Kazakhstan’s musical history is steeped in legend and ancient mystique. Every beat and note serves a purpose, from signalling a military trek to announcing the arrival of an important guest. While around 50 instruments remain widely used today, more than 400 are stored in museums across the country – each with a special place in Kazakh culture.
Here is a quick guide to four of the most popular ones.
Probably the best known Kazakh musical instrument, the two-stringed dombra exudes a calm and gentle sound. An instrumental composition known as kuy is usually performed using the dombra during gatherings and celebrations. Today, the long-necked, pear-shaped dombra has been given a modern spin by pop and rock bands, who fuse modern instruments like electric guitars and keyboards with the classic sounds of a bygone era.
Another popular ancient musical instrument, the kobyz is a two-stringed bowed instrument with a cavity in the middle, which resonates its melancholic sound. Legend has it that the first kobyz was crafted by Korkyt Ata, a 9th-century philosopher and mystic who sought to understand the meaning of life. In later years, the instrument was mainly used by shamans and folk singers in rites and rituals to communicate with spirits.
The flute-like sybyzgy is a thin wooden instrument that produces trembling melodies across the great pastures and villages of yore. In the past, shepherds would compose music and play their hearts out on the sybyzgy to entertain themselves. It was also common to hear the versatile instrument being played at weddings and childbirth ceremonies.
The largest instrument on this list, the zhetygen is a seven-stringed instrument resembling the Chinese guzheng. Musicians pluck the strings to create a lilting melody that puts one into a reverie. In the old days, the zhetygen was a simple box carved from wood. But over the years, more intricate designs have adorned its surface, elevating it to a work of art.