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Jazz, once forbidden, now washes through Kyrgyzstan

- - Tuesday, June 26, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgystan — Wedding ceremonies in the mountainous Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan traditionally are accompanied by folk songs and, increasingly, Russian pop music — but these days, revelers might be treated to the once-forbidden sounds of live jazz.

"We are getting invitations to play at wedding parties, and it is very exciting," said Bakyt Kydykbaev, who plays drums in the Bishkek jazz outfit Salt Peanuts. "Isn't it great that people want to listen to jazz at traditional wedding ceremonies?"

Under Soviet rule, any Western music, especially jazz, was considered anti-communist and driven deep underground in Kyrgyzstan. There was an adage: "Today, he plays jazz; tomorrow, he betrays his motherland."

These days, it is not unusual to hear the improvised tones of a jazz saxophone emerging from Bishkek's cafes and restaurants, many of which are housed in new buildings that have popped up among the Soviet-era concrete blocks.

The capital hosts a jazz festival each spring. It invites bands from across the region as well as Europe and the U.S.

Burul Satybaeva, project manager at Central Asia-Arts Management, a nonprofit group that runs the Bishkek Jazz Festival, said the jazz audience in Kyrgyzstan is growing each year.

"We have been organizing jazz festivals in Kyrgyzstan since 2006," Ms. Satybaeva said. "This year, we invited 15 jazz bands from all over the world. We can see the rising interest in it, which is quite surprising, as the first festivals were not that popular."

Aleksandr Stepanov, who owns a vinyl record shop in Bishkek, said Kyrgyz music lovers are gradually learning about Western sounds.

"It is not surprising anymore when young people ask for old Charlie Parker records," said Mr. Stepanov, who has been in the music business for more than 20 years. "I still remember the days when we had to make illegal copies of vinyl records from used X-ray photographs.

"Jazz today, it seems, is going to masses," he said. "Unfortunately, jazz instruments are very expensive. If they were cheaper, I am sure there would be many more enthusiasts playing it."

Central Asia-Arts Management works with international groups and embassies to bring in Western bands that otherwise might not visit the region.

But the unique sounds created by Central Asian musicians using local instruments are proving just as popular as their Western counterparts.

"Local jazz bands and those invited from the neighboring countries also play a fusion of jazz and folk music," Ms. Satybaeva said. "And this is the amazing part. People love to listen to a harmonic play of saxophone, drums and upright bass with komuz," an ethnic Kyrgyz musical instrument.

Kyrgyzstan's music industry always has been heavily influenced by Russian popular culture.

Making frequent visits to Bishkek, Russian pop musicians play sellout concerts and shape the local music culture.

"I like jazz very much and try to listen to it at cafes around the city," said Nuraiym Ruskulova, a blogger from Bishkek. "Jazz has become fashionable, as there are not many alternatives to the dominating pop music."

Still, something that devoted fans feel Bishkek is missing is a dedicated venue, and Mr. Kydykbaev said business owners are missing a trick.

"Every day we play in different places where they have jazz nights," said Mr. Kydykbaev, whose two sons are also members of Salt Peanuts. "But there is no single place where we can play every day.

"There is a demand for jazz in Bishkek, and that niche is not yet taken."

Mr. Kydykbaev also laments Kyrgyzstan's lack of a jazz-focused music school.

He taught his sons — Erkin and Kuban, who play double bass and saxophone, respectively — from an early age, and Erkin later trained with acclaimed jazz double bass player Ron Carter in the U.S.

But few Kyrgyz musicians have such opportunities, and most are self-taught.

"That really influences the quality of jazz," said Mr. Kydykbaev. "Not all jazz bands are good. Unfortunately, today there are not many people in Kyrgyzstan who can distinguish good jazz from bad. But we are getting there. Jazz listeners are also slowly learning."