Places can speak to us in unpredictable ways. When senses are stimulated and memories are evoked, what is unfamiliar in what we are experiencing then seeks connections from what is already known.
Last summer, as part of my graduate studies in ethnomusicology, I had an amazing opportunity to present at a major Ethnomusicology conference organized by the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) in the post-Soviet Central Asian state of Kazakhstan. This trip was made possible through the generous funding of the Department of Music, the Edmonton Arts Council and the Maud Karpeles Fund at the ICTM, for which I am sincerely grateful.
Astana was the president’s city that boasted the design of a western metropolis with flyovers and modern buildings, and to most delegates from North America, it came across as imitative of the Gulf States and the Kazakh president’s attempts to build a Dubai in Central Asia. However, here, I witnessed a distinct Islam from the one I grew up in, in my home country of Pakistan, as well as in my various travels to Muslim countries and in my Islamic studies in North America and the UK.
Our conference was held at The Performing Arts Centre (also called shebet), a modernist structure located beside a beautiful, white mosque that reminds one of the structures in the Gulf States rather than the typical Samarkand and Bukhara designs from the medieval Muslim kingship structures of Central Asia.
This location was captivating because I witnessed musical sounds and Quranic sounds simultaneously in a shared physical and sonic space.
To my Pakistani ears, this location was captivating because I witnessed musical sounds and Quranic sounds simultaneously in a shared physical and sonic space. In Pakistan, music is typically barred when one hears the call to prayer; however, here, the ritualistic sounds and musical performances did not appear to be in contradiction.
Moreover, women usually do not go to the mosques. However, here I participated in the Quranic recitation as a listener in the main hall of the mosque. I saw men and women sitting together to hear Quranic recitation and the women also entered the main prayer hall, a practice that is rare in Pakistani mosques. There were also separate sections for women to pray, as well as normative signposts outside the mosque that directed men and women to dress appropriately in the mosque.
The use of headscarves was not particular to Islamic sacred spaces in Kazakhstan, but also found in the Eastern Orthodox churches that I visited. The elaborately designed spaces of these cathedrals in Astana and Almaty at first transported me into the cinematic space of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia that had a scene from a convent in the Tuscan countryside showing frescoes of the Early Renaissance art.
I could not overlook the visibility that women enjoyed in public spaces, as well as their dressing in European, rather than traditional dress that was reminiscent of the Soviet modernization and reforms for women. When I go to visit my family in Karachi, the greater number of male passengers on the flight itself prepares me to observe the nonverbal etiquette of a female in a male-dominated space. But in Kazakhstan, I did not experience that discomfort. From vegetable and fruit sellers and butchers in the public markets to hotel managers and desk staff, women seemed to be well-integrated into the workforce.
I could not overlook the visibility that women enjoyed in public spaces.
From the city square in Astana to the museums in Almaty, there were sculptures, especially of musicians and musical instruments. In post-colonial and post-partition, Pakistani government removed all the sculptures from the public space in order to follow a more Islamized ethic of shunning carving of human bodies and faces. However, here, through the Soviet influence, I was fascinated to not encounter a contradiction between Islam and sculptures either.
The ICTM soundscape was one of the most captivating musical experiences of my life. I had expected my experience of ICTM to be a journey into the steppes. However, the Kazakhs took us by surprise when they chose to show us their modern selves by exhibiting talented music students from a UNESCO project entitled “Children in the Rhythm of the world,” who sang and danced with MTV-styled, electronic upbeat songs imitating the vocal timbres as well as gestures of western pop singers.
After the first day of electronic music, there were some European art music performances by Kazakh youth musicians by the name of KAZUNA, an orchestra of Western and Kazakh traditional instruments. Following that was a violin recital with images of steppe in the background that suggested that the Kazakh state had continued the Soviet legacy of supporting European art music.
The ICTM soundscape was one of the most captivating musical experiences of my life.
The most moving music performance was that of a Kyrgyz Manas epic storyteller/singer that took place on the fourth day. While telling his tale, the singer-narrator went into a trance, until after a certain lapse of time, a person gently put his hand on his shoulder to awaken him from that state. And then, he would conclude his story and end the performance. The effect of listening to this storyteller is quite extraordinary. The sounds he made transported the listener in the story even when the words and meaning were not known.
Kazakh women’s repertoire varied from traditional sounds of the steppe to European opera, as well as more electronic popular songs. There were also musicians from other parts of the Turkic-speaking world namely Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan to name a few. The evening was sumptuous in presenting a diversity of vocal and instrumental genres of traditional music in this region. It further encouraged me to visit the Museum of Folk Instruments in Almaty to learn about these musical instruments.
Immanuel Kant said, “Knowledge begins with experience.” Kazakhstan opened my ears to hear the music of the Turkic regions and took me on a reflective journey that helped me to reimagine my home country of Pakistan. I hope that the performing arts and fine arts, particularly music, dancing and sculpture enjoy a friendlier co-existence with religious sounds and symbols in the future years in Pakistan, and where women are not only well-integrated in the public space but receive greater honour and dignity for investing their lives in performing arts.
Shumaila Hemani was recently recognized for enriching Edmonton’s cultural scene during an Edmonton Arts Council event. Read more here.