The preservation and promotion of traditional music is a highly visible part of Kazakhstan's effort to build a modern nation rooted in a sense of history and national identity. State-sponsored folk ensembles, concerts, festivals and anthologies of recorded music all provide residents of Kazakhstan with a strong sense of cultural heritage as the country rapidly becomes an industrialized, worldwide exporter of oil and natural gas.
Since ancient times, the sparsely inhabited steppe and grasslands that comprise present-day Kazakhstan have been inhabited by pastoral nomads, and Kazakh music has been largely shaped by the exigencies of nomadic life. Foremost among these is unrelenting sensory immersion in the landscape and soundscape of the natural world. Traditional nomadic spirituality ascribes spiritual power to a range of natural phenomena and living creatures, and nomadic music and sound-making often serve as a means of representing and accessing the power of spirits.
Like other historically nomadic peoples in Inner Asia, Kazakhs developed the art of solo vocal and instrumental music to a high level. Narrative pieces called kui ("frame of mind," "mood") tell stories or represent specific images, feelings or qualities of human character through melody and rhythm alone. Kuis are most commonly performed on the dombra, a long-necked fretted lute with two strings that has become the national instrument of Kazakhstan. Other instruments used for the performance of kui are the qyl-qobys, an archaic bowl fiddle with two horsehair strings that was formerly played by shamans, and the Jew's harp (shang qobyz).
Kazakh vocal arts are represented by two kinds of performers. One is the poet-improviser (aqyn), who composes lyrical, often philosophical texts and sets them to music. In the past, aqyns frequently took part in music and poetry contests (aitys) that were an important part of traditional Kazakh social life, and are presently undergoing a revival. The second kind of performer is the storyteller-epic reciter (jyrau). Epic traditions are very much alive in central and western Kazakhstan and include a variety of genres ranging from heroic tales known throughout the Turkic-speaking world ("Kör-ogly," "Alpamysh," "Yedige") to local tales, lyric epics and narrative songs.
With its large Russian population and cosmopolitan major city (Almaty), Kazakhstan has become a center of fusion music that combines traditional instrumental and vocal genres with pop, jazz, and rock. One of the best-known fusion groups is Roksonake, which features a driving, amplified Jew's harp supported by electric guitars and drums. Beginning in the early 1990s, Almaty's "Voices of Asia" festival has offered a showcase for young musicians striving to develop global connections while remaining rooted in an authentic tradition. Theodore C. Levin