Musical souls

Chris McNab | 23 January 2019

My soul has landed on the heart
of a beauty. Just look at it.
I am dragging my body back from the grave
I am scouring the earth for my soul.

– Maraltay Rayimbekuly

Poet Maraltay Rayimbekuly, whom I spoke with today, is a gift for any interviewer. He is an extraordinary character. Energetic and passionate, his twinkling eyes brimming with good humour and intelligence, Maraltay’s spoken words rush forth with the same dynamic energy as his words on the page.

His poetry is richly intertwined with Kazakh themes and motifs, his landscape one of gods, spirits, serpents, tribal peoples, great landscapes, wild and mythical horses. Yet he still manages to make poetry sing at the human level, addressing the universal experiences of being alive. He also spoke engagingly of his poetic process. For him, a poem stirs and gestates of its own will, before finally and unavoidably being born and seeing the light of day, the words hitting the page with little editing. Maraltay further exhibited that best of Kazakh qualities – a dignified strength combined with a respectful kindness.

Another of Maraltay’s poetic motifs is Kazakh music, and the instruments that express Kazakhstan’s soul and history. It won’t be apparent from the blog so far, but this has been the most musical of trips. On the last night in Astana, in the evening, and during our first night in Almaty, we were treated to mesmerizing performances of traditional Kazakh music, expressed through voice and ancient Kazakh instruments such as the dombyra and kobyz.

For those not familiar with these instruments, it is worth checking them out online, although the sound that comes from your speakers will not do justice to the ageless resonance of the instruments live. The kobyz, for example, has a sound that seems to transport you across time and place; it evokes centuries of life under endless skies and airy steppe, or wistful eyes soft-focused into camp fires, in a lilting, almost keening voice.

To reinforce our understanding of Kazakh music, this afternoon we also visited Almaty’s Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments. During our tour around the collections, it was apparent how Kazakh musicality went well beyond mere entertainment. The instruments were imbued with tradition and purpose, each representing a means of cultural transference down the ages. The museum tour guide, for example, told us how almost every household in Kazakhstan has a family dombyra, even if it is not played; the instrument sings of home, family and values, even when its strings are still.

About the author

Dr Chris McNab is an author, editor and publishing consultant, who has a long-standing relationship with both Cambridge University Press and with Kazakhstan. Chris is working as the editor of the poetry anthology for this project.

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