recalls. He switched from learning the violin to drums. By 1986, he was teaching at the national conservatoire and had moved into a small flat nearby with his wife Dinara, a professional violinist, and their young sons, Kuban and Erkin.

“At our parents’ house, the only furniture is musical instruments. That’s how I first picked up the double bass,” says Erkin, who counts jazz legend Ron Carter among his mentors. In the mid-2000s Erkin emailed Carter for advice. “He answered right away asking for my address. A few weeks later, I had most of his books and CDs in my mailbox.” During a trip to the United States in 2008, Erkin had the chance to study with Carter, who took him on a tour of the best jazz clubs in New York. Kuban, his elder brother, instead chose the saxophone after “my dad played Charlie Parker to me once, and that was the beginning of my obsession. Every day, I would listen to his songs back and forth on an old magnetophone to transcribe the notes.” 

The family are important ambassadors for a country that rarely makes the international news. Exposure has been largely limited to the popular revolts of 2005 and 2010. In recent years, the country has been gravitating towards Russia, joining the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union in summer 2015. While Russia’s attitude towards jazz thankfully shares little with the Soviet Union’s (Putin is a jazz fan himself), Kyrgyzstan’s increasingly powerful nationalists prefer folk music, seeing jazz as a foreign import.

Salt Peanuts continue to perform at venues up and down Kyrgyzstan, but right now, Kydykbayev can only think about Washington. “A Kyrgyz band playing jazz in the US, the country in which this music was born,” he says, his face beaming. “That’s a dream come true; that’s what true happiness is.”

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.